Friday, January 28, 2011

Good and Evil

I have been reading some St Thomas Aquinas lately. It is his feast day today so I thought I might reflect on some of it. One thing was the idea that good exists and evil does not. Evil is just the absence of good or the corruption of good. It got me thinking. Do we talk too much about evil and not enough about good? In theory understanding good should come first if it exists. Only then can we properly understand what absence of good or corruption of good might be. I think of sexual morality. We seem to have it backwards. People talk about doing evil. That is committing gravely immoral sex acts. Often good is understood as the absence of such evil. When framing the discussion in that way good does not seem very appealing. St Thomas would have us focus on the good of sex. Concepts like purity and virginity and faithfulness. That is hard to do. Often even those terms are thought of in a negative way. Faithfulness means you have not committed adultery. Virginity means you have never had sex. But that focuses on how you didn't corrupt the good. Do we know how to talk about the good itself? Taylor Marshall asks this question about virginity.

I find it relates to revelation. The idea that whether something is morally permissible should be determined by whether it is explicitly condemned in scripture. That immediately brings the focus to the "thou shalt not" aspect of Christianity. That is one reason I appreciate John Paul's Theology of the Body. He attempts to paint a picture of the greatness of sex, fruitfulness, married and celibate vocations, etc. He sees the marital act as an icon of the inner life of the trinity. But protestants don't want revelation by icons. They want chapter and verse. So they are not going to make those arguments even if they can be found in scripture in places like Song of Songs or even the book of Revelation.

Catholic thinkers have been trying to digest Humanae Vitae. It has flummoxed most Catholics. They don't want to defend it. They don't want to attack it. So they try and avoid the subject as much as they can. Russell Shaw writes about that here. It is, of course, right. But so many can't imagine themselves publicly defending that. Some feel the church just got this one wrong. But you can't declare God' revelation to be in error without profoundly changing your relationship with Him. Then there are those who imagine a huge backlash if they teach it. I say imagine because when it is explained well the reaction is not bad. But it takes courage and quite frankly most Catholic leaders lack courage.

What is more, for many of these questions we not only have to present the good from a personal point of view but also from society's point of view. It is not enough to show the great good that makes you say No to personal sexual temptations. We need to show how the good of the nation is served by protecting the dignity of human sexuality, the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, etc. But again these words cannot be simply short forms for opposing pornography, abortion, and gay marriage. We need to paint real positive pictures of what good is being lost. The slogans have caught this. They have done the market research and found Christian positions were seen as purely negative. So their slogans are positive and that is good. But there needs to be a positive moral and spiritual good that is behind that slogan. Something we can argue for from a very broad religious base.

It is all there in Catholic tradition. To whom much is given much will be expected. We have been given so much and we will need to answer for what we did with it.

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