We humans, as the old philosophers told us, are rational animals. And if rational, then logical. And if logical, then it follows that if we accept a certain premise or set of premises, we are logically bound to accept all the conclusions that follow.
We are not, however, purely rational and logical. If we were, we’d be like the angels as described by St. Thomas Aquinas: bodiless intellects. But we are less than angels. We are animals, and as such we have animal needs and desires – for food, clothing, and shelter along with that great quasi-animal need, the need for money or its equivalent.
Further, we have emotions or passions, most of these probably being a consequence of our animality. Again, we have powerful instincts pulling us in the direction of narrow egoism. In addition, because we are comfortable with our settled beliefs and prejudices, we are reluctant to give them up in exchange for what may be (though we cannot be sure) new and better beliefs.
Some of us bear a resemblance to the angels of St. Thomas; but very, very few, a minute fraction of the human race. These few become either great mathematicians (e.g., Isaac Newton), or makers of scientific revolutions (Newton or Einstein), or grandmasters at chess, or (less happily) paranoid schizophrenics who draw logical conclusions from absurd premises.
It often happens, then, that we are slow, indeed very slow, to draw logical conclusions from our newly discovered premises. It is not easy for us to make significant alterations in our picture of the world.
To give a famous example: Americans once accepted the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” It followed logically that slavery would have to be done away with. If Americans in 1776 had been sufficiently logical (or angelic), they would immediately have become abolitionists. But they didn’t. Instead they said things like the following:
- “Emancipation would be unfair to slaves, who are our wards.”
- “Emancipation would give rise to evils worse than slavery.”
- “Free whites and free blacks will never be able to live side by side in peace.”
- “No need to rush emancipation; slavery will fade away in the South just as it is fading away in the North.”
- “The growth of the American economy depends on slavery.”
- “The best people in the South depend on slavery, and the civilization of the South depends on these aristocrats.”
- “People of African descent are by nature incapable of freedom; they benefit from being enslaved.”
- “Mr. Jefferson and the Declaration were mistaken: all men are not created equal.”
But logic is mighty and will prevail – at least in the long run, often the very long run indeed. If the Declaration of 1776 had led logically to Emancipation by 1783, the year the Revolutionary War ended, decades of slavery could have been avoided; and so could the awful Civil War in which an immense number of Americans died.
Another great example of this reluctance to accept the conclusions that follow from certain pregnant premises is a Catholic example. When a very large segment of the U.S. Catholic population embraced the sexual revolution that commenced in the 1960s, they were embracing by implication the long-run destruction of Catholicism in America. For the idea that chastity is a tremendously important virtue, and that unchastity is a tremendously important vice, has always been an important teaching of the Catholic religion.
If semi-secularized Catholics say that chastity is no more than a petty virtue or that unchastity is no more than a peccadillo, they are saying in effect that the Church has been wrong about these things for the past twenty centuries or so. And if the Church has been wrong about this, how many other things has it been wrong about? Poof! There goes the Church’s claim to be the infallible custodian of Apostolic truth, the truth Jesus left to his Church.
I realize that many sincere Catholics disagree with me about this. But Church history refutes them. Only a person who has failed to make a more or less serious study of Catholic history will minimize the importance of chastity/unchastity in Catholicism.
This tendency to minimize the significance of sexual virtue/vice comes mostly, I suspect, from “spirit-of-Vatican-II” Catholics, who tend to feel that the Council marked the end of the “old” religion and the beginning of a “new and improved” Catholicism – rather like how Christianity marked the end of the “old” Jewish religion and its replacement with a “new and improved” Jewish religion.
Many of our present-day bishops trained for the priesthood when the “spirit of Vatican II” was in the saddle and galloping through Catholic seminaries. This may explain why so many of them have been complacent at the triumph of the sexual revolution in America. And it may explain why so few bishops seem to be greatly disturbed by the presence in Washington of Catholic (or should I say “Catholic”?) politicians who are great supporters of every aspect of the sexual revolution – politicians like President Biden and Nancy Pelosi.
In particular, it may explain why four men elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis – Cupich of Chicago, Tobin of Newark, Gregory of Washington DC, and McElroy of San Diego – are not exactly famous for their ferocity in fighting against abortion or same-sex marriage or any other element of the sexual revolution.
But logic does its work, slowly but surely. Once abandon the idea that chastity is a great Catholic virtue, and sooner or later you (or your children or grandchildren) will abandon the remainder of your Catholicism. Absent a vast revival or countercurrents led by Hispanic immigrants and others, Catholicism in America could become little more than a sect, a mere shadow of what it was in its golden age. As Joseph Ratzinger predicted, however, the few Catholics who remain will be purer, thoroughly orthodox. That’s some consolation, but also reason to work hard now so that a very different logic will take hold and ultimately prevail.
*Image: Saint Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli, 1476 [The National Gallery, London]. This image is one panel in the Demidoff Altarpiece.
You may also enjoy:
- +James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) On the Logic of Morals
- Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) St. Thomas Aquinas on natural law