Pope Benedict XVI made it one of the hallmarks of his pontificate to combat what he termed a culture of “moral relativism.” This is not simply a neutral decline in societal and familial morality, but an outright attack upon it in order to destroy and undermine moral truth, that reality which man did not create. Moral truth is manifested within each human being as the imprint of God’s providence leading us towards our good, that is, our happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas would term the human person’s rational participation in this providence of God as nothing other than the natural law.
If it is the case that man does not create truth, then we must admit that it is something that he comes to discover, something he must come to see and understand. In order to see reality as it has been given to us by God, not just the created order, but primarily the moral order, requires a well-formed conscience. One’s conscience is that interior depth of your humanity, who you really are, that can only be plunged by knowing and receiving the full truth about yourself. We have a great and high calling, which God created for us, and this calling requires that our heart be purified so that we can see. “The pure man sees God” is not only in matters pertaining to sexual morality, but principally concerns the right ordering of our very being to and for others, to and for genuine self-giving love. If our desires are disordered, we will turn inwards on ourselves, and be closed off to others and to God. Only the pure man, one who loves truth for its own sake, who realizes that he was made to be for others, can see reality as it truly is. He will be able to perceive that moral and spiritual reality which is the foundation of his ultimate happiness, namely, union with God Himself.
Modern readers are quite often surprised to discover that the Doctors of the Church, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. John of the Cross, locate the greatest harm of lust in its blinding of the human reason. Again, as noted above, this lesson does not primarily have to do with sexual morality, but with the integration of the moral conscience as a whole. The blinding of human reason results in a narrowing of our perspective, for we are unable to see things and others as they really are.
In his teaching on the Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II often spoke of what he called “the nuptial meaning of the body.” The Holy Father noted that the body has and reveals a unique language wherein which the person, through his body, communicates something utterly unique: “I am for another.” Our human nature is such that we are meant, and desire, to give ourselves to others, not just a part of ourselves, but the entirety of who we are. The highest form of this self-giving love on the human level is fully realized in the marital union between a man and woman, but is also discovered in the beauty of the gift of friendship. Through virtue and grace, the pure man has cultivated and nourished an interior capacity to look upon another, whether it is a woman or a close friend, as other. The tremendous dignity of the human person as made in the image of God is revealed to us. Notice that this is a gift, it is something one receives, not a realization that we can force upon our understanding. Through the inner disorder of our own souls, we often times reverse the God-given order of creation and its very purpose: we treat things as persons and reduce persons to things. One need only look to the fact that certain nations are seeking to legislate “personhood” rights to dogs and dolphins, while at the same time, trying to reduce the human person in the mother’s womb to mere tissue, a thing to be disposed of if burdensome.
Aristotle wrote that virtue not only makes the work done good, “but the one doing the work becomes good as well.” Becoming good, through repeated virtuous acts, is the very reason and order of our human nature, for it is only in goodness that we penetrate and see what a full human life is. The pure man, with his well-formed conscience, understands that truth obligates him to pursue it at all costs. We are “truth-seekers,” as Pope John Paul II said, because this is precisely the way that God has lovingly created us.
I end with a brief story: an American reporter was visiting Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and watching her tend to a man whose flesh was rotting. “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” the reporter said. “Neither would I,” was Mother Teresa’s response. How beautiful! The American reporter had a conception of love that was drastically narrow, and rather inhumane. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, was free to give herself and love the other as other because of her interior purity. The reporter saw the man as despicable; Mother Teresa saw him as lovable. The world is quite confused about the beauty and freedom of purity. Echoing the sentiments of Mother Teresa are the remarks of Chesterton, who said that the reward of chastity “is a clearness of the intellect.” Only the chaste can say, and live, such a reality.