2017.1.20 – Absolute Moral Laws
There are some things that seem so certain in life. An object released in the air will fall at the speed of gravity. Light travels at about 300 hundred million meters per second. And, yes, a tree that falls in the forest does make a sound even if no person was around to hear it. Yet I remember as a child thinking how weird it was to call things like the speed of light, sound or gravity scientific “theories.” I asked my teacher, “Why do we call them theories? Aren’t they certainties?” To which my teacher responded, “We call them theories because we are always learning about nature. As we learn more about nature through scientific research we may adjust our understanding to match our new findings.” I can’t say I was completely okay with that explanation because it made my “certain” world a little more “uncertain.” And yet, it was a growth in maturity: human knowledge is limited and can always grow.
You know, other things also seem so certain too… like civil laws or sports rules. Cars drive on the right side of the street. The highway speed limit is 65 miles an hour. Grade schools and high schools give demerits or detentions for breaking rules. Even sport rules seem so definite. I mean, think of the reaction of spectators to referees who miss key fouls at the fever pitch of a game. They almost go berserk! Basketball, started here in the great state of Kansas, operates according to common rules not only so that all players can excel in the sport but also so that they are held to the same standard of competition. And marathons are always 26.2 miles. When laws or rules are broken people are penalized because it is harms society or because it’s unfair to the contestants.
But even here what seems so definite is colored by a sense of arbitrariness. Because we know that, in England, cars drive on the left side of the street. Back in the 80’s Sammy Hagar Jr.’s top 100 hit “I can’t drive 55” was a reaction against the government dropping the highway speed limit to 55 miles an hour. When I was at Bishop Carroll you got a demerit for chewing gum… now… you don’t. And as for sports, well… various sports commissions can add and change rules in sports whenever it seems necessary. And what would have happened if the Greek city of Marathon were 24 miles away from Pheidippides who first ran that distance? Today’s marathons would be 24 miles not 26.2 miles! So laws and rules that seem so certain, and even come with punishments and penalties when broken, can appear arbitrary.
And on top of all of this is the scientific theory of evolution that has also given rise to the mindset that all things grow and decay and nothing will really stays the same. After all, isn’t it true that human knowledge is limited and our theories can change? Isn’t it true that laws and rules can be adjusted according to circumstance and social structures?
And then there is Jesus.
Here is a man whose first word in public ministry was “repent.” Jesus Christ came for us to repent from sin and to obey the commandments. We must never forget that the whole purpose for Jesus to become man was to forgive us from sin, no matter how gi-normous or teeny-tiny; especially in the sacrament of confession. And he calls us to repentance because the moral truths he reveals are certain and unchanging. Like: “But I tell you, anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart” (Matt 5:28). Or “What God has joined together let no human being separate” (Mk 10:9). Or “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not kill…’ but I say to you, ‘whoever is angry with his brother is liable to judgment” (matt 5:21-22). And he even went so far as to say, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law” (Matt 5:18). In other words, Jesus reveals absolute morally certain laws that are always and everywhere binding.
But let’s be honest: this is difficult for some to hear. As I’ve already said, we live in a culture where what seems certain is uncertain, or what seems definite is indefinite. We have been raised with a sense of arbitrariness, that what applies one place doesn’t apply to another place. Or we have been formed with the instinct that over time all things will eventually evolve. And the truth is this: in a world of scientific theories, changing laws, and arbitrary rules, absolute moral laws strike some consciences like the clanging of pots and pans.
And yet Jesus has come into this world to establish us in the certainty of faith! Where science gives theories or civil laws seem arbitrary, God, in Jesus Christ, has revealed truth to us that is more certain than any human law, or scientific theory, will ever be. Moral truth, as revealed in the Ten Commandments and confirmed by Jesus Christ, is always and everywhere true (cf. CCC 2072). This is the great blessing of Revelation! Revelation is what our first reading responds to when it says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those who dwelt in a land of gloom a light has shone.” The great benefit of our Christian faith is that we can be certain in moral laws. Why? Because they come from God not from man. They are promulgated by our Lord Jesus Christ and entrusted to his Church (cf. CCC 2032), not by social structures or changing customs. As the bible says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8). So too, the truths that Jesus Christ reveals are the same “yesterday, today and forever.” And this isn’t a burden…it’s a freedom. That is way our first reading continues, “You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing.” Why joy and rejoicing? Because moral certainty gives us confidence in our right relationship to the Father and to one another.
So the story of creation in the book of Genesis revealed the truth of the human person to us. That story culminated in the great proclamation that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:28). And it was only after God created Adam and Eve that he called creation… not only “good”…. like he did five times before… but “very good” (Gen 1:31). This revelation, that Jesus Christ himself confirmed by the very fact that he became man, gives rise to an absolute moral principle that John Paul II declared, “Life is always a good” (Evangelium Vitae, 34). This is an absolute moral principle that is always and everywhere true, in all times, in all places, and in all circumstances. Life is always a good. This means that life is good from the moment of conception until natural death. Because God revealed that life is good, and because we know the principle that “life is always a good,” then we can see why abortion or euthanasia is always and everywhere wrong (cf. CCC 2261). No matter what circumstances, threats, cultures or customs surround it, we are morally obliged to protect life from conception to natural death. This is the very reason why over a dozen buses are leaving for Washington, D.C.: to protest the laws of abortion and to witness to the goodness of life in all its stages. In fact, those persons who are going on the March can apply to themselves what St. Paul asked of the Corinthians, to be “…united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).
And this is hard for our society to hear. Like the clanging of pots and pans, statements of absolute moral laws reverberate in consciences. And it is easy to try to explain such laws away saying, “Human knowledge grows,” or “laws are arbitrary,” or “what is true in one place is not true in another.” But this is not the case with Jesus Christ. He is both God and man. By being conceived in the womb… all the way to freely dying on the cross he confirmed the goodness of human life in all its stages. He revealed his truth to us so that his joy can be in us and our joy can be full (cf. John 11:15). And again he said, “You will know the truth the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The truth of Jesus Christ is not arbitrary nor is it changing. It is, in fact, the “same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8). So let us pray for one another that we, too, might “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10) and rejoice in moral truths that bring certainty to the mind and joy to the spirit.