I’m finishing up a course on Christian Morality, and it dawned on me that there are a few powerful first principles guiding and governing the Christian moral outlook—such that if one steadfastly latches on to these, many otherwise controverted topics fall neatly into place.
These three are: the importance of virtue, the inviolable dignity of every human life (and in connection here, man’s nature as a body-soul unity), and the normativity of the natural order as the embodiment of divine wisdom (and therefore one of our first cues for the moral life). A bonus fourth might be what Pope St. John Paul II has called the “personal” order, to which we’ll turn at the end.
1. The Importance of Virtue
Virtue ethics connects two very important things: first, virtue is about fully actualizing the capacities of human nature in order to live a fully human life—that is, virtue ethics is about attaining true and objective happiness (not merely a subjective state of contentment). People seldom think about morality this way; but for the ancients, living a good life was about becoming a truly happy person. Second, a virtue ethic shows how all of our actions are not simply external to us; rather, they are modifying and shaping our character in the process. We are becoming a certain kind of person in and through each and every decision we make.
This second feature of a virtue ethic has many points of contact with athletics; take any kind of skill (e.g., pitching in baseball, shooting mechanics in basketball, or a golf swing): at first the process is awkward and clumsy; but over time and with practice, the execution of the skill gets smoother and more fluid. Conversely, practicing the skill incorrectly likewise inculcates bad habits, which over time become hard to break.
The point is this: the moral life—acts of virtue and vice—create ingrained habits over time. That is, we are becoming a certain kind of person along the way, ultimately, one who is free to be truly happy, or someone enslaved to vice.
Virtue Requires Training
I press this with my students because the youth (especially today) are prone to think something like the following: “Deep down, I’m a good guy—despite what I did last weekend.” In other words, our culture has a tendency to dissociate our actions from who we are. In reality, this is preposterous: over time, our actions determine who we are—because each and every action is making us into a certain kind of person.
The moral question, then, is not simply “what do I do right now?” but rather who do I want to be. If we thought of every moral decision as an answer to that question—who do I want to be—we’d probably live with a lot less regrets.
This is to say then that what we’re doing now is directly related to who we’ll be in five years. As I said, this is important for high school and college students to hear, since they often think they’ll “live it up now” and settle down later, and then just magically become a good husband or wife when the time comes. That is, they often don’t fully take into account the preparation—the necessary training in virtue—that it will take to make that happen.
A New Kind of Freedom
As already implied above, the practice of virtue gives rise to a deeper freedom. In teaching about this, I’ll often ask my class if they are free to speak French. Amused, they respond in the affirmative. Then I ask them to do it—to which many of them respond by informing me that they haven’t taken French.
In other words, they are free to speak French in a superficial sense—I’m not going to stop them. But they aren’t ultimately free to speak the language until they have mastered the skills which enable them to express any given thought fluently in the French language.
Similarly, virtues are the skills needed to live a life with excellence—the skills which give one the freedom to be the person they truly want to be (to be the father, husband, mother, wife, friend, doctor, businessman, etc. they want to be); that is, the freedom to be truly happy.
You Play How You Practice
Great examples of this deeper freedom are: learning a foreign language, a musical instrument, getting in shape, or any athletic skill that must be practiced over and over again before it becomes second nature.
A great player in any sport (or musician) is reliable and consistent; anybody can hit a lucky shot—whereas, someone who truly has the particular excellence can do such an action on demand. And such mastery makes the performance of the act more and more joyful.
So too with virtue: a virtuous act is at first arduous and difficult; but as one practices, say small acts of courage, over time they get easier and easier. One becomes more free to be the person they truly want to become. To be the hero when it counts, one must first have fought the small battles along the way. After all, what do coaches constantly say—you play how you practice.
A virtuous life is about discipline, about attaining self-mastery. And this self-mastery enables us to enter into life most fully—to give the best of ourselves, ultimately to God and neighbor. And perhaps paradoxically, only in such self-mastery—which leads to self-gift—can we find true and abiding happiness.
2. The Dignity of Every Human Life
It is certainly reasonable to treat human beings differently than any other creature. After all, we are different not just in degree, but in kind. For example, we’re interested in the DNA of other animals—not the other way around. Several of our distinctive activities indicate something fundamentally different in our nature (i.e., a spiritual soul):
- We study science and philosophy (which depend upon distinguishing between appearance and reality);
- We write literature, languages, and poetry (animals communicate, but they don’t use grammar and syntax—they don’t distinguish simile and metaphor);
- We create fine art (the Sistine Chapel doesn’t exactly further interests of immediate survival);
- We have religions (only man asks the ultimate questions);
- We make laws (e.g., traffic laws, tax laws);
- We have a variety of dwellings (whereas, a wren builds its nest year in and year out based on its kind—in contrast to the variety of human dwellings now and throughout history, a variety which is due to reason and free will).
You’ll Never Not Exist
That said, what Christians teach about the dignity of every human life was not something taken for granted in the ancient world, even among the likes of great virtue teachers like Aristotle and Plato. In other words, we should not underestimate the power of Genesis 1:26-28—that every human person is made in the image and likeness of God (nor should we underestimate how the Incarnation elevates and crystallizes our sense of the inviolable dignity of every human life).
One of my graduate professors (Bishop Robert Barron) used to say that if you took the Catholic Faith and blew it up and scattered pieces of it around in various disconnected places, then you’d have modernity. A case in point is the modern world’s preoccupation with human rights. This is no doubt a legacy of our Christian heritage—but removed from its proper context, it often gets distorted (e.g., a human right to abortion).
Every person who’s ever lived still does, somewhere. Therefore, the conception of every human life brings about a person who will never not exist.
Importance of the Body
Important here is the inherent connection between me and my body. That is, when the human organism comes to be, the person comes to be.
There are several pro-abortion academics who will acknowledge that the human being comes to be at conception, but that the “person” comes to be much later. Here, they identify the person—who alone is said to be the seat of moral and human rights—with things like consciousness, self-awareness, and the ability to communicate. As such, this is something that develops later, even well after birth.
For this reason, some thinkers (e.g., Peter Singer of Princeton) have expressed support for infanticide up to age two (after all, how “self-conscious” is a six-month-old?). Such a view is repulsive to most people, but it is consistent with the above outlook in terms of what constitutes “personhood.”
The Body Is the Person
If we take a baby a week before birth and a week after, not much has changed except for its location. What we want is to find the point at which a substantial change has taken place—that is, when a new entity has come about, not just some degree of development of the individual organism.
There really is no serious candidate other than conception. The gametes (the sperm or ovum) are genetically and functionally parts of mother and father. The embryo, on the other hand, at its earliest stages is genetically distinct from father and mother. Further, a difference in potency (or developmental capacity) implies a difference in nature. That is, a sperm taken by itself will not self-develop into a mature human being; a sperm, therefore, is a potential human being. An embryo, on the other hand—if provided nutrition and environment—will self-develop into a mature human being. This radical difference in potency or capacity between the newly conceived embryo on the one hand, and the sperm by itself on the other is enough to indicate that a new individual has come about with the completion of fertilization. Therefore, in contrast to the sperm by itself, the newly-conceived embryo is a human being with potential.
Further: when the individual organism comes to be, the person comes to be. We must resist this supposed dualism that sees the person as one thing and the body as another—as if the person were “trapped” inside the body. Ironically, here it’s the pro-abortion side that is pointing to a fuzzy dualism as to when the “person” comes to be, while the pro-life side is focused on the scientific beginning of the bodily organism (in other words, I didn’t have to appeal to the infusion of the soul at any point in the above to make the pro-life case; but ironically, the pro-abortion side’s appeal to “personhood” is a subjective notion disconnected from the scientific beginning of the individual organism).
Human Rights Don’t Depend on Human Traits
Euthanasia advocates argue from the same premises as the pro-abortion advocates above. For example, when dementia has set in, at a point the “person” is supposedly no longer present even though the human being remains alive. At a point, this thinking would allow one to dispose of the “human being” precisely because they have ceased to be a “person”—since on this view, only persons have moral rights.
The fundamental problem with using such things as “consciousness” or “self-awareness” as the seat of human rights is that it’s so fluid: what exactly is the threshold one must cross to preserve one’s moral rights? What if a person’s IQ is below 40? What about the severely mentally-handicapped?
The only real basis for human rights (and human equality, for that matter) is that human rights flow from simply being human. Conversely, if we tie human rights to the development of some human trait (e.g., consciousness), the necessary threshold for human rights becomes arbitrary and is subjectively chosen by those in power.
Err on the Side of Life
This is precisely what John Paul II meant by the “culture of death”—as a war of the powerful against the weak; for the weakest are most vulnerable—especially the unborn who can’t even cry to defend themselves, but also the handicapped, disabled, and elderly.
Even if there were uncertainty regarding the beginning of life, the issue is so important—so much is as stake—that we should err on the side of life. If we were hunting and thought some movement in a bush was an animal but realized that it might be a person, we would be obligated not to shoot. So, too, here: the mere probability of the presence of human life is so crucial that we should err on the side of life.
What about the Transgender Issue?
Our unity as one thing—a body-soul composite—is enough to throw up an immense caution flag regarding transgender issues. For our bodies are integral to who we are. Therefore, it simply can’t be the case that someone could be, say, a boy trapped inside a girl’s body.
Further, the natural order is “always or for the most part,” as Aristotle taught long ago. It doesn’t have the necessity of mathematics—that is, genetic defects and the like sometimes occur. In other words, just because there are rare occasions of a person with mixed chromosomes (or mixed genitalia) does not mean that sex and gender do not have a basis in the natural order. We first recognize the order of things (i.e., always or for the most part), which then allows us to recognize something as a disorder. Just because some people are born blind doesn’t mean that eyes are not for seeing.
3. Natural Order as Normative
Here is where Pope Francis’ ecological thinking and Catholic sexual morality coincide (a point Francis alludes to in Laudato Si). The created order is God’s gift to us and bears the imprint of his divine ordering. We should seek to work with—not against—the inherent grammar of the natural order. That is, we shouldn’t view nature as a blank slate which we can manipulate at will, as if the only restriction upon us were expediency. Freedom, in other words, must be subordinated to truth.
We must first recognize the order inherent within nature and seek to cooperate with it. Here, the same thinking that would exploit the natural environment with no concern for its intrinsic grammar and purpose is exactly the same that fuels the transgender movement: in both instances, we seek to make nature conform to our subjective desires, with no regard to its objective meaning. Rather, we should conform our desires to the objectivity of nature’s inherent order.
In the order of nature, the sexual act is both unitive and procreative—it’s about babies and bonding. Contraceptive acts, homosexual acts, and masturbation all either attempt to thwart the order of nature (e.g., contraception), or act in direct contradiction to the purpose of the sexual act (e.g., same sex acts, masturbation). Sex is like fire—a powerful force; it’s intended by the Creator for a certain purpose, within a certain context (i.e., the marriage union). Employed outside of its intended context and against its intrinsic purpose, it’s like taking fire outside the fireplace—which all too easily brings the house (and our lives) down in flames.
A Bonus 4th: The Personal Order
We are embodied persons, who are ultimately called to make a gift of ourselves in love. For St. John Paul II, this love is antithetical to simply using someone as an object for my own ends—something that all too easily happens in the sexual context.
It was Karol Wojtyla’s (St. John Paul II’s) conviction (and I think rightfully so) that whenever someone engages in premarital sex (or contracepted sex) that it necessarily becomes an act of using—because the whole accent of the act is now placed upon physical pleasure. In other words, it was Wojtyla’s conviction that only by maintaining the natural order (i.e., the procreative aspect of the sexual act) that we also maintain the personal order (a call to love and not use). A sexual act that is inherently not open to life all too easily becomes an act of mutual masturbation—that is, an act of sexual using.
A Test Case with NFP
When confronted with the allegation that natural family planning and contraception are the same thing, I usually respond by asking, “Then why not just use NFP?” The response I get is usually, “That would be totally different!” To which I usually say: “Wait, I thought you just said they were the same thing.”
It’s true that they bring about the same end, but the means are different.
NFP is morally superior to contraception for at least two clear reasons: it works with (not against) the natural order; and it better fosters self-mastery (i.e., virtue) and true love (as opposed to using). In other words, NFP works with the natural order and is more consonant with the building up of the personal order.
Calm in the Storm
Is the moral discussion today often very chaotic? Yes, of course. But I have seen in my students over the years that they appreciate a sound and reasonable presentation. Even when they disagree—which is often due to divergent first principles—it’s still good for us to be clear on our first principles and how Catholic teaching flows from them.
Catholic teaching is reasonable and liberating. But often one has to take the plunge and live it out before it resonates most deeply. Sometimes I’ve resorted to saying, “OK, you’ve tried it one way; how about an alternative?” Often, young people haven’t really thought about it—they’ve just been swept up by the culture.
It was St. John Paul II’s conviction that these principles are also exactly what’s needed to build a free and just society in the modern age. After all, a democracy is only as good as its citizens. If virtue is held in esteem and the dignity of every human life is safeguarded from conception to natural death, then we would be well on our way to forming a culture of life and true love.
A Life of Excellence
Lastly, we should remember that we are not a political party; nor are we a school of philosophy. We are disciples of the Lord Jesus—we should look different.
How can we more joyfully live out a life of excellence and bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions?
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About Andrew Swafford
Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension Press. He is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.