In this age of relativism, anyone who presents a firm moral stance on an issue will often be asked, “Who are you to say what’s right and wrong?”
And really, I have to admit, they have a point. Not that there is no objective right and wrong, but that I have absolutely no authority to say what is right and what is wrong. I am not an authority. I am not authorized by another authority to make decrees about the rightness or wrongness of a darn thing. I am not empowered to decide for myself what is right and what is wrong.
And, of course, neither are they.
Humans do not decide such worlds-breaking things as rightness and wrongness, or human nature, or the existence of God. It’s not up to us. We don’t get to choose whether we live in a world with or without a God—we are only permitted to choose what we acknowledge, what we profess. We don’t get to decide if we live in a world where stealing is permissible or forbidden—we are only permitted to decide if we will abide by the laws in existence. We are in the presence of something entirely outside our control. And it drives us crazy.
Modernity, after all, is almost entirely predicated around the idea that progress is an expansion of individual choice and autonomy at the expense of whatever stands in our way. Man must conquer nature, must destroy distance, overcome the boundaries of gravity and time, must fend off death by any means necessary, must defeat the enemies of freedom by any means necessary. Our slogan, in fact, has become “By Any Means Necessary,” which is, of course, the sort of slogan that motivated the forces of Hell when they fought in the first great revolution against the Man—that is, the Triune God and his angels.
So we resist any imposition by any other upon our own, freely choosing (that is, autonomous) will when it comes to morality. We must be permitted the freedom to be mature, to make our own choices, to be respected for our maturity and the work we put into making our own choices. At the same time, as Pope Benedict has made abundantly clear, when truth is no longer the criterion for discerning the good, all that we are left with is power and politics. When good or evil do not rest in objective norms, then whoever is the most powerful decides what can and cannot be done. Freedom disappears in the name of freedom from objective norms. We are reduced to slavery beneath the boot of the tyrant and his majority, beneath the unfettered whim of his disordered will.
And, as Benedict, Blessed John Paul II, and C. S. Lewis often reiterated, true freedom comes from conforming ourselves and our world to the truth, to objective norms of right and wrong. Humans are liberated by behaving correctly according to their nature. Of course, at the heart of salvation history is one enormous exception to this rule—we are liberated by saying, “Yes” to the divine marriage proposal and accepting transcendence. We are made free in the Spirit by being adopted as sons and daughters of God—by grace, not by nature. But this is not to discard achieving freedom through obedience to nature. We are made partakers in the divine nature, as St. Peter tells us, and so the morality binding on Christians is the morality fitting to the divine life and love of God. Christian morality is the morality of the cross, of the total self gift made manifest in Christ’s passion and death which lies at the heart of the Trinity. The cross makes transparent the innermost life of God, and has been described by the popes as the deepest, most clear revelation of God which humanity has ever been privileged to witness.
Christ on the cross is a word to us, announcing the objective norm to which humans are called. We are made in God’s image and likeness, a phrase which indicates sonship. Adam and Eve are made in God’s image and likeness, and at the start of Genesis 5, have a son, Seth, who is in Adam’s image and likeness. Luke calls Adam “son of God” in his recounting of Jesus’s genealogy. The whole human race was created to be sons and daughters of God by grace, but Adam and Eve plundered the estate of their Father and became the first prodigal children. Christ on the cross is the sign of the Father come running with outstretched arms to embrace his children, his brethren, and draw them home.
We are not empowered to decide morality, only to discern it, and in it, the love of God, Father, Son, and Spirit.