See our websites!

"It is through conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of the divine law. They are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in everything they do."
Religious Liberty, no 2.

Veritatis Splendor in focus
Manuals and rule books

by Herbert McCabe
Published in the Tablet 18th December 1993

Herbert McCabeThe Pope’s encyclical is built on the foundation of the commandments and the natural law, and appeals frequently to St Thomas. But a Dominican priest who teaches theology in the University of Oxford questions its reading of St Thomas.

Several commentators have found the most difficult teaching of the encyclical Veritas 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 i easier for them to acquire this or that virtue. But virtues have to be acquired by I 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 deai 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 footbal, 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, 1 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 e 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 j 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 j 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.