Education for Love in the Family and Beyond

Rocco Buttiglione | PASS Academician

Education for Love in the Family and Beyond

1. Kant and the Moral Subject

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Immanuel Kant gives us a formula of the Categorical Imperative that stands at the basis of all forms of humanism, both religious and non-religious:[1] “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. A moral subject should take care, in formulating the maxim of his action, of the equal rights of all other moral subjects and include, in the definition of his own good, also the good of all other moral subjects. It seems to me that this proposition is an equivalent of the following: “Whenever you say I, do not forget that you are, at the same time, a we”.

2. The Moral Subject is the Result of a Historical Process

This Imperative seems to be a necessary component part of the transcendental definition of the moral subject. If I do not incorporate in my self-consciousness this imperative, I am not a moral subject. But are empirical human beings moral subjects? And why should I desire to be a moral subject? And is the moral subject something that is given or the result of a spiritual and social process, of a becoming, of the interaction between internal impulses and social structures? The School of Frankfurt has pointed out that much of what we are used to considering as pertaining to the metaphysical structure of the human being is, as a matter of fact, the result of a historical process. This is not necessarily a negation of the existence of metaphysical structures of the human person; it only brings to evidence the fact that the metaphysical structure manifests itself, or is hindered in its manifestation, in the human action. It leads us back to the Aristotelian metaphysics of potency and act. We are all potential moral subjects but this potentiality is actualized through the historical process of education.

The Constitution of the Moral Subject in Consciousness: 1. Falling in love

What is the experience through which we pass from the perception of the I to the conscience of the we? Plato has given us a wonderful answer to this question: it is the experience of falling in love and of being in love. When we fall in love our emotional centre is displaced and collocated out of ourselves, in the person of our beloved or, rather, in an intermediate space between us, and we both (when the love is reciprocated) receive through this relation a new identity and begin to see the world from the point of view of the unity of ourselves, from the point of view of the we. This is really a divine folly or the introduction into a different world. Socrates will here make a decisive step forward: falling in love is dependent upon the beauty of the body but it brings with itself the discovery of the interiority of the other person, the discovery of the beauty of the soul. Socrates severs at the same time the admiration of beauty from the desire to possess, and the beauty of the soul from the beauty of the body. In each human being the miracle of the beauty of the soul is present, and in each human being it deserves to be unconditionally loved. The experience of being a we thus encompasses the whole of Mankind.[2]

The Socratic eros is a kind of phenomenology through which the transcendental Ego is constituted.

The Constitution of the Human Subject in Consciousness: 2. To be born

Is the experience of falling in love really the first instance in which we make the experience of being a we? Melanie Klein[3] suggests a more radical and differentiated explanation of the constitution of the transcendental ego. We do not become a we. We are a we since the beginning. We are conceived and carried for nine months in the body of our mother and the consciousness of being an I is the result, first of all, of a process of identification and distinction from the undifferentiated mother/child complex. In one sense we are a relation before being a substance, meaning as substance an ens in se subsistens.[4] The origin of the transformation of the substance of the woman into the mother/child complex is, in its turn, the result of the relation of the woman to another human being, the male who is the father of the child.

The Cycle of Family Life

We have then a circular process: the discovery, through the sexual impulse, of the need of being in relation with another leads to the conception and to the birth of a third human being. The emotional centre displaced by both lovers out of themselves in a place situated between them is now concretized in the person(s) of their child(ren). Growing up, the child will differentiate himself from the indistinct mother/child complex, first establishing a relation with his father, then constituting himself for himself in the oedipal conflict and later in teenage rebellion. In the end he will fall in love with a woman different from his mother and reinitiate the cycle of life.

The Role of the Father

In this process the father has the role of severing the knot osmotically connecting the mother to the child. The child is thus introduced a second time into the world, and extracted from the undifferentiated unity with his mother.[5] He learns that his mother does not belong to him but to his father and that the world of reality has rules he has to observe. Here we encounter the phenomenon of repression. Repression has been considered in the last fifty years as the source of all evil. It is, however, apparent that without the repression (and consequent sublimation) of the instinctual drive binding a child to his mother, the child could never evolve into a distinct free and responsible human being. Here we see for the first time the unavoidable and positive function of the norm. A simple expression of desire is not an adequate reason for its satisfaction. First of all, the desire has to be oriented towards its proper object (that is, not one’s mother but another woman) and then its satisfaction has to be produced through work. The process is further enriched through the presence of siblings. The ego learns to be a member of a community, to feel the joy and the sorrow of others as his/her own joys and sorrows, and to define his/her own good encompassing in it the good of others.

The Transition from the Nuclear Family to Mankind at Large

Claude Levi Strauss has taught us how important the prohibition of incest is for the further development of human societies.[6] The interdiction of sexual intercourse within the family compels grownup children to look for a mate in another family. The children who are born of that union will belong, albeit in a differentiated form, both to the family of their father and to the family of their mother. This is a fundamental transition towards the idea of tribe. Tribes are based on consanguinity; there is, however, the possibility of being admitted into a tribe through a different relationship: hospitality or adoption. Later, the growth of commerce, the interchange of goods among different groups, the establishment of broader working and political communities would lead to the idea of a universal human brotherhood as is contained, for instance, in the Abrahamic religions and in Stoic philosophy, and the moral subject that stands at the basis of Kantian ethics would be considered as something naturally given.

The Moral Subject is Constituted in the Family

I do not want to deny this pretension. I only want to draw attention on the fact that the natural potentiality to become a moral subject develops and fully matures only through a historical process that has consolidated itself in an institution that channels sex drive and creates the riverbed that contains the educational process whose end result is the moral subject. This institution is the family.[7]

Importance of Sex Drive

It is important now to stress the importance of sex drive in the constitution of the moral personality. It breaks down the presumed self-sufficiency of the subject: the need for the other is inscribed through sex drive in the very instinctual structure of the human being, first in relation to one’s mother and then in relation to one’s spouse.[8]

The human sex drive presents itself in a cultural form

The human sex drive, however, presents itself in a cultural form: its proper satisfaction is linked with the development of the moral subject and with the constitution of human society. Gaston Fessard has complemented the Hegelian phenomenology that describes the interhuman relation beginning with the relation between master and slave with a different phenomenology, describing it also as a relation between man and woman.[9] The two modalities of the genesis of the moral subject are, of course, intertwined. The relation between man and woman can also be a relation between master and slave: In this case, it loses its distinctive character and is degraded. This distinct character is freedom. In the experience of falling in love I desire the body of the other but I can only have it through a free gift of the other. I cannot really possess the other if I do not allow her (him) the freedom of saying no. This implies even the readiness to renounce the possession if this is demanded by the true good of the other or of myself.[10]

Possessing the Body of the Other, Respecting at the Same Time Her/His Dignity as a Person[11]

The process I have described demands to be performed according to a rule. It is not just a result of the work of instinct. Instinct needs to be elaborated culturally. This cultural elaboration implies a complex set of sublimations and this is the reason why, in all cultures, we find a system of rules, a distinct set of prohibitions and encouragements through which we reproduce human beings not only as biological specimens of the human species but also, at the same time, as moral subjects who interiorize the relation with the other as a constitutive element of their identity. All other human relations that we develop in the course of our lives are an enlargement and a modification of the first and fundamental attitudes we learn within the family.

The Traditional Set of Norms Regulating Human Sexuality

Traditional sexual ethics is centred upon the need to clearly identify the parents who carry the responsibility of rearing a child. This explains the prohibition of intercourse out of wedlock as well as adultery. The first instance contains the possibility that a child be born without a father, the second can result in a false attribution of paternity. In pagan societies this rule was less strict. Infanticide offered a solution for children born out of wedlock, and widespread slavery was – within their worldview – an easy escape for a sexuality not completely elevated to the level of an interpersonal relation. Pagans, also, however, knew the institution of marriage, that was clearly differentiated from other sexual relations in which human dignity was not fully recognized to both partners in the relationship. In the fundamental structure of marriage, intercourse implied accepting the eventuality of becoming parents together and assuming the responsibility of nurturing and educating a child. This, in turn, required a long-lasting relation. All this is included in the traditional conception of marriage and family. The romantic idea of love is also linked to this meaningful complex of circumstances. Today this traditional ethic is often criticized as contrary to the enjoyment of sexuality. It makes sense, however, if you consider it from the point of view of a society that wants every child to have two parents to take care of it and does not have reliable means to sever the enjoyment of sex from the conception of children.

The divorce between the enjoyment of sex and the conception of children, and the sexual revolution

The discovery of the contraceptive pill shook this system of beliefs like an earthquake. Now it is possible to have sex without having children. The motivation of the social bias against sex out of marriage seems to have disappeared. Philandering too does not seem to be as dangerous for a marriage as it used to be. Why should we not experiment with open marriages in which exclusivity is limited to sexual intercourse productive of children? Horkheimer noticed that this causes a certain devaluation of the symbolic significance of the single sexual act.[12] The meaningful totality of the sexual life can be segmented. The emotional experience of falling in love can be severed from the assumption of responsibility for the life of the beloved person and for the procreation of a common child. One can fall in love many times without ever coming to a full engagement of the person through an act of will. This can take place later in life or it is also possible that it will not take place at all. It is also possible to sever instinctual satisfaction from the emotional experience of falling in love. Within the marital bond too the balance between the emotional involvement and the commitment of the person shifts in favor of emotional involvement. The meaning of the world “love” runs the risk of being reduced to “emotional involvement”. When the emotional involvement slackens or disappears, conjugal love and marriage are deemed to be over. If marriage is no longer conceived as an institution aimed at the procreation and education of children, the difference between homosexual and heterosexual relations is also obliterated.

All the pillars of the traditional conception of marriage and family are questioned in the course of the so-called sexual revolution. The safest course of action for moral philosophers and theologians seemed to be a prudent retreat. The myth of the sexual revolution is that sex is intrinsically good and does not stand in need of rational control or moral judgement. This found its expression in the slogan “make love, not war”. A drastically simplified psychoanalysis suggested that aggressive drives are a result of a repressed sexuality.

Have we gone too far?

After a while it became apparent that we had gone too far. On the wave of the sexual revolution in some states proposals were made for children’s right to sex and the legalization of pedophilia.[13] We had to learn painfully that, under certain circumstances, sex can be extremely bad and damaging for the person. Sex and violence, sex and prevarication can be easily joined together.[14] An uneducated sexual drive can easily see the other not as a person but as an object used to satisfy one’s impulses. The gratification of the impulse seems to be due and is not made dependent on an act of freedom and of love of the other person.

The search for a new sexual moral

So the search for a new sexual moral began. Its first formulation was found in the affirmation that all that takes place between consenting adults is morally permitted. The defense of the dignity of the person as a moral subject seems to be reduced to free consent. It is not much, but better than nothing. The word “adults” excludes pedophilia. The idea of free consent excludes direct violence, but successive interpretations expand its boundaries.[15] Free consent also excludes other more subtle forms of coercion, like all kinds of blackmailing or corruption, through the promise of undue advantages or the threat of suffering an undue disadvantage... The “Me too” movement gives evidence of a new sensibility for the fact that sex should be incorporated in a relationship in which the dignity of the other is recognized.[16] The campaign in favor of homosexual marriage is also the expression of a growing, although confused, demand for a re-institutionalization of sexual relations. Up to a few decades ago nobody would have requested a right to gay marriage, not so much because the Christian churches were opposed to it, but because homosexuality was considered as an integral part and the spearhead of a movement towards the complete deinstitutionalization of sex.

We stand today at a crossroad. The discovery of artificial contraception seems to have made traditional sexual ethic obsolete. The immediate result seems to be a deinstitutionalization of sex and permissive sexual ethics. We see, however, a new demand for a re-institutionalization of sexual ethics, but how and in what terms?

Paul VI and the answer of the Catholic Church to the Sexual Revolution

Before we endeavor to give an answer to this question, let us glance at the way in which the Catholic Church has confronted this crisis that is perhaps a fundamental root of the difficulties the Church is experiencing in our times.

In his encyclical Humanae Vitae St. Paul VI refused artificial contraception. The fundamental purpose of sex is the perpetuation of the human race. The Church does not condemn the satisfaction and the joy that sex gives to the conjugal couple; nevertheless, this cannot be thoroughly severed from procreation without entering into a direct opposition to natural law. The Pope saw that in a modern society almost all babies reach adulthood and an unlimited growth of the family can exceed both the capacity of the parents to provide for all their children, and the capacity of the earth to support an excessively enlarged world population. In premodern societies a large number of children died in their infancy and population growth was further contained because the life expectancy of grownups was also limited, and periodical pestilences reduced population growth. In the 1960s we became obsessively conscious of the possibility of population growth exceeding the non-renewable resources of the earth.[17] The answer of the Pope was threefold:

1.     We are still far from reaching the absolute limit of the capacity of the earth to support human life, and human technology and human science continuously discover new resources for human life

2.     The largest part of the earth’s resources is not consumed by the poor, but wasted in the sumptuous lifestyle of the wealthy

3.     Natural Fertility Control Methods allow us to regulate the number of children without the need for artificial intervention in procreation.

The prophetic value of Humanae Vitae

At a distance of half a century we can now try a reappraisal of Humanae Vitae. Population growth has been arrested, largely through the adoption of artificial contraception and abortion. Within a few decades we expect to stabilize world population and then we are likely to see its sharp decrease.[18] We are now confronted, however, with an opposite menace. In some parts of the world the decline has already begun, and many important nations are likely to disappear from world history in the near future if current trends continue. Contrary to the beliefs of the extreme supporters of anti-natalist policies, a declining population is far from being a blessing. When the number of young people and active workers will be very low and the number of old people and retirees very high, active workers will not be able to pay enough taxes and contributions to guarantee comfortable pensions and adequate health care for the old people. This is the main cause of the impending fiscal breakdown of the finances of many countries. It is a law of nature that parents in their old age will be supported by their children (directly or through a Pensions and Healthcare System). If there are no children, the old generation will starve. There is also another element of human wisdom contained in the notion of natural law adopted by St. Paul VI. Sex is such a complex human drive that it unfolds its true meaning only through time. There is an inner pedagogy contained in the natural unfolding of the sex drive. When one is 20 the most important part of sex seems to be intercourse. At 40 one becomes aware that the most important part of sex are children, and at 70 one discovers that the most important part of sex are grandchildren. If, however, this inner pedagogy of sex is interrupted through an artificial separation of sex from fertility many people will grow old without having had neither children nor grandchildren and without having known the best part of sex and of life.

Humanae Vitae was a pastoral disaster

Humanae Vitae, however, was a pastoral disaster. To a large extent the disaster was a consequence of the fact that Catholic theologians split into two opposite fronts, instead of initiating a reflection on the way in which the truth of Humanae Vitae could be communicated in the new culture that was arising in the seventies. The defenders of Humanae Vitae defended at the same time an approach to sexuality and marriage that had clearly become obsolete. The opponents seemed to have nothing else to offer than to surrender to the sexual revolution of our time.

There were two questions that needed answering. The first was: why should we comply with the old rules when their purpose (the regulation of human fertility) can be accomplished in another way? Why should we not give free rein to a purely recreational use of sexuality?

The second question was: Is it really possible to sleep side by side with a beloved person and abstain from sexual intercourse?

Although the population bomb threat was grossly exaggerated, it is however true that in our age most children reach maturity and in order to find a reasonably productive and well-paid job they need long years of training at the expenses of their families. The parental couple must also provide children with the attention and care needed to accompany their emotional growth and human flourishing. We must consider the additional fact that women are increasingly called to take on full-time jobs in order to be able to support their family, and the time and energy available for care and education within the family become more and more limited.

The contribution of St. John Paul II

St. John Paul II answered the first question in his theological anthropology.[19] Sex is the pedagogy through which men are led to discover their relational essence. To be truly human one has to be in the other and for the other. All this becomes real in the human experience of the family. The family is the “analogatum princeps”, the fundamental touchstone of all human relations, in the sense that in the family we learn to be in relation.[20] Here we learn to be a person, that is a free being who finds its perfection in the loving relation to others. In a more theological language: communion is the inner law of God’s life where three persons exist each one in the other and through the other. In the family men are attracted into the rhythm of this communion life. In a more philosophical language, in the family we are constituted as moral subjects in the Kantian sense of the word: here we learn to be free and to join freedom and responsibility. The rules of natural law are here reread from the point of view of the constitution of man as a free and responsible being. Premarital chastity and marital fidelity, for instance, are recommended not just in order to preserve the precise determination of fatherhood and of the holder of the responsibility for the new child, but also because of the intrinsic value and meaning of the sexual act. Bodily acts have a value and a meaning and the conjunction of the male and of the female has the meaning of the constitution of a new reality. This new reality is not only the child who may or may not be conceived, but the new modality of being of the spouses: one in the other and one for the other, two becoming one. If this act is devaluated, if sex is made too easy and banalized, it may lose the capacity to merge two destinies and create an environment not just for the biological survival of the child but for the proper constitution of her/his human subjectivity. Traditional family bonds enter into a crisis because of emerging individualism and are criticized in the name of the freedom and autonomy of the individual. The paradox is that the free individual, in order to emerge, needs the environment provided by family bonds. When this environment disappears a new kind of narcissist and non-relational subject appears. A subject for whom it becomes difficult to think of her/himself as a “we”. So St. John Paul II’s catechesis on human love leads us to recognize the function of the family in the process of the constitution of the moral subject and of the human community.

We need a set of rules of sexual behavior not only in order to attribute the paternity of the child, not only to assure the ordered succession of generations and a proper care for the elders, but also in order to constitute and educate the moral subjectivity of the human person, her/his relational potential.

A sober evaluation of the present situation

St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II wanted to preserve a family model and a certain culture of the family. How can we now assess the results of their struggle?

We must be very cautious in analyzing the present situation. My analysis will now consider mainly the West, that is the part of the world I am more familiar with. We used to consider ourselves as the avant-garde of mankind and presumed that other continents and cultures were bound to follow the cultural patterns established by us. I am no more so sure that this is still the case.

The dominant trends in Western Societies

In any case we will now direct our attention towards the Western Societies. At a first sight the cultural battle seems to have been lost. Two seem to be the main causes of this defeat.

1.     The dominant trends in the cultural industry, in the mass media and in showbusiness have been overwhelmingly against the traditional family model. The image of the family given by the cultural industry does not necessarily mirror the reality of the family, but shapes the image of the family in the new generations. Young men and women imagine this to be the reality and feel pressured into conforming to that (supposed) reality.

2.     When one is young the attraction of unrestricted sex without the preoccupation of an unwanted pregnancy is enormous, especially for a generation entering into a new social configuration in which much of the consolidated wisdom of the ancients seems to have become obsolete. Women assume new roles in the most diverse social areas, why not also in the area of procreation? Moral standards had been more flexible for males than for females, due to their being less directly engaged with procreation; the demand for equality now leads to the social construction of a model of femininity in which motherhood becomes less central when it is not altogether excluded.

We must consider, moreover, the simple fact that most couples cannot reasonably afford more than a limited number of children and Natural Family Planning can, under the circumstances, become unreliable or otherwise fairly unpractical. It is not easy to sleep side by side with a beloved person and remain thoroughly inactive.

Necessity of a retrenchment

In cultural wars a defeat does not necessarily mean that you are wrong. It may also mean that you were faced with overwhelming odds and were not able to convincingly present your position. The result is that a new “common sense” emerges, a “common sense” in which some values do not receive adequate consent. Under such circumstances a retrenchment is needed. The Church must redefine her communicative strategy. How?

Problems of a retrenchment:

1. The doctrine of intrinsically evil acts

St. John Paul II defended the thesis that there are some acts that are intrinsically evil, that is, evil because of their very nature. Such acts cannot become good under any circumstances. This doctrine is firmly established not only through the authority of St. John Paul II[21] (and of St. Paul VI) but also through a series of pronouncement of their predecessors and successors.[22] Contraception, abortion, premarital sex and adultery (including the remarriage of divorcees) all fall within this category of the intrinsice malum. It is impossible to imagine a “retrenchment” that abandons this doctrine.

The Catholic Church affirms that there is a human nature, and a corresponding natural law, that does not change in time. If the natural law does not change, how can the pastoral strategy of the Church change? The Church is bound to proclaim the truth on man and, therefore, also on human sexuality and on marriage.

2. St. Thomas and Natural Law

But is it really true that human nature never changes?

Let us ask this question to St. Thomas Aquinas. He kindly provides us with an answer in the Question 94 of the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae 14.[23] In article 4 of this Quaestio he tells us that the first principles of natural law cannot change; secondary precepts, that is, the practical conclusions that we draw from the first principles, can sometimes change according to the circumstances. Shall we say then that the circumstances following the discovery of the artificial contraceptives have changed the natural law?

3. The Ethics of Circumstances

This was the thesis of the so-called “Ethics of Circumstances”. They considered the first principles as being merely formal and all consequences drawn from those principles as dependent on empirical and historical circumstances that can change in time.[24] This doctrine was however clearly rejected in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Although there is no doubt that circumstances may enter in the moral qualification of certain human actions, it seems nevertheless that some other human actions possess such an intrinsic structure that they cannot, under any circumstances, become good. They are immediate consequences of the First Principles. The fundamental norms regulating human sexuality seem to pertain to this sphere of the intrinsic malum or of the malum per se. The escape route of the “Ethics of Circumstances” does not seem to be practicable. There are important systematic reasons that militate against the “Ethics of Circumstances”. The first circumstance that is inherent to all moral acts is the conscience of the subject of the action. If everything is dependent on circumstances, the conscience of the evaluating subject then becomes the author of the moral norm of the action. The subject can always pretend to have acted with a good intention, and conscience, instead of being the place where the subject dialogues with God, becomes the place where the subject dialogues with himself. It is easy to see that we are on slippery ground here and may easily fall into a complete moral relativism, once we have abandoned the firm ground of the objectivity of the moral norm.

Proposal of a solution to the difficulty

1. The social conditioning of human conscience

But... is article 4 of Question 94 of the Prima Secundae all that St. Thomas has to say on our issue? After article 4 comes article 5, and especially art. 6. Let us listen to what St. Thomas has to say in article 6: “ the natural law belong, first of all, some more general precepts, that are known to all; secondly certain secondary and more detailed precepts that are, as it were, conclusions deriving closely from the First Principles. As to the general principles the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from human hearts. But it is blotted out in the case of a particular action, in so far as reason is hindered from applying the general principle to a particular point of practice, on account of concupiscence or some other passion... But, as to the others, that is the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out of the human heart either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men theft, and even unnatural vices, are not deemed sinful”.[25]

Here St. Thomas repeats and clarifies something he already explained in art. 4. The First Principles are contained in the intellect of all men. The capacity to draw the consequences of the first principles is however unequal: not all men possess it in the same degree. Here St. Thomas is not thinking just of the fact that some men are more intelligent than others, or that some men have specialized training others do not have. The examples he produces are illuminating: in the case of theft, we know from a. 4 that he means the Germans (not one individual or a few individuals, but a whole Nation) who did not consider theft as a crime; as regards unnatural vices, we understand through the quotation of St. Paul that he means again not a single individual but a whole culture. The individuals living within those cultures apprehend the wrong convictions from the legitimate authorities of their family and of their people and cannot be held individually responsible for those errors. Their conscience is socially determined through their education and through their social environment.

Through the analysis of this text, we have learned an important distinction: truth is, in itself, immutable but our knowledge of truth can change, is subject to error and the cause of error can be social conditioning. Human conscience is socially conditioned.

2. The structures of sin

This idea of St. Thomas is further developed in the teaching of St. John Paul II. He introduces the concept of “social sin”[26] or “structures of sin”.[27] The sin is, of course, an act of the person. Social structures cannot commit sins. Social structures can, however, make more difficult for the conscience of the individual to see some values and some disvalues and to act accordingly. The social structures of the German society described by Tacitus made it virtually impossible to perceive the moral disvalue of theft. The social structures of the ancient world made it very difficult to see slavery as a grievous offense against the rights of the person. The social structures of our society hinder the correct perception of the injustice committed against the poor of the earth and also of the right order of sexuality. Social structures present themselves as something not man-made but natural: they constitute a second nature that most people are unable to distinguish from the nature created by God.

3. Conscientia erronea obligat[28]

Shall we consider as sinners all those who live in an objective condition of sin, but are not conscious of this state of affairs because the truth is hidden to their intellect and their conscience is deformed through the influence of their families and/or of the legitimate cultural authorities of the society they live in?

St. Thomas’ answer is clear: no. The proximate authority man is bound to obey is his/her own reason. He/she must do what his/her reason sees as good and his/her will commands as such. You cannot condemn as a sinner a man who behaves according to the moral code of the society he lives in, that he has neither the intellectual nor the spiritual means to challenge.

4. Is St. Thomas a relativist?

The “coscientia erronea obligat” principle does not make St. Thomas a relativist. The truth does not change. What changes is the human perception of truth. The conscience of the individual produces the norm of the case, just as a judge in a trial, on the basis of the general norm established by the legislator. Here lies the difference with all theories that attribute to human conscience a legislative role. Man has to obey his conscience but conscience can be wrong. The man who acts according to his conscience will never be a sinner, but he can be a malefactor, in the etymologic sense of the word: innocens but nocens.[29] The man is innocent but the act is wrong. Human acts have two kinds of consequences: they change the subject, making him/her good or bad as a person, but they also change the world we live in making it better or worse. The act performed in obedience to a wrong conscience does not have a negative effect on the subject: he does not become bad through the act. It retains however its negative effect on external reality: through this act the world becomes worse.

In order to better understand this point, let us quote a passage of Dante Alighieri that fully expresses the spirit of Thomas’ philosophy of law: “the law is a real and personal relation of people among themselves. If it is maintained society will be preserved, if it is violated society will perish”.[30] If a society does not recognize in its culture some fundamental human values, then it is bound to perish and the same holds true in the case of the individual: he/she may be morally innocent but his/her humanity will be damaged. This is the reason why the correctio fraterna, the reciprocal correction among friends, is so important for the good of the individual and for the good of society. The wrongdoer in good conscience, although he is no sinner, needs to be corrected in order to reorient himself towards the fullness of life. Equally or even more important is to correct the wrong culture of a society in order to prevent its corruption and its ruin. In the case of the present western attitude towards sexuality, marriage and family we cannot condemn as sinners all those who live according to the prevailing social norms. St. Paul VI was, however, right in seeing that the severing of the link between sex and procreation must have dramatic consequences for the individual and for society and may end in the disappearance of great nations from the history of Mankind.

I hope that we have now made clear the difference between the right conception of the (relative) autonomy of conscience and the wrong conception of the (absolute) autonomy of conscience. Unjust social structures and wrong cultural systems must be transformed and reoriented towards truth.

5. Is St. Thomas Marxist?

Before we move forward with our argument, we must dispel a possible misunderstanding. We have said that the individual conscience is socially conditioned. Didn’t Marx say the same thing? Yes and no. In the philosophy of Marx consciousness (and therefore also moral conscience) is just an effect or a reflex of social being: it is determined by the social structure.[31] In St. Thomas it is different: man is conditioned through the social structure, through the culture he lives in, through the first and fundamental relations he experiences with his parents. He/she is conditioned but not determined. The human intellect is naturally oriented towards truth. The movement of the intellect towards truth, however, is not monastic and isolated. We search truth first of all in the dialogue with other human beings and this dialogue, in its turn, is deeply influenced by the way in which we produce and reproduce our life on earth. We think starting from a specific place in society and history and this vantage point gives us a perspective on truth. From this perspective some aspects of truth may be vividly perceived; others may be very difficult or almost impossible to see. “Almost impossible” is not the same as “quite impossible”. Some men can pierce through the obstacles that make their society blind to some values. They have the task of enlightening the others and helping them to see. A culture may sometimes be perceived from the exterior as a monolith, but as a matter of fact it is crossed by multiple tensions and always contains a potentiality for truth. We are not Marxists after all, although some analysis of Marx can be helpful to better understand some aspects of social conditioning. We have begun our voyage together with Marx and we have landed near Plato’s Cave.[32]

6. One last word from St. Thomas

In the first questio of the First Part of the Summa Theologica St. Thomas writes that many things that are, in principle, accessible to human reason are nevertheless contained in God’s Revelation, because otherwise only a few men (and not all) could acquire their knowledge and even those few would acquire that knowledge only polluted through many errors. We find here a confirmation of what we have explained and the expression of a keen perception of the intrinsic historical conditioning of human knowledge.

Back to the issue of retrenchment

1. The Hegelian Philosophy of the Spirit

Hegel has taught us that the Subjective Spirit, the Spirit of the human subject, objectives itself in Institutions, becomes Objective Spirit. Periodically the Spirit retreats from the institutions it has animated in the past. For a while these institutions survive but become void: there is no more passion and life in them. They are admirable because they are the point of arrival of a long and glorious history but do not motivate the active engagement of new energies and forces. They become the object of philosophical reflection and description but their time is over and a new age in world history is about to begin.[33]

2. Using Hegel to interpret the conditions of our time

As a matter fact I dare to say that the Spirit has long abandoned our institutions. This was already apparent in the sixties. The Council made the fundamental choice not to try not defend the old institution through the use of repressive force but rather to participate in the search for the forms and institutions of a new civilization. I think this is what Pope Francis really means when he speaks of a Church on the road. The Institution becomes movement. The old Christian civilization is not Christianity as such. Faith has encountered the cultures of the nations and has helped to create the European civilization of yesterday. Faith can encounter the demands of the human spirit of today and participate in the shaping of a new civilization.

The Hegelian idea of the rhythm of history has a profound religious meaning. The longing of the human spirit is directed towards the Infinite. To penetrate into the realm of existence it must assume a finite form and shape the matter of history according to this form. When, however, this form is perfected the Spirit contemplates it and remains dissatisfied. It is beautiful but it is only finite beauty. Then the Spirit feels the need to destroy what it has created and to start the whole process anew.

3. A society in transition

Pope Francis insists on the fact that we live in a change of epoch. Several years ago Max Horkheimer used the expression “society in transition”[34] to express a similar concept. A society in transition is moving from a definite institutional and cultural framework to another. We know the old culture but we only have a vague premonition of the new one. It is still in the making and, to a certain extent, its features will be determined through our actions, through the historical struggles to which we are called to participate. The old epoch is not yet dead, the new one is not yet born.

4. The temptation of the Subjective Spirit

In the moment in which it retires itself from the existing institutions the Subjective Spirit lives a moment of euphoria, a kind of vertigo of freedom. It dreams of absolute freedom as liberation from all bonds, as pure arbitrary will. If we consider the realm of sex and family that stands now in the focus of our attention this coincides with the idea of the liberation of instinctual freedom.

5. The search for new sexual morals

We have already hinted at the fact that this position is unsustainable and soon gives way to the search for new sexual morals. The scandal of pedophilia and the “Me too” movement are signs of this search. It is interesting to consider the transformation the concept of “rape” is undergoing. It is correlated to a transformation of the concept of valid consent. The original concept is that consent is the expression of an arbitrary will. Now in many cases the idea tentatively surfaces that a consent that violates the dignity of the person is not really valid, or stands at least under the suspicion of being coerced. In the case of pedophilia there is an absolute presumption that the consent of an underage child to sexual acts must be considered as extorted. In the case of “Me too”, in several instances an analogous conviction surfaces that the perpetrator should have understood that consent given under those particular circumstances could not be considered as valid. With the idea of the dignity of the person we enter the path of a search for an objective norm of morality.

6. Ethical norms are challenged to justify themselves

After a brief stage in which it is tempted to remain in itself, the Subjective Spirit is forced to move again towards the world of objects, inhabited by a plurality of subjects who are, at the same time, objects and do not want to be treated as pure objects in the same manner as we ourselves do not want to be treated as such. Here we rediscover the first, formal principle of sexual morals: the respect of the dignity of the person. Does it mean that we are going back to the old sexual morals? Not necessarily and, in any case, not in the same way as before. The old norms are questioned from a new standpoint. They must justify themselves in front of the demand of happiness and liberty of the subject and they are called to do that within a situation in which the pill allows to sever the enjoyment of sexuality from procreation. The norms are challenged to justify themselves. After an age, however, in which the very idea of a normative sexual moral was considered as old fashioned and out of tune with the spirit of the time we see a demand for a re-regulation of the sexual sphere.

7. The heritage of St. John Paul II

St. John Paul II has given us a profound rereading of traditional sexual ethics. He discovered its personalistic side. A proper approach to sexuality is necessary not only from the objective point of view of the orderly preservation of human life on earth but also for the adequate constitution of the person as a moral subject, that is as a free and responsible human being.[35] He also taught us a phenomenological method of investigation in the moral sphere. The truth of a proposition cannot be grounded on a metaphysical presupposition. It has to be discovered on the basis of the data given in human experience. The moral good has to be rediscovered not just as good in itself but as good for me, within the horizon of my life.[36]

8. The innovation of Pope Francis

We have exposed the two main objections to Humanae Vitae and we have seen the way in which the first objection finds an answer in the teaching of John Paul II. The subjective and the objective truth on sexuality stand in a lively connection to one another and in the end coincide. The second objection is simply that it is very difficult, almost impossible, to sleep side by side with a beloved person and abstain from sexual acts. To be sure we can find a tentative answer in the law of graduality formulated by John Paul II. The necessity to privilege the defense of objective truth against relativism did not allow, however, John Paul II to draw all the consequences of this principle. This is what Pope Francis has done in Amoris Laetitia. We will not consider now the material ethical content of this Apostolic Exhortation. We will concentrate rather on its methodological significance and on the change it introduces in the pastoral perspective.[37]

The perspective of St. John Paul is the defense of a certain moral order incorporated in the self-consciousness of society that is threatened by a kind of mass libertinism. This order is threatened but is still present in the general self-consciousness.

The perspective of Pope Francis is that of the collapse of an established moral order and of the groping search for a new moral order. Can the Church participate in this search? And: how is this possible without denying her firm convictions rooted in Tradition and in Revelation?

In order to do this the Church must become a Church on the road, that is, a Church that is not primarily concerned with the defense of spaces of public recognition of her values, but is rather, willing to rediscover them in a common search together with all the women and men of our time (homosexuals and transexuals not excluded). Some people live a life of faith in which the truth on marriage and family is firmly established. Others try to live a purely instinctual life, considering any affirmation of an objective truth as a threat to their freedom. The vast majority does not adhere neither to the first nor to the second option. They are in search of a new rule. The first option has been swept up in the sexual revolution. The second seems untenable in the experience of these last few decades.

I wish to draw your attention to two interesting facts. The first is a growing number of surveys that tell us that in our oversexualized society the practice of sex is not increasing, but rather diminishing.[38] There may be several and partially contradictory explanations for this phenomenon, but surely one is that sexuality intrinsically needs to be ethically regulated. Young people feel confused and intimidated by what they feel is taking place in themselves, physically and emotionally. If they have no clear landmarks many prefer to abstain. The approach to sexuality cannot be reduced to a market relation; sexuality is not a consumer good. Sexuality is beautiful and dangerous, it can be compared to dynamite: if it explodes in your hand it will kill you; properly used it will open for you the way to a gold mine.

The second document I wish to draw your attention to is a movie that has become a cult classic for a generation: Pretty Woman, an American romantic movie starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. In the opening scenes a billionaire (Richard Gere) hooks up with a prostitute (Julia Roberts) and they have sex. The transcendental horizon within which they act and feel and think is that of the complete commodification of sex. We cannot even speak of transgression: traditional morals are non-existent or completely forgotten. When they fall in love, however, the man can’t bear to see the woman treated as a prostitute by another man, and she can’t bear to be treated as such in front of him. They both discover the inner preciousness of the person and the value of sex as an expression of the person. Then something unexpected happens. The woman leaves. Although she is in love (precisely because she is in love), she realizes the story has begun in a wrong way and cannot be continued. That story was wrong and must come to an end. A new story however can begin. Now the man runs after her and courts her appropriately and so they can be reunited. Before they have sex again the woman demands commitment. It is a wonderful example of the way in which universal values can be rediscovered from within a thoroughly degraded situation.

But can the Church participate in the search for something she is already convinced to possess? This is the problem of education. The master must present the truth he possesses as a hypothesis that the pupil must put to test in his own life. In order to do this the master must enter into the transcendental horizon of the pupil, must adopt his starting point. This is the great challenge of education: the transcendental horizon of the pupil, his starting point, his Sitz im Leben, must be assumed and, at the same time, must be transcended. Truth has to be taught not only as an abstract and general notion, but as the truth of the life of the pupil. To educate means to walk on the narrow path that leads from objective to subjective truth, in which the objective truth is accepted by the pupil as the truth of his own life. He must be helped to see truth and truth becomes his truth only when he sees it.[39] The Master can ask the Pupil, at certain decisive passages of the educational process, for an act of confidence: follow me, you must follow in order to understand, you will understand only later. This act of confidence must however be justified and in the end the Pupil must understand.

A certain traditional pedagogy expected the Pupil to accept unconditionally the authority of the Master, that is, expected the Pupil to surrender his original transcendental horizon and to accept the transcendental horizon of the Master. This is no more the case. In order to lead the Pupil out of his transcendental horizon, in order convince him to transcend his transcendental horizon, the Master must first of all assume it. This is a missionary pedagogy, the pedagogy of an outgoing Church. The authority to teach cannot be presupposed but must be gained again and again in the concrete hermeneutics of the actual existence of the Pupil.

This may sound new; it has belonged, however, to the tradition of Church since the beginning. Think for instance of the great speech given by St. Paul in the Areopagus of Athens: the Apostle assumes the transcendental horizon of Greek culture and philosophy in order to transcend it from within.[40] It is also an accepted principle of Catholic Pedagogy and Moral Theology that an objective sinner who, in his conscience, is not aware of being in sin, should not be reprobated and convinced of his sin, until he has reached an adequate understanding of the reasons why what he is doing is wrong, that is, until he can recognize the objective truth as his subjective truth, as the truth of his conscience.

The key to a “retrenchment” and to a new approach to the whole field of sexual and family ethics is the concept of transcendental horizon and/or of culture. A sitting Church presumes to possess and regulate the culture of the society she lives in. A Church on the road knows that her teaching challenges the dominating cultural trend and has to be regained from within the culture she lives in. Is this possible? It is possible because the truth on family and conjugal love is profoundly inscribed in the heart of man or, if you prefer, in his practical reason. The itinerary, however, leading from the heart to the concrete performance in real life, can be obstructed through consolidated erroneous moral convictions, the social sin that seems to possess the evidence of a second nature. It may be difficult to draw from the first principles the appropriate conclusions. The liberating force of a word of truth enters exactly in this tension. An appropriate distinction may be introduced here. It is the distinction between Ethics and Morals. We can use the word Ethics to indicate the science concerned with good and evil in themselves. We can reserve the word Morals for the more sociological and historical science concerned with the human convictions on good and evil in different human contexts. These two sciences are connected but cannot be identified.



[1] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by James W. Ellington, Hackett 1993, p. 30 (Akademie Ausgabe 4, 431, 1785).

[2] Plato, Symposion 210 a and ff.; Phaidros, 244 a and ff.

[3] Melanie Klein, On Identification, in The Writings of Melanie Klein v. III Envy and gratitude and other works 1946/1963, New York, The Free Press 1975.

[4] A being subsisting in itself.

[5] Sigmund Freud, The id and the ego, Eastwood, Martino Fine Books 2011 (1923).

[6] Claude Levi Strauss, The elementary structures of kinship, Boston, Beacon Press 1971.

[7] Rocco Buttiglione, L’uomo e la famiglia, Roma, Dino Editore 1991.

[8] See the hymn to Venus at the beginning of Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura.

[9] Gaston Fessard, De l’actualité historique, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer 1960.

[10] A literary expression of this state affairs can be found in Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Signet 2012 (1897).

[11] Karol Wojtyła, Love and responsibility, Boston, Pauline Books & Media 2013 (1960).

[12] Max Horkheimer, Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen, Hamburg, Furche Verlag 1970 p. 74.

[13] Alexander Wendt & Jan-Philipp Hein, Das böse Kapitel der Grünen, in Focus 33 (2013); Suheyla Fonseca, Um olhar critico sobre o ativismo pedófilo, in Revista da Faculdade de direito dos campos, 10 (June 2007).

[14] Bob Plant, Playing games/playing us: Foucault on Sadomasochism, in Philosophy and Social Criticism, July 1 (2007).

[15] Timothy Hsiao, Consenting adults, sex and natural law theory, in Philosophia 44 (2016).

[16] Laurie Collier Hillstrom, The #Metoo Movement, Santa Barbara ABC-CLIO 2019.

[17] Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers,William W. Behrens III, The limits to growth, New York, Universe Books, 1972. The thesis, of course, is not new. See Thomas Robert Malthus, Essay on the principle of population, 2 vv, London, John Murray C. Roworth 1826.

[18] United Nations/Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Population Division, World Population Prospects 2019.

[19] John Paul II, Man and Woman he created them. A theology of the body, Pauline Books and Media 2006.

[20] Pierpaolo Donati, The Family as a Source of relational Goods (and Evils) for itself and for the Community, in Italian Journal of Sociology of Education 8 (3).

[21] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993) 96 ff.

[22] Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, 211 ff.

[23] St. Thomas Aquinas, I-II, q. 94.

[24] Joseph F. Fletcher, Situation Ethics: the new Morality, Philadelphia, Westminster Press 1966.

[25] St. Thomas Aquinas, I-II, q. 94 a. 6.

[26] St. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Penitentia (1984) 16.

[27] St. John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) 36.

[28] St. Thomas Aquinas, Questio disputata De Veritate, I, q. 17 n. 4.

[29] I take these words from the oral teaching of Tadeusz Styczeń.

[30] Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia, II, 5.

[31] Karl Marx, Preface in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977.

[32] Plato, The State, 514 and ff.

[33] G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, Batoche Books, Kitchener 2001, p. 38 and ff.

[34] Max Horkheimer, Gesellschaft im Übergang, Frankfurt a.M., Fischer 1972.

[35] John Paul II, Man and woman he created them: a theology of the body, Pauline Books & Media, 2006.

[36] Karol Wojtyła, The Acting Person, Dordrecht , Reidel, 1979, p. 41 and ff.

[37] Rocco Buttiglione, Risposte (amichevoli) ai critici di Amoris Laetitia, Ares, Roma 2017.

[38] Peter Ueda, Catherine H. Mercer, Cyrus Ghaznavi and others, Trends in frequency of sexual activity and number of sexual partners among adults aged 18 to 44 years in the US 2000/2018, JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(6);e203833. Doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.2833.

[39] Rocco Buttiglione, Die Wahrheit im Menschen, Springer 2019.

[40] Acts of the Apostles 17, 16 and ff.