This is the text of my acceptance talk for the Pope Pius XI Award for Contributions to the Building Up of a True Catholic Social Science, at October’s annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. I had hesitated to post it, but my advisors think it would be interesting to many of my readers.
+++ + +++
How precious is the esteem of friends and comrades. My friends and comrades in Christ, I thank you for your fellowship, and I return your esteem. A part of me accuses myself of being a fake and a fraud, and thinks that I should refuse the compliment that you offer -- since what you are so kind as to compliment is my work on natural law, and as anyone knows who knows anything about natural law, very little of that work is in any way original. I know I would not have managed even that little bit without the steady encouragement of my blessed wife, Sandra, and of many of you. But perhaps one part of that little bit is in some way original, and since you are people of good judgment, I assume that you are complimenting that part.
I owe whatever small originality that part may possess not to any merit of my own, but to the redemption of a large blot of idiocy. St. Paul famously called himself the “first of sinners,” by which I think he meant, not that he was the worst of sinners, but that, by God’s patience, he was a pioneer of the sinners redeemed by Christ. In a much smaller way, and all these many centuries later, I think that I too am in the first wave of something. As a reformed nihilist, I am in the first wave of redeemed moral idiocy – of those who once denied truths that it would not even have occurred to the pagans to deny – but who, by God’s patience, have been made pioneers of the lunatics redeemed by Christ.
Now how could anything even a little bit original come from such deplorable beginnings? First let us recall what we are talking about. Natural law, you remember, is what St. Paul called the law “written on the heart,” the moral law woven into the very fabric of our nature and into the deep structure of the human moral intellect. There came a time, after God had drawn me back from apostasy, when I realized that during those years when I had denied Him, when I had denied the very difference between good and evil, when I had even denied my own reality and my responsibility for my acts, I had actually known deep down that these things that I denied were altogether true. I had only lied to myself about not knowing them – which is just what one should expect, if the law really is written on our hearts. I further came to realize that the hypothesis of moral self-deception explains much more about the insanity abroad in our times than the hypothesis of honest moral ignorance does. Yes, it is true that God’s law is written on the heart. That is why we speak of moral universals. But there are two universals, not one. Not only is a certain very basic moral knowledge universal, but the determination to play tricks on moral knowledge is universal, too. A law really is written on the heart of man, but it is everywhere entangled with the evasions and subterfuges of men.
Now you may ask, so what? In the end, don’t moral self-deception and honest moral ignorance come to the same thing? Not at all. Self-deception is much, much worse. By and large, the sinners of past times admitted that they were sinning and said “the hell with it.” The sinners of our time take a different approach. They tell themselves that there is no sin. “The hell of it” is that they know there really is.
You see, the pagan admitted that there was sin, but he did not know how to find absolution. So to him, the Gospel came as a message of release. But the neo-pagan of our day tells himself that the way to have peace is not to have the weight lifted, but to learn not to take it seriously. “All those guilty Christians!” he thinks. Having chosen to view the freest people as the most burdened, he naturally views the most burdened as the freest. “Everyone has done things he regrets,” he says. “Everyone lies. Get over it!”
That is how the madness of our time begins. For if you have a sharp enough razor, you can dig into the flesh of your heart and cut out the law’s letters. But there in the scar tissue, the letters mysteriously form themselves anew, like the letters that mysteriously formed upon the wall at Belshazzar’s feast. Mene, mene, tekel, parsin went the Hebrew words – “measure, measure, count, divide” – you have been measured and found wanting, and you will be divided. So it is today. You have to escape that burning inscription. You have to get away from yourself. And so you do divide yourself. Not because you can’t read the writing, but because you can.
How do you try to get away? Here is the one little bit where I might have seen something new. I think our situation is like that of an automobile driver with a corrupted will. He drives recklessly, and he gets a ticket. Again he drives recklessly, and he gets another ticket. Yet again he drives recklessly, and he loses his license. Next time, if he is caught, his vehicle will be impounded. So does he drive more carefully? No. When the patrolman sees him speeding, he drives still faster to get away. When the patrolman follows, he turns the wrong way down a one-way street to evade him. When the patrolman continues to follow, he leans out the window with a gun and shoots at him. The warnings and punishments that would have deterred a less stubborn person drive him on to yet greater transgressions, all in a futile attempt to outrun the cop. He behaves worse, not because there is no patrolman, but because there is.
We do much the same thing in the futile attempt to outrun our conscience. We behave worse, not because we don’t have a conscience, but because we do. We sleep with our girlfriends, and they become pregnant. We deny our responsibility for the children, and abort them. To justify the abortions -- this part is crucial -- we say that undeveloped human beings aren’t persons. And then we lose control of the excuse. To keep up the fiction that they aren’t persons, we are forced to approve infanticide as well; then toddlercide; then general euthanasia. The blessing of the psalm, “your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table,” comes to seem not the expression of a universal aspiration, but almost incomprehensible. The outburst of Elizabeth to Mary, “blessed is the fruit of your womb,” can hardly be heard except as irony. Eventually we hold our very nature in contempt, as illustrated by the author who declared in a family planning journal that pregnancy “may be defined as an illness” which “may be treated by evacuation of the uterine contents.” So do I spit on you, natural law!
What should we make of these facts? Traditionally the Church has viewed the doctrine of natural law as one of the “preambles” of faith, as one of the things that come before faith, and it certainly is a preamble. If, with the help of reason, you recognize your sin, then, by the help of faith, you can recognize the offer of forgiveness. But in our day we are beginning to see that the coin has another side too. Yes, logically, natural law is a preamble to faith -- but psychologically, faith may be a kind of preamble to friendship with our nature, for even the offer of forgiveness may scandalize us if we are trying with all our might to pretend that there is nothing to forgive.
I am not suggesting, as some of our separated brothers do, that conversation with our secular neighbors about ethics is futile until all of them have been converted. What I am suggesting is that such conversation is unlikely to achieve its ends unless we on the Christian side are willing, at fitting times, to be frank not only about our philosophy, but also about our theology -- not only about what we think is written on the heart, but also about what we think is going on in it. We must speak to our secular neighbors of the compelling logic of the natural law, yes! But we must also speak to them of pain, sorrow, loneliness, brokenness, alienation, mercy, and healing. These are topics for the doctrine of natural law too. If we allow ourselves to imagine that moral and cultural apologetics can be carried on in isolation from the new evangelization, we are dreaming, for in the soul, the heart and mind are adjacent.
Some would say that hope for the future is itself a futile dream. I don’t believe it. This time will not be like the last time, but God willing, the new evangelization will happen. The first evangelization proclaimed the Good News among pagan, pre-Christian peoples to whom it came as something new. We proclaim it to neo-pagan, post-Christian peoples to whom it does not come as new. The old world had not yet felt the caress of grace; our world, once brushed by that caress, now flinches from its touch. Yet that from which today the nations flinch remains the Desire of Nations. The same Christ stands at the door of the same human heart, inscribed with the same writing, restless with the same longing.
The award you are so kindly conferring tonight upon such a foolish person is proof that even fools can be reached. Sometimes we are afraid -- sometimes I am afraid – because nothing like the new evangelization has been done before. But then I reflect that there is no need to be afraid, for nothing like the old evangelization had been done before either. We will not see the end of it in our time. But the Creator and Redeemer of the heart, the Author of both the first grace and the second, the Key of David, the Dayspring, the Holy One who is changeless and ever-new, prevailed then, and will prevail now.
You have already been patient, but indulge me in a word to the younger scholars present. You have probably noticed that the situation for Christians in the academy is hard and getting harder. Most secular scholars still believe in little truths, like the sum of the interior angles of a triangle, but the situation may soon change, because they no longer believe in the very truth of truth, much less in its Source and Fountain. More and more often, they resent the few who do. You may wonder whether you are doing any good. You may wonder what is the point. But I say you are among them for a reason.
Many young people enter teaching and scholarship just because the life of a teacher and scholar seems pleasant to their taste, and that is fine. But the purpose for your being there is different. I do not say that Christ will make the purpose clear to you in this life, and I do not say that you will see the fruits of it in this life. But not a day, not a glance, not a word, not a lecture, not a single grade awarded, not a single line of scholarly prose will be futile if you offer it to Him. Nourish such insights as He grants you as though they were pearls. In one of the more intriguing passages in the Apocalypse of John, the Spirit of God declares that “to him who conquers” -- that means to him who perseveres -- he will give a white stone, with a new name written on it, which no one else knows. One day you will be told what your name is. Don’t worry that you don’t know it now. You don’t have to. He does.
In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, may He who is the true Fountain of light and wisdom grant all of us penetration to understand, capacity to retain, method and ease in learning, subtlety in interpretation, and copious grace of expression. May He who can do all things order the beginning, direct the progress, and perfect the conclusion of our work. Thank you for the sweet generosity of your friendship.