But as Canada’s judges show all too well,
without God we cannot always read it

By Rory Leishman
The Interim

By decreeing that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “has established the essentially secular nature of Canadian society,” has the Supreme Court of Canada fatally undermined any legal case for reinstating the bans on abortion, euthanasia and suicide in the Criminal Code? Some proponents of divine law think so. They hold that any attempt to arrive at moral truth without invoking the authority of divine revelation is bound to end in the kind of moral anarchy that now predominates within our overwhelmingly secular universities and law schools.

Nat Hentoff is not so pessimistic. In an article in the 30 November 1992 edition of The New Republic, he noted:

I often get letters from religious pro-lifers telling me that it is impossible for me to be simultaneously an atheist and a pro-lifer. Some of the pro-abortion-rights leaders whom I have debated are certain of the same correlation. No serious atheist, no Jewish atheist, no left-wing atheist could want to – as my fiercely pro-choice wife puts it – enslave women.

Yet being without theology isn’t the slightest hindrance to being pro-life. As any obstetrics manual – Williams Obstetrics, for example – points out, there are two patients involved, and the one not yet born ‘should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long have given the pregnant woman.’

Here we have an example of what the Apostle Paul evidently had in mind when he wrote about how “Gentiles who have not the law … show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15). However, it seems that among atheists, Hentoff has a rare heart. He laments that his entirely rational arguments in defence of the sanctity of human life, “are met with undiluted hostility from otherwise clear-thinking liberals.”

Truly, it has been said that, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Knowing how easily reason is corrupted by passion, Paul urged: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Likewise, Thomas Aquinas maintained in his treatise on law in the Summa Theologica that philosophy must be the handmaiden of theology. To arrive at moral truth, we need both reason and faith. And contrary to a widespread modern prejudice, faith and reason are not contradictory. As J. Budziszewski explains in Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, “Both faith and reason come from God, and God does not contradict himself. Besides, we know that human reason is finite; though it can find its way to some truths without aid, to grasp others it needs assistance. What could be more reasonable than that the infinite God would provide such assistance through his revealed Word?”

David Novak, the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, makes the same point in Natural Law in Judaism. While maintaining that natural law emanates from the attempt to discover the “reasons of the commandments,” he insists that, “one is always to perform a commandment because of its source inasmuch as that source is always understood to be God. And one is to do that even when one is unclear or uncertain about whether the commandment has any intrinsic end at all, or if it does, exactly what that end actually is.”

Until recently, the universal validity of divine law was also acknowledged by most leading constitutional authorities of Britain, Canada, and the United States. In his classicCommentaries on the Laws of England, Sir William Blackstone observed that reason alone could only be a sound guide to law and morality, if it were always “clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, and unimpaired by disease or intemperance.” As it is, he stated,

every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error. This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine providence; which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend in all their consequences to man’s felicity.

Of course, most of our fellow citizens today reject this argument. Like most of our judges, lawyers, law professors and politicians – not to mention our liberal theologians – they no longer have any regard for the moral authority of the divine law. Even a committed Christian like Robert George, a professor of politics at Princeton University, has conceded that appeals to religious authority no longer have any place in political debates. In his book, In Defence of Natural Law, he argues that, “A sound principle of public reason for a deliberative democracy would indeed require citizens and policymakers to justify their political advocacy and action by appeal to principles of justice and other moral principles accessible to their fellow citizens by virtue of their ‘common human reason.'” Unlike Blackstone, George thinks it is possible on the basis of reason alone to demonstrate the truth of Judeo-Christian morality. Is that right? Without invoking divine authority, can we know that it is proper for sterile married couples to enjoy sexual intercourse, but wrong for homosexual couples to engage in sodomy? Given that some homosexual couples – albeit a tiny minority – have lived together for decades in an apparently faithful and sexually exclusive relationship akin to marriage, can we conclusively demonstrate on the basis of reason alone that the state should not encourage sodomy by granting homosexual couples the same benefits and obligations in law as married couples?

While George has essayed to answer such tough questions, he has not persuaded some of his Christian and Jewish, still less agnostic, critics. Writing in the November 1999 issue of First Things, Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, insists that metaphysics matters. He maintains that if the modern theorists of natural law like George mean to win over liberal skeptics, “they are going to have to persuade people to believe the assumptions about ultimate reality on which their enterprise rests.”

Aquinas was right: both reason and revelation are essential to the discernment of moral truth. On the basis of revelation, we know that, “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them” (Genesis 5:1-2). We also know that God has specifically commanded, “You shall not kill.” Using our God-given reason, we understand from the context of these and other revelations in the Bible that all human life is sacred from conception to natural death and that deliberately killing an innocent human life is always wrong.

While Hentoff upholds the sanctity of human life on the basis of reason alone, he is exceptional. Irrational nihilism predominates in our postmodern society. Value relativism is the norm. Freedom under law has given way to an unbridled will to power. We are engulfed in a culture of death and there is no escape from the lowering darkness except by the light of Revelation. No one has put the matter better than Pope John Paul II. In his splendid encyclical, Veritatis splendor (The Splendour of Truth), he advises:

Revelation teaches that “the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.” The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God’s commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat “of every tree of the garden.” But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.