In his last and largest work, The City of God, St. Augustine defended the faith against the charge that Christians couldn’t be good citizens. The Goths had just sacked Rome, and civic leaders blamed Christians whose pacifism had undermined the state’s moral authority.
What a shock the collapse must have been to the people of that time! It would be like ISIS taking over the United States. Surprisingly, the Goths spared those who took refuge in Catholic churches and many pagans were saved. Augustine argued that the Goths’ respect for Christianity had in fact lessened their savage ferocity, but he also faulted those who took Jesus’ words literally, saying that His teaching about turning the other cheek was meant to emphasize the importance of spiritual goods over the temporal.
Christians recognize the duty to protect the innocent. There is a limit to our willingness to submit to tyrannical rule. Augustine therefore argued that Christians cannot only be good citizens, but in view of their exalted love of God and neighbor, they form the very best type of citizen. Our duties under the just laws of the state never conflict with our higher duties as Christians. The Bishop of Hippo was a man of faith, but also a man of reason. He interpreted the faith realistically. Not surprisingly, he was instrumental in formulating the just war theory.
Catholics have long stressed the importance of reason in the practice of their faith. The First Vatican Council affirmed in 1806 that God’s existence is evident to reason. Faith is not needed to grasp this fundamental truth. We may not be able personally to understand these complex proofs and so may turn to faith instead for this knowledge. But scripture makes it clear that “the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom 1:20).
This honor for reason sets Catholicism apart from our Protestant brethren, who are our comrades in arms in the many cultural struggles we face in America today. There are surprising new alliances between Catholics and Protestants, but we must remember that a key theme of the Reformation was the claim that human reason is “totally depraved.” Our most essential power, according to the Reformers, had been completely corrupted by the fall of Adam and Eve. Reason was therefore useless in any pursuit of theological or moral knowledge.
For Catholics, faith does not replace reason, but is added to reason. The first principle of the natural law is that we should pursue the good and avoid what is evil. We don’t need to read the Bible to understand this commonsense principle of morality. We know it through reflection on nature and through our own direct experience of particular goods and evils.
The reason why Catholics have such a long tradition in medical ethics — and now bioethics — is because we recognize that the moral life follows a universal standard, written into nature and known to reason, that applies equally to all human beings. To this we add the supernatural doctrines of our faith. Our hospitals make no demand that patients affirm any doctrine, but insist instead that we be free to follow that objective moral code that is known through reasoned reflection on nature.
The secular world wants us to believe that our opposition to abortion and euthanasia derives from our commitment to the faith, but in fact these prohibitions follow from the rational certitude that our fellow human beings are equal in dignity before the Creator God. Again, this is known to reason. The Affordable Care Act demands that Catholics pay for health insurance that covers contraception and sterilization. Catholics refuse to do this, not because it contradicts our faith, but because it’s obvious that healthy reproductive organs should not have their natural purposes destroyed by surgical or chemical means. In addition, we know that pregnancy is not a disease. Our code of ethics is known through reflection on the natural constitution of the human body and its place within nature.
What are being attacked today are not the teachings of the Catholic Church as such, but the possibility that reason can acquire an objective moral understanding. The more the intellectual class and the ruling elite turn against the power of reason and its ability to know the truth, the more the Catholic Church will become responsible for preserving the great theological and moral heritage of previous civilization. If we are indeed headed for a new Dark Ages, then the institutions of the Church will once again become the key protectors of reason and progress in the West.
EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.