Suffering and Death: Elements of an Orthodox theodicy

I was invited to take part with two other pastors in a panel discussion yesterday at Life Pacific College in Christiansburg, Virginia on the topic of suffering, evil, and God. We were each given 20 minutes for our initial presentations. Given that the students had little acquaintance with the Eastern tradition, I thought it might be most useful to briefly outline an Orthodox approach to death. I hope my fellow Orthodox can recognize their faith in my address (introduction omitted).  

The talk went well, though I did find myself stumbling through some of the Q&A. Good, hard questions were put to me, and some of my answers were obviously weak. I found myself stumbling, for example, trying to explain evil as privation of being. But the students were patient with me throughout, for which I am grateful. I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly enjoyed myself. 

1) “God is love”—so the Apostle John declares in his first epistle (1 John 4:8).

The confession can be exegeted in various ways. Within the context of the epistle, I imagine that it speaks of God’s attitude and beneficent action toward humanity: God is love because he acts lovingly toward us. But in the theological tradition, this confession also came to be understood as speaking preeminently of the inner life of God the Holy Trinity, of that life shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is constituted by relations of mutual exchange, self-giving, and reciprocity. God is love and love is of God and love is God. Even if God had never created the world, even if he had never brought into existence beings toward which he might act lovingly, he still would be, and eternally is, love. The divine nature is constituted by relations of mutual exchange, self-giving, and reciprocity. The Father begets the Son and breathes out the Spirit; the Son receives the gift of the Father and in the Spirit offers himself to his Father. As Met Kallistos Ware, perhaps the best known contemporary Orthodox theologian, puts it: “‘God is love’: not self-love, the love of one isolated, turned in upon himself, but mutual love that is exchanged and shared.” God is, if we may be so bold, a koinonia, a communion and fellowship, of three co-eternal and co-equal “persons.”

God is love! By Orthodox apprehension, this is the fundamental revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It governs everything we Orthodox wish to say about suffering, evil, and death.

2) God has freely created the world from out of nothing.

This was one of the first doctrinal matters that the Church needed to address in the second and third centuries, as she sought to distinguish a properly Christian understanding of deity from pagan understandings. In the beginning, God made heaven and earth. He didn’t create the world from pre-existent stuff, as in Plato, but rather he effortlessly speaks it into being. “Let there be …” and there the world was—or more accurately, there the world is, for we must not think of the divine act of creation as an event of the past, something that happened way back when. At every moment, from all eternity, God the Father is speaking the world into being, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Who has read C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew? In the story we are given to see the creation of Narnia. Aslan sings it into existence. The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer (James Ross). If even for a split second God should stop singing, the song would vanish. As the Apostle Paul declares in the Book of Acts: “In him we love and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

3) Therefore, the world is good.

According to the Book of Genesis, at each step in the process of creation, God surveys what he has made and sees that is good. Why is it good? Because it reflects and participates in the goodness of God. The entire cosmos is a theophany and manifestation of the eternal Creator. Because God is infinite Goodness, the beings he creates are truly good and beautiful and worthy of love and appreciation.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” sings the 19th century Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“The world is a mirror of infinite beauty,” proclaims the 17th century Anglican poet Thomas Traherne. But we must have eyes to see.

4) Therefore, death does not belong to God’s original intent for the world.

The Orthodox Church is clear and emphatic: The God who is infinite goodness and love brings forth only goodness and love. He does not ordain suffering. He does not create evil. He does not will death. St Basil of Caesarea, one of the great bishops of the 4th century, declares that both he who denies God and he who attributes evil to God commit sins “of equal rank, since both alike deny the Good One, the one saying that he does not exist, while the other concludes that he is not good. For if God is the cause of evils, clearly he is not good, so that in both cases there is denial of God.”

Death should not exist in the good world God has made—yet it does. That it does is the incomprehensible catastrophe of the Fall, the fall from grace not only of Adam and Eve, and with them all of mankind, but also the pre-temporal fall of those angelic beings we call demons.

5) Therefore, we must make a critical distinction between God’s ordaining will (that is, that which God antecedently and positively wills) and God’s permissive will (that is, that which God suffers to happen contrary to his goodness and love).

God does not will our suffering, yet he permits our suffering. God does not will evil, yet he permits angels and human beings to sin. God does not will death—and especially, we may confidently declare, he does not will the death of infants—yet he permits our death and the deaths of all living beings. He allows it to happen; but in his omnipotent mercy and grace, he has conquered death on the Cross and brought about an even greater good—the good that is Easter.

6) Therefore, we should not seek to explain or justify death or mitigate its horror.

Death is an unspeakable horror, whether its victim is a 6 month old infant or a 32 year old young man who jumps to his death from a four-story parking lot or an 85 year old grandmother who dies peacefully in her sleep. Not only should we not attempt to justify death for pastoral reasons; but we should not do so for theological reasons. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that reveals to us on the Cross the absurdity and intrinsic meaninglessness of death, just as it reveals to us on Easter morning the defeat of death in the triumphant resurrection of our Lord and Savior. As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes: “Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering or death, that cannot be providentially turned toward God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in an other and ultimate sense, suffering and death—considered in themselves—have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts” (The Doors of the Sea, p. 35).

7) Pascha!

Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, this is the only spiritually satisfying answer to suffering, evil and death.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!

(And yes, I actually sang the troparion–three times!)

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“On this day is created the true man, the man made in the image and likeness of God”

The reign of life has begun, the tyranny of death is ended. A new birth has taken place, a new life has come, a new order of existence has appeared, our very nature has been transformed! This birth is not brought about by human generation, by the will of man, or by the desire of the flesh, but by God.

If you wonder how, I will explain in clear language. Faith is the womb that conceives this new life, baptism the rebirth by which it is brought forth into the light of day. The Church is its nurse; her teachings are its milk, the bread from heaven is its food. It is brought to maturity by the practice of virtue; it is wedded to wisdom; it gives birth to hope. Its home is the kingdom; its rich inheritance the joys of paradise; its end, not death, but the blessed and everlasting life prepared for those who are worthy.

This is the day the Lord has made – a day far different from those made when the world was first created and which are measured by the passage of time. This is the beginning of a new creation. On this day, as the prophet says, God makes a new heaven and a new earth. What is this new heaven? you may ask. It is the firmament of our faith in Christ. What is the new earth? A good heart, a heart like the earth, which drinks up the rain that falls on it and yields a rich harvest.

In this new creation, purity of life is the sun, the virtues are the stars, transparent goodness is the air, and the depths of the riches of wisdom and knowledge, the sea. Sound doctrine, the divine teachings are the grass and plants that feed God’s flock, the people whom he shepherds; the keeping of the commandments is the fruit borne by the trees. On this day is created the true man, the man made in the image and likeness of God. For this day the Lord has made is the beginning of this new world. Of this day the prophet says that it is not like other days, nor is this night like other nights. But still we have not spoken of the greatest gift it has brought us. This day destroyed the pangs of death and brought to birth the firstborn of the dead. I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God. O what wonderful good news! He who for our sake became like us in order to make us his brothers, now presents to his true Father his own humanity in order to draw all his kindred up after him.

St Gregory of Nyssa

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“By your immersion you imitated the burial of the Lord, but when you came out of the water you were conscious only of the reality of the Resurrection”

Christ descended into hell to liberate its captives. In one instant he destroyed all record of our ancient debt incurred under the Law, in order to lead us to heaven where there is no death but only eternal life and righteousness.

By the Baptism which you, the newly-enlightened, have just received, you now share in these blessings. Your initiation into the life of grace is the pledge of your resurrection. Your Baptism is the promise of the life of heaven. By your immersion you imitated the burial of the Lord, but when you came out of the water you were conscious only of the reality of the Resurrection. Believe in this reality, of which previously you saw only the outward signs. Accept the assurance of Paul when he says: If we have been united to Christ in a death like his, we shall be united to him also in a resurrection like his.

Baptism is the planting of the seed of immortality, a planting which takes place in the font and bears fruit in heaven. The grace of the Spirit works in a mysterious way in the font, and the outward appearance must not obscure the wonder of it. Although water serves as the instrument, it is grace which gives rebirth. Grace transforms all who are placed in the font just as the seed is transformed in the womb. It refashions all who go down into the water as metal is recast in a furnace. It reveals to them the mysteries of immortality; it seals them with the pledge of resurrection

These wonderful mysteries are symbolized for you, the newly-enlightened, even in the garments you wear. See how you are clothed in the outward signs of these blessings.

The radiant brightness of your robe stands for incorruptibility. The white band encircling your head like a diadem proclaims your liberty. In your hand you hold the sign of your victory over the devil. Christ is showing you that you have risen from the dead. He does this now in a symbolic way, but soon he will reveal the full reality if we keep the garment of faith undefiled and do not let sin extinguish the lamp of grace.

If we preserve the crown of the Spirit, the Lord will call from heaven in a voice of tremendous majesty, yet full of tenderness: Come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world. To him be glory and power forever, through endless ages. Amen.

Basil of Seleucia

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Visiting Ladyminster Monastery

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Victory Over Death and the Acquisition of a Resurrection Hypostasis

Christ Jesus is the savior of the world because in his divine person (hypostasis) he has united created nature and taken it through the crucible of death into a glorified eternal existence. Met John Zizioulas elaborates:

This victory is achieved in the Resurrection, without which there can be no talk of salvation, because death is the problem of creation. “If Christ has not been raised,” says St Paul, “your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15.14). Christ is “the Saviour of the world” not because he sacrificed himself on the Cross, thereby wiping away the sins of the world, but because “he is risen from the dead having trampled death by death.” The West (Catholic and Protestant) has viewed the problem of the world as a moral problem (transgression of a commandment and punishment) and has made of the Cross of Christ the epicentre of faith and worship. However, Orthodoxy continues to insist upon the Resurrection as the centre of its whole life precisely because it sees that the problem of the created is not moral but ontological; it is the problem of the existence (and not of the beauty) of the world, the problem of death. And the Resurrection of Christ was made powerful thanks to the union “without division” but also “without confusion” of the created and the uncreated; in other words, thanks to the love that makes the created and the uncreated surpass their limits and unite “without division,” and thanks to the freedom which means that the created and the uncreated do not lose their diversity by going beyond their limits in this union, but on the contrary preserve it, and so maintain their dialectical relationship. (Communion and Otherness, p. 261)

Mortal human beings can survive their created existence only by transcending themselves, going out of themselves in love and freely uniting themselves to an uncreated hypostasis. For this purpose God offers humanity the crucified and risen Christ.

The teaching of the fourth ecumenical council on the person of Jesus Christ, like the whole of patristic Christology, loses all meaning if it is not related to the problem of the created and the overcoming of death. If Christ is presented there as saviour of the world, it is not because he brought a model of morality or a teaching for humanity; it is because he himself incarnates the overcoming of death, because, in his own person, the created from now on lives eternally. (p. 259)

For the created to escape this destiny [of death], it needs a new birth, that is, a new way of being, a new hypostasis. It is not without reason that the Christology of Chalcedon insists on the fact that the hypostasis of Christ is that of the eternal Son in the holy Trinity; in other words, in the uncreated God, and not a human, that is, created, hypostasis. If the hypostasis of Christ had been created, death would have been just as fatal for him and victory over death impossible. The same goes for each human being. If our hypostasis is the one taken from our biological birth, then … freedom and love–those two constituents of existence—remain apart from one another and death follows. However, if only we can acquire a new hypostasis; in other words, if our personal identity, that which makes us persons, can spring from free relations which are loving and loving relations which are free, then our created nature, united without division and without confusion to the uncreated God, will be saved from its destiny of death. By means of Baptism, followed by the Eucharist, the Church offers us that possibility, because it gives us a new identity deeply rooted in a network of relationships which are not obligatory, like those which create the family and society, but free. (p. 263)

To be saved is to the incorporated into Jesus Christ. In union with the incarnate Son created beings are anchored within the uncreated God. In Christ they take on a new hypostasis, a new identity; in Christ they share the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This theme is clearly found in the writings of both St Paul and St John the Theologian, but Zizioulas has recast it into the language of personal-relational ontology. Aristotle Papanikolaou explains:

What Christ offers for salvation for human existence, then, is not so much the divine energies as his own hypostasis. … Thus, the significance of the union in Christ is not the communication of divine energies, but becoming a “son” of God by transforming one’s hypostasis through a relationship identical with that of the Son. Christ is the “one” and the “many” in whom our hypostases are not merged or absorbed, but transfigured, or rather constituted in the relationship which Christ has with the Father. It is within this relationship that the human person becomes, or exists eternally as a unique and unrepeatable being. (“Divine Energies or Divine Personhood,” Modern Theology 19 [July 2003], p. 369)

Baptized into Christ we are made sons in the Son. This union with the risen Lord is the realization of immortality and eternal salvation. Thus sings the Apostle: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”

(Published 21 April 2013)

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“This body which stood naked in the garden will be clothed in glory and will be radiant at the resurrection”

In the new world, the body will move in spiritual fashion,
for like a spirit it will pass through even solid natures.
It will be easy for it to descend and to explore deep regions without effort,
and to go up and reach the top of high places without falling.
It will direct its own path before itself and pass through everything,
closed gates do not hinder it from entering into them.
It is crowned and glittering, delicate and refined, perfect and polished,
and clothed in light in a world of light like an angel.
No anger or desire, hunger or thirst, laziness, toil or sleep, disease or any sort of oppression,
Not one of these things will touch it once it is resurrected,
for it will be purified and will become a new, spiritual being.
At the resurrection the body will rise as a new creation,
as it will no longer be subservient to weakness or to change.
That signal, which gave it is nature from nothing, will dawn
and will perfect it that it may rise up and become impassible.
Even though its limbs will rise up together with their components,
it will move entirely in a spiritual manner with no density.
It will acquire a completely ethereal and spiritual nature,
and it will cast aside all its corporeal movements.

This body that fell and will rise up spiritually,
is nothing other than the same one that the serpent harmed.
It became naked but will be covered in a garment of glory,
that when it rises up its enemy might be shamed by the mercy that spared it.
For the one that fell it is a good thing that there be a resurrection,
for had he not fallen no resurrection would have been required.
The one who fell will rise up; for one who has not fallen there is no need to rise,
one who is dead will live but one who is not dead will not be resurrected.
This body which stood naked in the garden
will be clothed in glory and will be radiant at the resurrection.
To it belongs resurrection and to it belongs judgement by Justice;
it is right that it be victorious but not right that it be punished.
It will be raised up, it will be renewed, it will be praised,
it will be culpable, to it belongs both fire and the kingdom.
In wonder it shall arise, in splendor it shall shine, in glory it shall reign.
Blessed is He who renewed the image of Adam that had been corrupted.

St Jacob of Sarug

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Manuals and Rule Books

by Fr Herbert McCabe, O.P.

Several commentators have found the most difficult teaching of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor to be its insistence that we can describe certain kinds of human acts which will be morally wrong whenever and however and for whatever reason they are performed. If, the document claims, an action falls under such a description, we know it to be wrong regardless of anything else we might know about it. Such a description must, of course, be a human one: it cannot be merely an account of what physically happens; it must include reference to what the agent intends in his act (though not to any consequences he may intend). Unlike a number of Catholic moralists, I think there are good reasons for holding this position, though I do not find them in the encyclical. On the other hand, I do not think the doctrine has the central importance there accorded to it and therefore find the scarcely veiled threats to Catholic teachers who think differently quite out of place and distasteful.

If you want to play football well, you will, let us suppose, make use of two books. The first is written by an experi­enced coach and tells you what the good and bad moves are in the game and how to practise the former and avoid the latter. It aims to help you acquire certain football skills. Learning such skills does not consist in understanding and remembering what you have read in this training manual; for football is not a theoretical but a practical skill — it can only be learnt by long practice guided by the manual. In fact, as you become more skilled you will refer less and less to the manual. Moreover, if you become expert you may, on occasion, recognise that the really excellent move would involve doing just what, in the manual, you were told never to do. Thus the book provides for the learner a reliable but not infallible guide to playing good football.

Besides the training manual, however, you will also need another book: you will need the rule book. This will tell you, amongst other things, what moves count as fouls. A foul is a bad or forbidden move, but it is not playing football badly: it is not playing football at all, but pretending to. You will doubtless have reasons for mak­ing a foul move (you may want your team to retain its place in the league table, for example) but they are not, and could not be. reasons within the game of football. A team which seems to win because of a foul has not in fact won a game of football. Given that what you are playing is football, there are no circumstances in which to make a foul move could be legitimate. The rule book does not tell you anything about acquiring skills in football; it simply tells you the rules and the kinds of action that would break them. At crucial points it is essential to know what is fair play and what is foul; and this is a fairly simple matter of information. The mere spectator can know this just as well as the most expert player. The rule book defines the context within which we may become skilled players: it in no way helps us to do so.

I hope I have managed to make clear what I see as the distinction between manuals of instruction which provide generalisations about what to do and not to do in order to help you to acquire skills in a game, and rule books which tell you the laws of the game and what counts as breaking them (of course in the real world of games the situation is rather more complex). Readers might, in passing, like to know that in my edition of the Summa Theologiae, of the 1,496 pages devoted to what we now call “moral theology”, St Thomas spends just 22 pages on law, of which seven are directly about natural law. All the rest is concerned in various ways with virtues and vices — though this includes 300 pages on the virtue of justice in which there are, from time to time, references to law.

Now it seems to me that the encyclical Veritatis Splendor is, in great part, an attack on those who want to read the rule book as though it were a training manual by those who want to read the manual as though it were a rule book. Neither seems to have adverted to the fact that they are logically quite different kinds of discourse. The rule book, for example, is about individual acts, whereas the manual is about how to acquire dispositions.

Bill Shankley, when manager of Liverpool, said, “Football is not a matter of life and death: it is far more important”, I am not taking that particular truth literally; I just think that clarity about one can help towards clarity about the other. The ob­vious difference is that football is a human artefact: it is we who decide what the game I shall be. We write the rule book of its laws (though we do then have to discover by experience how best to play it — how to write the manual). Human life, on the other hand, is a natural phenomenon (or gift from God) which we did not invent; though much inventiveness as well as ‘ experience has to go into finding out how best to live it. Like a game, it is difficult and challenging, involves successful and unsuccessful play; and, like a game, it has boundaries, to transgress which means playing some other game which is not what human life is about; and these boundaries and transgressions can be set forth as rules. But human living demands, above all, skills transmitted through education, especially those called virtues: skills in doing all things as befits a good human being. Although we are born with certain instincts and tendencies, inherited from our pre-linguistic ancestors, which are valuable to us but simply not adequate to the complex­ity of linguistic life and society, we are not born with virtues — though some people are born with tendencies which make it easier for them to acquire this or that virtue. But virtues have to be acquired by our learning from each other or the Holy Spirit or both.

It is, then, a significant difference that what football is (and thus what counts as a foul) can be changed by a decision of the FA, whereas we cannot decide, but only discover, what human life is (and what counts as a foul in it). It seems to me that the encyclical wastes a good deal of time making this point since it would be hard to find any Catholic moralists who do suppose (as Richard Hare and the early Existentialists used to) that human moral­ity is exactly like football, a human artefact invented some time ago.

On a visit to the United States during the Vietnam war I got to know a group engaged in a clandestine activity of which the American government did not approve. They were smuggling those who conscientiously objected to killing people in what they rightly saw as an unjust war out of the United States to such refuges as Sweden. Within this group there were those who were very committed and hard­working and those who were less so. One heard grumbling about those who were not pulling their weight, not entirely to be relied on to write the necessary letters, attend the meetings or provide the prom­ised transport … and so on. When, a year or so later, I returned to the States, I learnt that one of the apparently most enthusias­tic members of the group had turned out to be a government agent who had shopped them all to the police, so that several were in prison.

There was clearly a difference merely of degree but of kind between those inadequately dedicated because of carelessness, selfishness or laziness and the action of betraying the whole project. The former played the “game” badly, the latter was a move equivalent to a “foul”. Thus Alisdair MacIntyre (in his book After Virtue) says: “Aristotle … recognises that his account of the virtues has to be sup­plemented by some account, even if a brief one, of those types of action which are absolutely prohibited.” Aristotle’s city-state, the polis, had its basis in philia (a word perhaps not adequately translated by “friendship” in the modern sense: it is more like companionship with trust, a kind of esprit de corps). Philia does, of course, involve affection, but precisely the affection arising from solidarity in a shared important project (such as marriage), a solidarity which Aristotle regards as the precondition for justice itself. It is acts incompatible with this philia that are the ones absolutely ruled out.

St Thomas develops Aristotle in at least two ways. In the first place the biblical doctrine of God as Creator (a Jewish notion not available to Aristotle) enables him to extend the analysis of the good human life from the polis of citizens under the authority of those chosen to rule to the quasi-political community of human creatures under the universal authority of the Creator. (It is hard to find a reasonable basis for “human” rights — as distinct from the rights of citizens in this or that community—without this notion of a Creator with “universal jurisdiction”.)

In the second place, St Thomas takes Aristotle’s political notion of philia (amicitia in his language) as his model for the caritas which is the foundation of the community of the human family as, not merely creatures, but children of God. So (in la2ae. 88) he distinguishes between, on the one hand, not living the life of the Spirit well, perhaps through neglecting the cultivation of the virtues through prayer (for these firm dispositions are not now simply acquired by education but are the gift of the Holy Spirit), and, on the other hand, acts which are just incompatible with membership of a community sustained and defined by caritas. Those acts which cut at the root of human community thereby cut at the roots of our community in caritas. It would seem, for example, that there could be no human community based on friendship in which the killing of the innocent was treated with indifference; and hence such an action is a rejection of solidarity with each other, and thus a departure from the shared divine life which is the gift of the Spirit.

Now, the question arises: how are we to identify those acts which are not merely inadequacies in living the life of caritas but actually incompatible with the caritas upon which human community depends? It is a mistake to think that we find the answer to this by looking at a list of wrongdoings and arranging them in order of “gravity”. St Thomas’s answer is: by the use of our practical reasoning and also by faith in divine revelation; and the deliveries of these two sometimes overlap. In its prim­ary meaning, for him, “natural law” just is our capacity for practical reasoning; reasoning, that is, about what to do, based on the principle “seek good and avoid evil”, just as theoretical reasoning about what to think is based on the principle “seek truth, do not contradict yourself”.

Unlike the sub-linguistic creatures, we have a capacity to make decisions about our own lives, and this exercise of prudentia on our part he sees as a sharing in the exercise of providentia on God’s part. There is, for St Thomas, no built-in code or “voice of conscience”, no innate grasp of moral truths. We are, indeed, born with instinctive tendencies to action but these are the voice, not directly of God but of our animal ancestry; they are to be respected, not as a substitute for, but as a factor to be taken into account in, our rational decision about what to do. Practic­al reasoning is not thinking about what laws to have but about what, on a particu­lar occasion, to do. (The conclusion of the “practical syllogism” is an action.) Laws prohibiting certain types of action arise through our practical reflection on our thinking: deciding that it does not have to go on any more, because this action (for example, the killing of an innocent person) already calls in question the whole context within which practical thinking takes place, much as treason calls in question the very society in which it operates (it is important that foreigners cannot commit treason).

In this matter, however, as in all others, the exercise of practical reasoning is falli­ble. St Thomas thought that we were not very likely to be good at practical reason­ing: we are so subject to self-deception and shoddy thinking, as a consequence of original sin, that, in practice, we only grope uncertainly towards the right answers (the right actions). So it was kindly of God to reveal (at least to his chosen people) the ten commandments: not as principles from which practical thinking should start, but as markers of the boundary where it might as well stop. That is what I meant by saying that the deliveries of practical reason and of faith sometimes overlap. God reveals what we might have worked out for ourselves but “only after a long time and with the admixture of many errors”. A corollary of this, however, is that although we may have been too scatterbrained to work it out for ourselves, we could, by hindsight, recognise that it is not unreasonable. To see this we must recognise that the commandments are limits rather than principles. The commandments, says St Thomas, concern matters that are fairly obvious deliveries of practical reasoning. In theoretical reasoning we do not have to do much work to recognise certain obvious logical fallacies, and similarly in practical reasoning it is not hard to see that the kinds of thing prohibited in the decalogue are reasonably prohibited. But when they have become not just reasonable to our fallible minds but precepts from the infinite intelligence of God, their status is changed. The very fact of their being revealed makes them part of God’s mysterious friendship with us, part of his sharing of his life with us. So now murder, for example, is not only an act of defiance of the project of human living together, it is, at a deeper level, a spurning of God’s friendship, a breach of caritas with God. So, for St Thomas, a direct contravention of the revealed precepts of the decalogue is a “mortal” sin because the life in the Spirit that it rejects can only be restored by a miracle equivalent to resurrection from the dead.

The encyclical (79) speaks of “the commandments, which, according to St Thomas (la2ae 100.1), contain the whole natural law”. This is quite untrue. What St Thomas proposes in this article is the altogether different teaching that all the moral precepts (of the Old Law) belong to the natural law. For him, the natural law, being nothing but the exercise of practical reasoning, concerns any and every kind of specifically human activity. Thus the use of artificial contraceptives, say, or homosexual acts or masturbation or in vitro fertilisation, none of which are mentioned in the decalogue, come within the scope of natural law simply because we can reason practically about them. On the other hand, perhaps in their case, since they are not revealed to us as prohibited, we should be chary of speaking of “mortal sin” in their connection. Moreover it must, surely, remain an open question whether objections to these practices should really be seen as part of the absolute rule book and not rather part of the more flexible manual of instruction intended to guide us as we grow to maturity in the virtue of temperateness.

In general, I think it must be said that the encyclical makes a bad case for a good thesis: that we need absolute prohibitions as well as instruction in the paths of virtue.

I think it fails because, despite its frequent references to St Thomas, it is still trapped in a post-Renaissance morality, in terms of law and conscience and free will. Amongst Christians this commonly shows itself in attempts to base an account of Christian morality on the ten commandments, and this can only lead to a sterile polarisation of “legalism” or “liberalism”. You cannot fit the virtues into a legal structure without reducing them to dispositions to follow the rules. You can, however, fit law and obedience to law into a comfortable, though minor, niche in the project of growing up in the rich and variegated life of virtue. It is a pity that a major attempt to restate Christian morality should not have tapped the resources of a more ancient Aristotelian tradition, such as St Thomas inherited and transformed, which sees human life as the movement towards our real selves and towards God guided by the New Law which, as he insists, is no written code but nothing other than the presence in us of the Holy Spirit.

(The Tablet, 18 December 1993)

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