By Robert P. George
Emeritus board member Robert P. George delivered the following remarks at St. Thomas’s 2013 Commencement.
Faith is the way we realize a profoundly important aspect of our well-being and fulfillment as human beings, the good of living in friendship and harmony with God. But faith plays another role as well: it guides and structures our pursuit of all of the other aspects of human well-being and fulfillment that are the objects of our rational choosing. In the life of faith, our friendship with God pertains not only to what we ordinarily regard as religious questions and the religious dimensions of our lives; it pertains to the whole of life, including those aspects of our lives that we ordinarily regard as secular.
Now this is by no means to deny that there are secular as well as religious dimensions of life. Even the life of a hermit monk or a contemplative nun will have secular dimensions. Nor am I saying or suggesting that friendship with God is the only true human good, or that it renders the others insignificant or reduces them to the status of mere means to friendship with God considered as the ultimate goal of all upright human choosing. In fact, the human good is variegated: there are many distinct and fundamentally different aspects of human well-being and fulfillment, many basic human goods. Inasmuch as these goods are reducible neither to one another nor to some deeper factor that is common to them all, they are in an important sense incommensurable, at least as they figure in and shape options for morally significant human choosing. If one considers, for example, the goods of friendship, knowledge, and religion, each is an aspect of human well-being and, as such, provides a reason for acting whose intelligibility as a reason does not depend on any further or deeper reason (or possible subrational motivating factor) to which it is subordinate or serves as a mere means. But the benefit of having or being a friend is different in kind from the benefit of gaining knowledge or enhancing one’s critical intellectual faculties, or the benefit of bringing oneself more fully into harmony with God. These are distinct human goods, and, as I say, not reducible to each other. By predicating “goodness” of them, we do not suggest that they share a common substantive content that is merely expressed or manifested in different ways. Rather, we predicate goodness of them precisely because each, in its way, fulfills persons in a certain distinct dimension of their lives, and therefore each is capable of motivating us to act by appealing to what Aristotle called our “practical intellect”— that is, our rational grasp of what is, in fact, humanly fulfilling. Each provides a more-than-merely-instrumental reason for acting.
What, then, distinguishes morally upright from immoral choosing, given the variegated nature of the human good and the incommensurability of its most basic forms? Well, morality, in its most fundamental sense, is a matter of rectitude in willing. Its criterion, I believe, is the conformity of our choices—our acts of will—with the integral directiveness of the various basic forms of human good. Norms of morality, whether the more general sort, such as the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, or the Pauline Principle that one must never do what is in itself evil, even for the sake of good consequences, or the more specific norms that forbid committing murder, rape, and theft, are entailments (or specifications) of the most fundamental moral principle, namely that one should choose in ways that are fully compatible with a will towards integral human fulfillment. But if this story of the foundations of moral judgment and the criterion, or, when specified, criteria, of morally upright choosing is correct, then many of our choices are not between morally right and morally wrong options, but between or among morally legitimate options. The application of moral norms will, of course, sometimes exclude certain options (murder, rape, and other intrinsically evil acts are always excluded; and there are many acts that are excluded at least in some circumstances), but it will often leave two or more options morally available.
While plainly there are life plans and life styles and forms of conduct that are ruled out by the application of moral norms, the variegated nature of the human good makes it the case that there are many mutually exclusive but morally upright possible plans of life and ways of living. Norms of morality certainly require us to lead lives of integrity and coherence, lives that make use, to the extent possible, of the talents we enjoy and that accomplish, again to the extent possible, things we believe in and care about. But very different lives can fully embody integrity and coherence. A man could with integrity lead a coherent life in which he marries and has children, works for an insurance company, coaches a Little League team, collects stamps, and enjoys watching Monday Night Football and Humphrey Bogart films. Another man could equally with integrity lead a coherent life as a parish priest who loves Italian operas, serves as vocations director for his diocese, turns on the television set only to watch the evening news broadcast, and teaches Latin as an adjunct professor at a nearby university.
So, what does one do, how does one decide, when faced with a range of good but incompatible possibilities? How does one go about the business of structuring one’s life when many paths are open, all of which offer opportunities to use and develop one’s talents and dedicate oneself to things one cares about?
Now, persons face these questions whether or not they are men and women of faith. Those who do not believe in God, or for whom belief in God is notional but not practically significant in their lives, will consider that they are simply on their own. Some people of goodwill make the mistake of supposing that utilitarianism or some other form of consequentialism is coherent and workable, and can provide a rational way of solving the problem. They propose to identify and choose the option or package of options that promises overall and in the long run to produce the net best proportion of benefit to harm. But there is no such option or package of options. There are many things wrong with utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism, but chief among them is that they necessarily presuppose that the various aspects of human well-being and fulfillment—the basic goods of human nature—are commensurable in a way that makes moral judgment essentially a matter of technical calculation. But this is to presuppose what is false. No one can bring, say, the good of friendship and the good of knowledge into commensurability such that one could do a calculation to determine the greatest good where concrete opportunities here and now to pursue the good of friendship and to pursue the good of knowledge are incompatible with each other. The same is true where choices are among options provided by different instantiations of the same kind or category of good. The irreducibility of the basic aspects of human well-being to one another or to some common factor dooms every effort to accomplish the commensuration of human goods that is required if utilitarian calculation is to be workable as a method of ethical decision making.
A Christian or other believer will not regard himself as on his own in making important decisions about plans of living and ways of life where moral reflection does not reduce the possibilities to a single uniquely correct option. A Christian certainly will suppose that God has a plan for him, and that his task is to cooperate with God in discerning that plan and living it out. We who are Catholic Christians call this plan a vocation—and we believe that every person has one. God’s plan for each of us, we believe, has to do with the whole of life, and not just its more obviously “religious” aspects. Any individual’s vocation may include, as I believe mine includes, significant secular dimensions as well as specifically religious ones.
When I was a boy, it was common, though incorrect, for Catholics to reserve the word “vocation” to the calling of priests and nuns, those who would dedicate their lives to explicitly religious purposes. In those days, one might have heard a young man or woman say, “I’m trying to discern whether I have a vocation.” Sometimes this was connected to the error of “clericalism,” which in turn was often rooted in the belief that religion is not only a distinctively architectonic good, but the ultimate and overriding good that reduces the others to essentially subordinate and instrumental status. In any event, I believe, and the Catholic Church teaches that God has a plan, a calling, a vocation in mind for each of us, and not just for those called to the priesthood and religious life. And prayer and other spiritual disciplines (together with our rational powers of inquiry, reflection, understanding, and judgment) are the means available to all of us, as gifts from God, to discern what the Lord is calling us to do.
But there is more. For there is a sense in which for a Christian faith is truly at the center of one’s life. In situations of significant choosing, it helps one to understand not only which options are morally available, in the sense that there is nothing morally wrong with choosing them, but also which from among the morally available possibilities makes the highest and best use of one’s God-given talents—talents that one will, as a believer, view as imposing responsibilities, more than as providing means of achievement, satisfaction, status, and recognition. Moreover, faith, standing at the center of one’s life, enables one to bring one’s choices into a more coherent whole—in this sense, faith plays an integrating as well as an architectonic role. By centering one’s life it helps one to live a life that hangs together—and this is humanly valuable not only instrumentally (inasmuch as it enables one more efficiently to use one’s talents and act for the sake of the human goods one cares about) but also intrinsically. For integrity (and here I am using the term broadly in the sense of self-integration, and not just in the moral sense) is itself an irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment—a basic human good.
In focusing on the architectonic and integrating role of faith, I have been discussing situations in which important choices must be made between morally legitimate options. This should not be taken as a denial that faith has an important role to play in helping the believer to choose uprightly in cases where the options are between right and wrong. In line with the historic teaching of the Church, I believe that we can identify moral norms and apply them to concrete cases by rational inquiry, understanding, and judgment even apart from special revelation from God. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, I believe that God directs us to our proper ends in part by giving us a share in the divine power of reason by which we can understand moral truths. To believe this, is to believe in natural law—what St. Paul described as the law “written on the hearts” even of the Gentiles who had not the law of Moses. And this law, St. Paul affirmed, because it can be naturally known is sufficient for moral accountability. But the Christian (or Jewish) believer in natural law will also believe that God’s revelation pertains to morality and that the norms He reveals (for example in the Decalogue) reinforce and illuminate what can be known by reason and make the norms of morality and the terms of their application available and clear to us when, for whatever reasons, our own judgment is not up to the task. Think, for example, of the way Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illuminates the moral landscape even though, as an abstract matter, we can know as a matter of natural law that we should treat each other with justice and compassion.
So faith, as I as a Christian understand it, illuminates and enriches our understanding of what can be known by reason. But faith also enables us to see the larger, lasting, and indeed cosmic significance of our choices and actions. It helps us to understand the good and upright actions by which he realize human goods as a kind of participation in Christ’s own work of building up God’s kingdom, a kingdom which is, as one theologian described it “already but not yet.” The Second Vatican Council has a beautiful statement about the ultimate significance of our morally good choices: In the document known as Gaudium et spes, the Council teaches that after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.” On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower.
And then, of course, there is the Biblical call to perfection, which, for the Christian, entails the willingness to follow the example of Christ himself in self-sacrificial love. Indeed, it is only through faith that one can truly grasp, and only by a most profound grace that one could possibly live up to, Christ’s command that we love—love, mind you—not only those who are kind to us or at least do us no harm, but even our enemies—those who would destroy us.
The stringency of the call to perfection is nowhere presented more clearly or forcefully than in the Gospel story of the rich young man who approached Jesus to ask: What need I do to gain eternal life? You will recall that our Lord replied: “You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.” The rich young man must have been elated by this reply, because he could look the Son of God in the face and say something that few of us could say: “Master, I have kept all of these from my youth.” Can you imagine how wonderful it must have been for him to be able to say that. But recall what happened next. St. Mark says that “at this Jesus looked at him with love.” Now let’s pause here to feel the force of the point. Jesus is about to deliver the toughest teaching of all—a teaching so difficult and demanding that even this remarkably pious and upright young man will not be able to accept it. But it is a teaching that Jesus delivers precisely because of his love for the young man, his desire for his welfare, his will for him to experience the blessing of being not merely good but perfect. And so Jesus looked at him with love and said “There is one thing more that you must do: Go and sell what you have and give to the poor then come follow me.” But “upon hearing this,” St. Mark reports, “the young man’s face fell, and he went away sad for he had many possessions.”
And so it is that the vocation of every Christian includes a demand that is, humanly speaking, impossible. The call of Christ in the life of faith confronts and grasps us, if I may borrow the words of the late Bernard Lonergan, as “a dynamic vector, an undertow, a fateful call to dreaded holiness.” The call is always a demand of self-sacrificial love for the sake of the Gospel, but we must not suppose that it will always or even often be about material riches, as it was in the case of the rich young man who approached Jesus. All of us have “riches” in the sense of things we desire and cherish; and it will be riches of some sort that we will be asked to sacrifice or place at risk. Perhaps Christ is calling you or me to take a stand for a cause that is unpopular in influential and elite sectors of our culture—a stand, such as the defense of marriage, that might subject us to abuse from those who hold allegedly enlightened opinions, or might leave us stigmatized or marginalized. Perhaps Christ is looking at you or me, with love, and asking us to put at risk our reputations or prospects for career advancement. However that may be, each of us, if we are to be faithful to the Gospel, must pray and reflect on what humanly impossible demand Christ is making of us, and ask him for the divine assistance—in a word, the grace—to accept and meet it. The all-too-real temptation for each of us—especially those who can say, with the rich young man, that we have been faithful to the commandments, will be to “turn away sad” for all of us, even the materially poor, “have many possessions.”
Faith enriches our understanding of morality and strengthens us in the struggle to live up to its demands. Christian faith heightens morality’s requirements, imposing standards of Christ-like living that would simply be impossible, and perhaps rightly regarded as crazy, if we really were on our own. But being a believer means believing that we are not on our own. The love of Christ that demands the impossible also empowers and emboldens us to say, “yes, Lord, with your help, and by your most amazing grace, I will do it.”
This blog post originally appeared on the Houston Chronicle website as an article.