Just days after the presidential election, the press reported a change the Texas Board of Education made in a high school text. When speaking of marriage, the textbook would now speak of marriage not as a union of partners but as a union of man and woman. Not a startling definition in light of the common tradition of humanity stretching far back beyond the pages of Genesis. Yet what is disconcerting is the remark reported of a board member who refused to endorse the change. She labeled the change “political agenda.” She argued that the whim of some individuals should not dictate our actions. Without realizing the depth of her observation, she enunciated a profound truth while, at the same time, lobbying to perpetuate the very ideology she was condemning. She was right. The whim of any individual or groups of individuals can never be the measure of a society’s morality. There are standards and values that transcend individual preferences. She was wrong because she was actually arguing to replace a solid centuries-tested understanding of marriage with the preference of some activists.
Our recent election has become the lightning rod for discussions of serious issues. The media has been flooding us with information and debates on the place moral issues are now playing in American politics. Major Election Day exit polls ranked moral values as an issue voters took seriously. Some have taken the same exit polls and are arguing that the polls themselves were flawed in the way they presented the issues. The discussion is touching a neuralgic point in our conversation with each other.
At the same time that our newspapers were reporting the Texas textbook incident, Rome newspapers were reporting the signing of the first constitution of the European Union. Notwithstanding the Pope’s repeated pleading, the new document deliberately left out any reference to the Christian values that have shaped Europe’s history from the beginning. An Italian politician quipped, “America has shown itself more religious and more attentive to values than Europe.” Clearly the issue of moral and religious values mantles both sides of the Atlantic. How we resolve the issue will determine our common destiny.
The issue we face is complex. One commentator asked the question of whose philosophical understanding of right and wrong has the right to shape our future. Can two people holding two contrary views be right? Who determines whether abortion, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning are right or wrong? Is it just by vote? Who determines whether marriage is between a man and a woman? A popular poll?
Underlying all the articles, speeches, analysis and polls, there is a far deeper issue that has plagued our country for the last 40 years. In a recent Supreme Court decision (Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey), one of the judges said, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe and the mystery of human life.” Such autonomy is the seed of destruction for a moral society. It flows from the idea that there is no objective moral order. Every one is autonomous. Each individual is free to create his or her own moral values. This theory first discussed in the arcane halls of academe in the 60’s has quietly slipped into people’s thinking. And now it waves its scepter in politics and everyday life. Yet, if every individual is autonomous in defining his or her meaning, then eventually moral values evaporate into personal preferences and each individual becomes a magisterium unto himself. Once there is a loss of a source for values beyond the individual, then every individual must have the right to choose as he or she sees fit. Is this not the error we face behind the arguments that disguise the horrendous sin of abortion with the whitewashed slogan of “the right to choose?”
One of the greatest gifts the Creator has given to every person is freedom. Sirach, an experienced and well-learned scholar living in 2nd century Jerusalem before Christ, advised his students, “The Lord himself made man in the beginning and then left him free to make his decisions” (Sirach 15: 14). From the Age of the Enlightenment, some have called free the individual who is totally self-sufficient and whose finality is his own satisfaction with the goods of this world. But this is not freedom. It is license. Unbridled satisfaction of one’s desires actually enslaves an individual and prevents him from achieving his true end that lies far beyond the pleasures of this world. Each day creation falls fresh from the hands of the Creator. From the tiniest grain of sand beneath our feet to the sun blazing our path along the way, there is an overarching order. There is a providence that guides and governs the created universe. By wresting from the universe her secrets, we come to share in God’s providence for His world. When we recognize and respect the law of gravity, we are free to construct buildings that stand and do not crumble. When we uncover and respect nature’s laws, we are free to plant and turn deserts into gardens. From the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, there is a truth about the human person that comes from God. Each person is someone created by God, endowed with inalienable rights and an eternal destiny. When we reverence that truth, we are free to eradicate slavery, racism and war and to live in peace.
There is a
in today’s world to endow every individual with the right to determine what is good and what is evil for himself. There is a tendency in today’s culture to separate freedom from law. But authentic freedom is ordered to law. True moral values and truth transcend the individual. We are made to find our fulfillment in God who is all good. And it is only in relation to His goodness that manifests itself in the wise order of creation and in the truth of the human person that our values are moral and our choices truly free. As John Paul II has stated, “Man's
genuine moral autonomy
in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law…” (
, 41). Thomas Aquinas put it this way, “In the case of products of human manufacture, each product is considered right and good when it conforms to a standard. So also each human act is considered right and virtuous when it conforms to the standard of divine love.” In a word, when a human act conforms to God who is love and to His wise ordering of all creation, it is morally good. There is indeed a standard for truth and moral activity. And it is this standard alone that offers us the hope of living in peace with each other.