Objective Morality – 2

We kicked off the morality parade in the last post, promising to deal with ontology and epistemology in this one.  Let it be so.

Morality, we said, is a system of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.  Elementary, no?  Yet, for our purposes, we must make some hay out of this simple assertion.

What, after all, does it mean for an action to be “right”?  And “wrong”?  Right or wrong with respect to what?

A few examples will make the point:

I walk down the street at 4.5 miles per hour.  Is this right or wrong, morally?

My child had her lunch money stolen.  I give her money for lunch, but no consolation.  Is this right or wrong, morally?  Relative to what standard?

I declare that cold-blooded murder is morally good.  Am I correct, or incorrect?

On the one hand, these are not challenging questions.  I suppose very few people would have any difficulty answering them, and that there would be a wide consensus on those answers.  More on this next time.

On the other hand, as any sophomore philosophy student will tell you, they are not as straight-forward as they seem.  The second question in the second example (Relative to what standard?) points to this, and the fact that I’ve asked questions about seemingly obvious situations is also suggestive.

The sophomore will want to contextualize the first example: Are you walking toward something?  Away from something?  Are you shirking your duties, or avoiding a conflict?  (Note that I meant merely the act of walking, apart from any context).

The example about praising cold-blooded murder as morally good is probably easiest to answer – but why?  How do we know that cold-blooded murder is wrong?  Are you sure?  (Freshman ethics courses are fraught with such questions).

To some extent, all we have done here is obfuscate the issues with hypothetical information.  The sophomore is just being difficult.

Yet, not merely difficult.  After all, it’s exactly when the context changes that our moral judgments are challenged.  But if the choice is easy in the first case, and difficult when the context changes, how are we to revolve this difficulty?

We require the moral standard itself.  What is “the good” against which we compare all moral actions?  When we have two choices, against what are they weighed in order to decide which is a morally better decision?

This is moral ontology, to investigate the nature of the good.

And how is it that we come to know the good?  When we are caught in a moral dilemma, how is it that we decide which action to take?  How can we be confident we know the good?

This is moral epistemology, the study of our knowledge of the good.

Many discussions of morality seem to bounce back and forth between moral epistemology and ontology, often without the speaker seeming to realize it.  I dare to say it’s a more subtle distinction that we’re used to.  We’ll get into this more in the next post.

Objective Morality – 1

The subject of objective morality is a troubled one.  Bring it up, even clearly and with care, and one is nevertheless met with some flavor of righteous indignation or a general misanthropy leaving us morally inferior to the apes.

For my part, I am as earnest as I am ambitious, and even troubled waters will not keep me from putting out to sea once more.*

First, what do we mean by objective morality?

Webster works well enough, and I paraphrase thus:  Morality is a doctrine or system of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.

There is nothing foreign about this.  We pass moral judgments all the time, even without realizing it.  When someone speeds recklessly down the highway, flying past your own vehicle, you judge that this person is going much faster than is safe.  You further judge that they are deficient in their duties to the other drivers on the road, lacking in a value which can only be defined in terms of right and wrong.

Now, objective morality connotes a system of beliefs which is true independent of what anyone may think about it.

An example of an objective truth (which is not a moral truth) is that 9 x 9 = 81.  Even if the United Nations decided tomorrow that all of the world should answer that 9 x 9 = Porridge, it would remain true that 9 x 9 = 81, no matter what we say about it.

An example of an objective moral truth is that “Rape is wrong.”  If all the world should decide tomorrow that rape is morally neutral, or even morally praiseworthy, it would nevertheless remain true (according to the concept of objective morality) that rape is actually still wrong, no matter what we think about it.

Now – if you ask me, the first question we should ask in any discussion of right and wrong is whether there is an objective morality.

If there is not, then the discussion is drained of meaning.  We are now talking about personal preferences; even baser – we are talking about mere appetites.  There can be no moral objections, because there is no real meaning behind morality.  (More soon)

If there is, then we have some discerning to do.  How is it that we discover what is morally right and morally wrong?  According to what standard are these things judged?  This distinction is between moral epistemology and moral ontology, and we’ll discuss that next time.


*As before, in this space.

Salvation by Grace – 3

The first and second posts in this series introduce us to the layman level of the Justification divide:  Before considering the arguments from authority (those of Scripture, and those meaning to interpret Scripture), how is the layman confronted by the issue?

Here I attempt an analogy to suggest how the layman ought to approach the issue.  That the analogy, itself, has a basis in Scripture is both unintentional and telling.

One commonality between Protestants and Catholics – and I can’t say I’ve heard any objection to this – is that believers ought to become mature in the faith.  So who is it, in an ordinary sense, who is new to life and for whom we wish maturity?

And who is it, ideally, who provides the means to this maturity?

We have a child and a parent, respectively.  Permit me to guide a meditation on this…

From the very first moment, a human being is utterly dependent on his mother.  There is nothing that child could do for himself, except that he benefits from the many good and necessary things his mother’s womb provides for him.  He benefits – more basically, he survives - because of her good graces.

The child is born and remains, it is readily seen, utterly dependent on grace; but now he has reflexes which are his own, which have developed because of prior grace on the part of the mother.  He will suckle if something is put in his mouth, he will cry to express his needs.

Now this initial “adoption” of the child, even a biological child, is akin to Justification.  In a natural sense, the child has not merited the grace of his parents.  There is nothing he has done – there is nothing he could do – except to receive and cooperate with their grace.  It is they who have first loved him.

From the start, the mother and father wish for their child to become a mature human being.  The child should ultimately walk on his own, think clearly and speak deliberately, and become productive to the point that he will have grace to spare for others.  This maturation process is analogous to Sanctification.  The child cooperates more and more fully with the will of his parents.

This fuller sense of cooperation begins when the child develops a sense of autonomy, a period known as toddlerhood.  Now the child can (and does) choose not to cooperate with the will of his parents, even when that will is most obviously in his best interest.  But when he understands why he ought to cooperate, and does, then he grows.

The grace continues to flow.  The parents continue to feed the child, shelter and clothe him, provide for his education and his recreation, and dispense wisdom.  And, ideally, the child finds himself less and less dependent on these graces, as he becomes stronger, wiser, and more skillful.

The ultimate goal of the parents, I say, is to bring the child up so that he can survive on his own; better, so that he can prosper, be upright, and give grace to others, including his own children.

The Baptist in our previous post wants the child to mature in this way, but such maturation is secondary.  The Catholic sees salvation as on-going, as requiring works only because they are part and parcel of the maturation process.  You do a good work because that is the way you grow.

We are – I believe and confess – unable to perfect ourselves.  That is the purpose of grace, just as it is for the infant who is unable to care for himself.  Adoption (we Catholics consider this to be Baptism) brings us under His direct care, but He does not force His grace on us.  We must cooperate in order to remain, just as a child must cooperate with his parents in order to receive their care (he cannot be fed if he won’t eat; he cannot be taught if he won’t learn).

From the outset, though, I admitted this is only an illustration; if Scripture refuted it clearly and soundly, the illustration would fail.  However, as a Catholic, I have never seen Scripture as an altogether foreign entity.  It welled up through the geology of the human race; it is the water of everlasting life, but it carries the sediment of human history.  The illustration, then, might serve as a means to interpret the very same Scripture.  Indeed, this is how it seems to me.

Much like faith and reason, Scripture and the human experience are not at odds.  But that’s for another series.

Salvation by Grace – 2

When I brought fingers to keyboard to write the last post, I only expected our subject to require one post.  But it now appears two or three are in order.

This is because I did not appreciate two things:  One, that the subject could explode into a thesis at any moment, and probably would.  Two, that a large share of readers might not fall into the “familiar” crowd, and so there’s a lot of background one must state explicitly, rather than simply allude to.

Fortunately, I do not want this to go on any longer than is truly necessary, and so my efforts here will be tempered.

The conflict, writ small:  Protestants say Justification is by grace, through faith (full stop).  Catholics – so it goes – say Justification is by grace, faith, and works.  And some Protestants would emphasize the works, because doing so seems easily contradicted in Scripture.

But I have to say, as a virtually life-long Catholic, that I have never imagined I could earn my own salvation.  It has always been presented to me as an impossible task, akin to taking flight on my own power, or jumping up and landing on the Moon.  Something else would have to come to my aid to make these things possible.

At the same time, I have always understood that good works are vitally important.  It really matters, to God, that I feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  One could not simply go to church and think that was enough.  In fact, it seemed to me, that might be the worst place anyone could be.

Think of it – if works do matter, if they are critically important in some way to salvation, then the worst thing a person could do is assume he was saved, and not take any further action to produce good works.

So what is going on here?  If we’re going to work around the edge of Scripture, and just deal with this practically – how do we address the problem?  I propose we do so with a dialogue I have imagined from time to time…


Me:  I would like to convert to your church.

Protestant, let’s say Baptist:  Great!  Simply declare that Jesus is Lord, and believe it with all of your heart, and you will be saved.

Me:  Jesus Christ is Lord!  Done.

Baptist:  Alleluia!  Now, here is when we have worship, and here is your small group, and here are the ministries-

Me:  I’m sorry, what?  I said I was done.

Baptist:  Done?

Me:  Yes.  Am I not saved?

Baptist:  Oh, you are! But-

Me:  Then what is all of this?  Why should I bother with church or small groups or ministries?

Baptist:  Well, now comes the process of growing in the Lord, what we call “Sanctification.”

Me:  Ok, but if I die right now, I’m going to Heaven, right?

Baptist:  Absolutely!

Me:  And if I die in 30 years, without ever participating in a church, I’ll still go to Heaven, right?

Baptist:  Of course – once saved, always saved.

Me:  Then I’d say I’m done.


Naturally, this is a bit of a parody, and I’m actually sympathetic to the Baptist here.  I think he is fundamentally right – a believer should be involved in her church, especially a new believer.  But this conviction is motivated by a premise contrary to the Baptist’s:  A person is not once-saved, always saved.  We ought to see some authentication of this salvation…

To this point, I’ve been rather abstract, and the unfamiliar among us might feel lost; they may already have clicked away from the page.  (I’m sure they really will find true love/weight loss secrets/how to impress their boss on that other site.)  In the next post I propose my analogy, which is about as down-to-earth as I can imagine.


Salvation by Grace – 1

Believe it or not, I do not often listen to the Catholic radio station in Chicago.  My dial is more often tuned to Moody Bible Radio than Relevant Radio, though it is most often tuned to “OFF”.

Light treason notwithstanding, Moody offers a steady diet of reasons why Catholicism is wrong, served both hot and cold, sparingly or in spades, depending on the speaker.  I suppose this might annoy other Catholics, but I cannot get enough.  The reason is that it engages my mind all over again, setting it to work in the background, coming up with arguments and responses.

Or sometimes, I just enjoy a good laugh, as when one host confessed that he did not believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, while acknowledging that all of the early Church Fathers did so believe.  His solution?  They were all wrong!

One of the recurring issues is the matter of Justification.  For those unfamiliar, Justification is simply “that which saves us from our sins and brings us to life everlasting.”  (I didn’t leave out a citation – I’m quoting myself, circa 10 seconds ago).

Those familiar will understand the understatement:  This is kind of a big deal.  In fact, an atheist friend of mine asked a very interesting question about “non-denominational Christians,” and I treated him to a 15 minute lecture on Justification.  I apologized for my verbosity, though he pardoned and encouraged me.

The issue is usually shaken down to this:  Protestants believe in Justification by grace alone, through faith alone.  Catholics – if we are to believe Moody Bible Radio – believe in Justification by grace, by faith, but also works.

You remember I said this was a big deal?  I have shrunk a principal force of the Reformation down to one short paragraph.  At the cracking open of a Bible, one could find dozens of passages which seem to support either view, and we would be on our way to several centuries’ worth of debates.

I am not about to, nor do I even imagine that I am about to, settle that debate.  Recent efforts have been made toward consensus, and they are more sophisticated by an order of magnitude.  For me, only a humble illustration.

The principal problem facing our Moody Bible Radio speakers, as I see it, is that there is no urgent and incumbent responsibility on the believer to become a better person.  Now before any monks come nailing theses to my door, let me make the distinction clearer.

Plenty of Protestants are mature, fruitful believers.  I am not saying they can’t be.

Protestants will often point to the doctrine of Sanctification, or “the on-going process of becoming mature Christians, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.”  (Same source as before).  I’m not saying they don’t know how to be.

What I am saying is that, strictly, according to the distilled version of the argument, it is not necessary that a believer become a better person in order to be saved (justified).  Belief alone is sufficient, because it opens the door to grace alone, and that’s the ticket to Heaven.

This, I think, is simply an error.  I would say it is a scriptural error, but I do not intend to make that argument here; I would also say it is an error against our intuition, against the way life works, and that is the argument I wish to make.

But we’ll have to get a little verbose first.  Grab a beverage, and join me for Part 2.

False Pattern

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jesus Toast:

                                Taste and see.

This serving of crispy-chewy-cheesy goodness gets a mention in the “Cosmos” series starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the context of today’s subject:  Pattern recognition.  Namely, the human tendency to perceive false patterns.

I would have let it go, except that this silly mantra has been trotted out ad nauseum as a way of dismissing belief in God.  The thinking goes that much of belief is perceiving divine intervention where there is none.

Now, it won’t do any good to interject, because the cynic is about to pontificate:  Naturally, pattern recognition has been a great boon for humans.  This ability enables us to recognize friends and foes, to classify good foods and harmful foods, to distinguish a predator from the background noises of nature.

Just as naturally, our capacity for pattern recognition is bound to produce false positives:  You think there is someone in the room with you, but you come to find you are alone.  You get a string of green lights on the way to work, and you imagine some intelligent agent has cleared the way for you.  You notice a large – what is that, a bear? – in the forest, but upon closer inspection, it is a hallowed out tree.

It is the same way, the cynic wants to say, with religion:  We are universally prone to this flaw in our thinking, and so a great many of us have been led to believe there is some kind of divine agency where there is none.  It is like seeing a ghost, which is to say, there’s no such thing.

The cynic intends for the conversation to be over at this point.  You ought now to be humble enough to admit that your brain is faulty, and so these beliefs of yours cannot possibly be true.  And yet, we resist the cynic’s conclusion.

A bit of pedantry first:  The claim is often that we perceive a pattern where there is none.  But this is a perfect error.  We perceive a pattern because there is one, not because there isn’t one.

That is, when you think you’re seeing a bear in the forest, that’s because the proportions and features are such that they really do resemble a bear.  They exhibit the same pattern a bear might, up until you reach a certain level of clarity.  Once you realize that it was a log, and not a bear, you don’t deny that you actually recognized a pattern; you deny that it was actually a bear.

The stronger version of the cynic’s claim, then, is that we perceive false patterns when we imagine that “God” or any other divinity has intervened in our lives.  No such thing has happened.

This conclusion does seem odd, doesn’t it?  After all – like a great deal of the cynic’s claims – it simply assumes atheism is true.  If atheism is true, then it follows that there is no divine intervention.

Otherwise – if we don’t all assume atheism is true – it is quite an intrusion into a person’s interior life.  And if the claim is to be taken seriously, it is quite an intrusion into the interior life of every single religious person in the world.  The cynic would do well to have some Jesus Toast and mind his manners.

And what about Jesus Toast?  Well, one can see how the image kinda looks like Jesus.  So what?

(Cynic, take note…)

What does it matter to you, or to me, or to Neil deGrasse Tyson if a person finds some significance in that pattern?  Or if they think God sent them five green lights in a row?  Are you sure He didn’t?  (Please, enlighten us!)

These things are not the substance of Christianity (or any religion that I’m aware of), so if the plausibility of religion or the question of God’s existence are at issue, we will certainly dispense with Jesus Toast.  But then the cynic should also dispense with fried bread in general when he wants to make his case for atheism.

At the Sunday School BBQ, on the other hand, the best Jesus Toast gets a blue ribbon.

Secularism and Right of Conscience – 3

In a previous post I commented on secularism as a worthwhile agreement in a pluralistic society, a guiding principle by which we can assure liberty and justice for all…or something like that.

To wit:  Secularism, I claimed, is the agreement not to impose any particular worldview on a nation.  Rather, we should work toward the common understanding of the common good, and protect the freedom to authentically express and exercise a sincerely held worldview.

We saw in the last post how one cannot even begin to develop a basic health care package (BHCP) without immediately imposing upon certain worldviews.  This, of course, does not rule out that there might be some BHCP which would serve us well, perhaps well enough to garner the support of most everyone.

But it shows, first of all, that the way is difficult.  Witness:  Twenty questions asked in the course of the post which are variously controversial and perhaps unanswerable in a perfectly disinterested way.

If our aim is to honor the agreement of secularism, then the situation only becomes more challenging for the BHCP.

That is, notice that the very notion of a BHCP, which would be the right of all citizens, requires the justification of some worldview in order to succeed.  In other words, the exercise of developing a BHCP just assumes this is a good thing.  But is it?

If you think it is, then you must tell us why it is a good thing.  For example:


BHCP Advocate:  It is good because people have a right to affordable health care.

Questioner:  Why think that?

BHCP Advocate:  Well, we know good health is a major contributor to happiness, since it is a critical component in one’s quality of life.

Questioner:  Why is that a good thing?

BHCP Advocate:  Happiness?  Because it just is!

Questioner:  Is that so?*


What seems fundamentally true to you – e.g. happiness just is a good thing – may not seem fundamentally true to others.

Thus, in order to fully honor secularism, it would seem that protecting the right of conscience is the way to go.  This avoids any grievous imposition on some for the purported benefit of others, and it still gets you some form of BHCP for all.

Notice a further point, though:  If you opposed the HL decision on the grounds that no one should impose their beliefs on other people, you must come to grips with the reality that, by supporting the ACA (for example), you are already imposing.  Yours – whoever you are – is not the default worldview in a secular society.  Either you must give up the notion of secularism (in which case, it is fair game to impose on you, after all), or you must protect the principle of secularism against attacks and encroachments, both explicit and implicit, even when you disagree with the particulars.

This leads to a kind of stalemate between the principle of secularism, on the one hand, and what rights are granted to citizens on the other.  Of course, many have noticed this conflict; we are only exploring some of the background principles and assumptions.**

Now, if all of this is intolerable, and you are sure that a BHCP is fundamental right, and you don’t care what the nihilists think (or don’t think) – that’s fine.  And you might be right.  But you must, at the very least, admit that you would want to install a “your-worldview-ocracy.”  You can’t hide behind the charge that people shouldn’t impose on other people when that’s precisely what you’re doing.  There’s a word for that.

Virtually any decision about a particular in the real world means that some worldview is being preferred to another.  Secularism is the attempt to manage that dynamic so that no particular worldview is unduly imposing; conversely, various forms of “-ocracy” represent the attempt of one worldview to rule the others.


Post script –  This concludes this series on the principle of Secularism as it relates to the HL decision (unless I am provoked!).  I plan to continue with a series on a “most just” society, which, like this series, will very much be the thoughts of an untutored amateur, but has been fun for me nonetheless.


*A nod to the Buddhists.

**I might suggest that not many have noticed the role that Secularism plays, at least in the form I’ve described.

Secularism and Right of Conscience – 2

We have in this post to begin crafting a basic health care package (hereafter BHCP).  If we want to do away with the categorical right of conscience, this seems to be our only option.  Let us at least make the attempt.

The context of this BHCP is an ideal secular society, one which allows its citizens to live authentically according to their respective worldviews, at least as much as possible.  But if we are dispensing with the right of conscience, we must have our eyes open:  Someone’s worldview is going to be discarded as wrong, harmful, or invalid.

Take the nihilists, for example. These are people who believe in nothing, who maintain that everything is ultimately and completely meaningless and void.*

Say what you want, this is a worldview which exists, and would be part of our secular society.  Now, what if a nihilist employer (why did he bother starting a business?) wants to say that health insurance is pointless, because life is short and we’re all going to die, anyway?

Well, according to the ACA, he has a tax/penalty to pay.  But we’re dealing with a blank slate, and asking what the government ought to do, not what it has done.

According to our previous answer, it would be his right not to provide any health insurance.  But we’re starting from the assumption that there is some basic package of health care.

And so, we must start by imposing upon the nihilist.  He must provide a BHCP, or pay a price.

So much for the nihilists; their complaints amount to nothing anyway.  What’s next?

I have to say, I appreciate that my allergy medicines have been covered by our family’s BHCP’s, and I think that is a reasonable thing:  Any condition which can be treated by medication of some kind ought to be available through BHCP’s.

But here we are imposing upon the Christian Scientists.  Or, at least a simplistic caricature of them.  Nevertheless, assume they were categorically opposed to medicines.

Now we must require both nihilist and Christian Scientist employers to act against their worldviews in order that our BHCP may be universally available.

(Isn’t, like, Tom Cruise a Christian Scientist?  I know Jeffrey Tambor is, and as funny as that guy is, he holds to a crazy worldview, no?)

Questions for reflection:  How many groups of people would have to be imposed upon before we thought the BHCP went too far?  What about as a percentage of the total population?

Let’s get beyond the mundane – a family is in an accident.  The parents die, and the child is in critical condition.  The child survives a life-saving operation, but is in need of blood.  A common, safe way to replenish the blood supply is by transfusion.  Sure, this should probably be included in the BHCP.

Not so fast, though:  The father worked for a Jehovah’s witness.  Shall we impose on this employer, too?  Bear in mind, the transfusion will be done either way.  We are only asking if the employer should be forced to pay for it (at least in part).

Questions for reflection:  Should expensive treatments and products be preferred for inclusion in the BHCP?  If we’re talking about a car, for example, the insurance policy does not cover oil changes, but it does cover major accidents.  If so, what amount qualifies as expensive?

Now, what about preventative treatments?  Nothing is actually wrong yet, but they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This raises the question of birth control, which was linked to the Hobby Lobby case.**

It became clear from that case that several stripes of Christians are morally opposed to the HHS mandate.  The mandate, of course, was only enacted because these forms of birth control were presumed to be part of the BHCP.  In our ideal society, should they be?

Questions for reflection:  Is pregnancy a disease?  If not, how should we classify it?  If not as a disease, should it be part of a BHCP to prevent it?  If you opposed the HL decision, were you aware of the full argument against birth control/abortifacients?  If so, did you formulate a complete and successful rebuttal?  Who decides which argument prevails?

And what about some unorthodox methods of treatment?  I’ll suggest two.

A woman believes strongly in the power of prayer, and she believes particularly in the power of a certain mystic’s prayer.  He lives in Nepal.

Now, for the mystic’s prayers to work, he must be physically present, and perform a series of rituals which require great concentration, unrivaled devotion, and the most exotic of resources.

He requires that his hermitage be transported with him; a modest abode, though cumbersome to move.  He requires a chemical found only in expensive bottles of port, preferably recovered from a shipwreck.  He also requires the fifth leg of 1,003 Brazilian beetles, and a hand-drawn, perfect circle on the floor, within which he will pray.

Say what you want, this mystic has a success rate significantly higher than random results would offer, and all other available treatments are experimental.  Now – shall we impose on the materialist^ employer, include this treatment in the BHCP, and insist on the employer’s financial contribution?

Questions for discussion:  If you would not include this in the BHCP, why not?  What criterion does it violate?  Why is that a criterion for our BHCP?  Is that an inviolable criterion, or are there other possible instances the BHCP could cover, which might violate your criterion?  What about untested forms of psychoanalysis, or new age therapies?

Second - Consider a white supremacist who suffered a debilitating stroke.  He has been in therapy for many months, with very little progress.

The doctor believes the symptoms are, to some extent, psychosomatic.  She wants to find a way to snap him out of his feelings of helplessness and frustration.  Now, she is the unfeeling kind, a person who considers all options regardless of stigma.

Her solution is to commission a short film made at the local college.  It will, in essence, feature three white men harassing a black woman, leading to a sexual assault of the woman.  The doctor is able to get the film made on the pretense that she is conducting a psychology experiment.  The school agrees, if she will pay a fee of $1,000.

Keep in mind, the issue is not whether you think anything like this would ever occur (but don’t be naive).  You must assume it is about to occur, and you are this man’s employer.  Do you want to be on the hook for this treatment?  Would you want to contribute even one dime?

Questions for discussion:  What if the treatment works?  What if the doctor and the patient are both completely satisfied with the treatment?  What if, in fact, it leads to the use of other widely stigmatized practices in the treatment of psychosomatic conditions?  Does anything go?  Should we still impose on people who believe racism is wrong, sex crimes are wrong, and all manner of such things are wrong, and expect them to contribute financially to these treatments?

This is a serious problem with developing a BHCP – what one considers basic or necessary, another may consider offensive and detrimental.  That we have largely made do with existing health care insurance is an interesting point and worthy of discussion.  But we have moved beyond that point with the recent controversy, and we have one more point to make in the next post.


*It would be difficult to grasp the depths of skepticism and despair present in nihilism.  Impossible, even.  This is why you can depend on the fact that any nihilist you meet is also a hypocrite (not unlike Christians, but we are supposed to admit that upfront).

**A common objection to the HL case is that the morning after pill does not actually cause an abortion, because it merely prevents implantation.  This is supposed to be distinguished from an abortifacient.

For the purposes of our discussion, it is only necessary to say that someone objected to it, in full knowledge of the facts, even if there remains some confusion about what the drug’s effects are.

^A materialist, of course, is a person who believes all of reality reduces to the physical.  There is no spiritual/supernatural realm, mathematical objects are all useful fictions, logic is a happy accident, and our consciousness…well, let’s not talk about that.

Secularism and Right of Conscience – 1

An earlier post generated a good deal of discussion on Facebook; that I was indisposed to join the discussion was a shame, but unavoidable.  Nevertheless, I’d like to continue the line of thought from that earlier post, with some reference to the FB conversation.

The driving point of that post was the following question, which was quoted by a commenter:

Let’s ask the question: Is it right to impose on an employer (or anyone), and require her to provide for a product or treatment to which she is morally opposed?

Is it really in line with the idea of secularism that we should require people to act in opposition to their worldviews, so that other people will receive what is considered “good” within their worldview?

The commenter answered with a “categorical yes.”  This, of course, is equivalent to saying “absolutely, always and everywhere, yes,” which would lead to some troubling implications.

Take for instance the example posed by another commenter, who worried that the Hobby Lobby decision would open the door to forced compliance in “animal sacrifice.”  Now, forget for a moment that this concern seems to have the actual issue upside-down and backward, and consider how it neatly answers our first commenter:  Is it right, then, that we should require people to be complicit in animal sacrifice, even if they are morally opposed?

Our first commenter says yes, categorically; our second commenter says no, implicitly.  Having thus answered the first, let us address the second.

Our second commenter has the issue upside-down because the employer, in this case, is not imposing upon the employee, but rather is being imposed upon from above.  If we are to take the his concern seriously, this is how it would look:  The employer is not demanding employee compliance in animal sacrifice.  Rather, the government is demanding the employer provide for animal sacrifice, because of the belief that it is good and basic to the employee’s welfare.

That some people persist in this confusion is odd and would be amusing if it weren’t so troubling.  In the animal sacrifice example, Hobby Lobby is simply demurring, asking not to be required to participate in animal sacrifice due to religious objection.  That some employees might like this because it makes it easier to sacrifice animals, and that our government wishes to mandate the coverage exactly for that reason, does not make it less objectionable.  Surely our second commenter could throw his weight behind this; in fact, he already has.

Now, if we were to take these objections and strengthen them, what would happen?

In the first instance, our commenter might have used another “c” word, and said, “Is it right to impose on one worldview in favor of another?  Conditionally, yes.”

And our second commenter could have added, “For example, what if an employer was opposed to using animal organs in transplants?  Could he refuse a life-saving operation for one of his employee’s children?”  Modest claims are often stronger, since they are easier to support.

There are two answers ready to mind, and I don’t suppose that either is categorically wrong or right, but that they are both defensible in a secular society.

First, one might say that the right of conscience is to be protected, categorically.  That is, no matter what a person’s belief system is, government should not impose upon them to violate it.

Let’s use a stock objection to demonstrate:  One wants to know if an employer who is a Jehovah’s witness may refuse to provide coverage for blood transfusions, since he is morally opposed based on his religious beliefs.  The answer here would be yes, he may.

Another, more imaginative scenario:  Say an employer held the religious belief that all life is divine, and fit for use only after a ritual un-deification.  In principle, then, we could continue to source our medicines from plants and molds and such, though only with the widespread adoption of these ritual practices.  But the religion has not caught on, and so there are precious few un-deified resources available.  To be safe, the employer wants to refuse to cover any kind of medicine, to avoid this grievous sin.

According to our first answer, we would have to say yes, that this employer also has the right to refuse coverage, if we are to fully protect the right to conscience.

Questions for conversation:  What are the pros and cons of this position?  What values underlie your assessment of this position?  Are you implicitly putting more emphasis on liberty (right to conscience) or on positive rights (these things must be provided because I think they are good and basic)?  And what are the consequences of that emphasis?  Are your answers conducive to the authentic expression of any given worldview?

The second answer would be more challenging to implement, yet seems to garner greater favor with the Zeitgeist:  There is, at bottom, a program of health care which is truly basic, and ought to be universally provided.  In this case, the right of conscience is restrained, and it is the extent of that restraint which is up for debate.  We’ll consider this next time.


One of the most debated topics of philosophy and perhaps one of the biggest barriers to faith is the problem of evil. Put simply, man has a hard time reconciling a kind, loving, and just God with the pain, suffering, and evil surrounding him.

Today’s Gospel cuts straight to the heart of this matter. Here we have good seed and weeds sown together in one field. Both are watered by the spring rain. Both soak up the summer sun. Both enjoy the cultivating done by the farmer. And both take nutrients from the same soil. But weeds and good seed don’t coexist peacefully. Weeds take the water and nutrients away from the good seed. Their overgrowth can blot out the sun, depriving the good seed of the nutrients it provides. So it was natural that the farmer’s servants asked if they could pull up the weeds before they had a chance to compete with the good crop. Yet the farmer instructs the servants to wait until the harvest when the good crop and the weeds will be harvested together, with the weeds being bundled and burned.

There are two topics lately that have fallen out of favor to be preached on from the pulpit – hell and the devil. Yet these are unavoidable topics in this parable. As with all of Jesus’ parables the actors are always bigger than those he presents in His story. Jesus makes clear that the devil, the enemy of God the farmer, is the one who sows the seeds that grow into weeds. The seed is such an interesting choice of imagery as well. We know from Jesus’ other teachings that both good and evil spring forth from the heart of men – and what a better way to describe the heart of man than the seed – the very essence of life from which all else grows. When evil is in the heart of man the fruit is thorny, disruptive, harmful to the good crop, and ultimately utterly useless. Evil, left to grow, grows wildly like a weed looking to feed on and overgrow everything in its path. When the life of an evil man comes to its end – the harvest – Jesus makes it crystal clear that what awaits him is fire – the symbol of hell. And unlike a weed, which would simply burn up in the fire, the fire of hell is eternal.

At this point you might be asking, how is this fair? A seed is to grow into what is made of. A grain of wheat becomes wheat, a seed of a weed because a weed. How is the weed destined to be anything but a weed, and therefore destined for the fire?

Yet Jesus’ words once again ring true – what is impossible for man is possible for God! Only God has the power to change the heart of a man. Only God has the power to transform a weed into wheat Jesus’ life shows us time and time again that he has the power to change man’s circumstances and even their very heart. Today we will be reminded of God’s power to transform when we come to the Eucharistic table and we partake of bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. God can do this. God has done this. And God will continue to do this.

And so, God being the creator of all things, brings the rain and the sun to both the good seed and the weeds. God, through His Holy Spirit, cultivates the soil and makes it ready for harvest. And this great Farmer is patient because He knows this is more than just wheat and weeds. This field is filled with the souls of his greatest creation. And so His patience with these weeds is not at the expense of the good crop, but as 2 Peter tells us ”he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

Let us also then be reminded that the harvest is great, but the workers are few. We live, work, and play in a field filled with good crop and weeds. Tomorrow, after we get our food for the journey today, we need to run among these fields not sidestepping the painful thorns of the weeds, but watering them with the Grace that flows from this table of plenty. Because, unlike the harvest whose time is clearly marked, the end of our days can come at any time. We need to recognize this so that we not only continue to mature into the good crop, but to realize that the weeds around us may be pulled at any time where the fire awaits them.