My experience as a teacher is that even students from homes with a regular practice of the Catholic faith have a hazy grasp of the moral law. They are personally decent and honorable, but they do not recognize that they are following a law that is universal to mankind, and that everyone regardless of culture or historical era, grasps it in its fundamentals. The moral differences between cultures over history, or cultures in the same age––indeed the differences between the moral teachings of the Church and the society around them––strike our students much more than the common principles. They seem to have the uneasy fear that some society, perhaps in highland New Guinea, sanctions theft, adultery, and lying, making what we call the “moral law” merely a restricted sociological norm.
This is a serious obstacle to seeing God’s provident care for man. St. Paul declares that the pagans, who have not the Mosaic law but nonetheless carry out its precepts, show that “they have the law written on their hearts.” Recognition of the moral law should lead to recognition of the Lawgiver. If the student does not see this, he does not see the most basic way for man to know God, namely, as the source of his conscience. As a consequence, even if Christian morality seems probable, it is somehow beyond the grasp of most men. Therefore, God has left men in a condition in which He is largely inaccessible.
Equally grave, it is universal knowability of the moral law that makes men culpable for vice, i.e. a “sinner.” That is why St Paul, shortly before he speaks of the law “written on the heart,” faults the pagans for their idolatry and sexual immorality. At some level, all pagan religions recognized that man was in a sinful condition––hence their use of sacrifice and ritual purification. The pagans to whom the apostles preached know only the Bad News of man’s sinful condition and his inadequate attempts to reconcile himself to the Divine Law. That is what made the Gospel “Good News” indeed. Our students, however, partly from the innocence of youth that sees no malice in others, partly from the culture around them that excludes all vices from environment or genetics, has no clear sense of “sinful man.” They do not see the Gospel as “Good News,” because they do not know the “Bad News.” They have to be convinced that the Bad News is true.
What does all this mean for the classroom? Our “moral theology” class at Providence Academy is two semesters in the sophomore year. We spend nine weeks on the first half of C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. The students enjoy reading Lewis, even though they find it challenging. I supplement his discussion of the moral law in Mere Christianity with his “Illustrations of the Tao” from the Abolition of Man, which helps the students see how cultures across time and place share the same basic moral precepts. We spend the next quarter entirely on the natural law, mostly reading from the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas. To be sure, I have to use a lot of pedagogical tools to make St. Thomas accessible to sixteen year olds! But we read St. Thomas because I have not found another text that addresses the natural law in the same comprehensive way––its relation to God’s rule of the universe, to the human law, to judgments of conscience, etc.
It is only after a semester of C. S. Lewis and St. Thomas that we tackle the Ten Commandments one by one. That way, as we are discussing abortion or marriage or theft, I do not have to explain the foundation upon which these precepts rest. (Think of how many arguments you have had or heard on Catholic morality in which, at bottom, the objector really tried to reject any form of “natural law”). Further, this allows the treatment of the commandments to reinforce what they have learned first semester.
More importantly, we make this study of the moral law central to all aspects of the high school religion curriculum. Whether we are teaching the New Testament, sacraments, prayer, etc, the moral law must be either anticipated or revisited. The teachings on original sin, atonement, grace, examination of conscience, and penance will make no impression on a mind that thinks man is not culpable before God for transgression, even ignorance of His Law. I have cited C. S. Lewis on this point, but the writer who has given this matter greater study and articulation is John Henry Newman, in his treatment of “natural religion” in the Grammar of Assent. We have read Newman together as a religion department precisely to be more intentional in this task.
Whether one uses C. S. Lewis or something else, Catholic moral education must provide these truths that the Gospel presupposes before it can evangelize effectively. The cure of the Gospel makes no sense without the diagnosis of man, a being judged by the moral law, and found wanting. However strange it may sound, our students cannot be good Christians if they are not yet even good pagans.