Choice and Consequence

John B. Shea
October 6, 2000
Reproduced with Permission

Dante placed Francesca da Rimini in the second circle of hell, where the souls of the lustful were tossed upon a howling wind. She had been murdered by her husband, who, having surprised her in the presence of her lover, Paolo, his own brother, killed them both. Dante treats of her with gentleness and pity, but it is not for this reason that this passage in the Inferno is the most famous episode in the whole Comedy. It is because he so convincingly and so beautifully reveals the excuse for sin, the lingering with its occasion, the circumstances which were its immediate cause, the soul's surrender to damnation, and the failure to truly love and avail of that grace forever proffered which leads to salvation.1

Francesca's tragedy is a classic one of pride, in which she asserts her complete autonomy. Though suffering punishment as a result of her free choice, she is locked into a mind-set of protestation and excuse ... "We were alone and suspected nothing." Paolo and she had been reading Lancelot of the Lake, and she blamed that book for her downfall. She did not accept responsibility to God for her actions, and remained fixed in this attitude for all eternity. It is just this notion of autonomy which is posited as the basic principle which determines the whole ethical structure adopted today by our trendy philosophers and which dominates the thinking of the medical and bio-ethical committees which advise our physicians, nurses, pharmacists, researchers, hospital boards and universities.

Richard Rorty is the dean of this school of bio-ethics that dominates the English speaking world. He is a self proclaimed nihilist, a philosopher who insists that human life had absolutely no meaning. He has stated that each person who thinks as he does "…takes satisfaction in accepting the 'radical contingency of his or her most central beliefs and desires', which have no foundation beyond the reach of time and chance." This ethics also makes a point of proclaiming the principles of justice, fairness, doing good, never doing harm, acting only with informed consent, and of respecting the dignity of the person, who has fundamental human rights such as the right to life, to freedom of speech, of assembly etc. However, none of these principles are rooted in an objective and knowable truth, in natural law or in divine law. Neither are fundamental human rights regarded as inalienable or intrinsic, or based on the dignity of the person as a creature made by God in His own image and likeness. No, all of these principles and rights are seen as subject to alteration or abrogation by the law. This law is to be enacted by parliament in response to a vote which itself is deemed to be appropriate only when it represents the consensus of society. It was also Rorty who stated that what is needed in order to have a common moral standard is just such a consensus.2 To achieve this consensus, he held that speech, rhetoric, is of prime importance, because it has the power to convert our desires to truth.3 This consensus is not defined. It can mean an agreement arrived at by a majority of those concerned. It can represent the sentiment or prejudice of socially and politically powerful groups who are themselves a minority, even a minuscule minority. It can be a sham, paraded by politicians as true, but in fact a fiction. It can be achieved by the use of the manipulative power of the media exercising the subtle seduction of hedonism, which is the backbone of modern advertising. The subordination of truth to the powers of persuasion becomes the subordination of truth to the will of a self appointed elite. Thus the legitimate claim of truth upon our minds yields to political power, and democracy becomes, step by step, a euphemism for totalitarianism. Recently it had become evident that this consensus has become less that of any nation than that of a putative international community. For example, on October 3 - 5, 2000, the World Medical Association debated revisions to the Declaration of Helsinki. These revisions would stipulate that the grounding of all research in the inviolable dignity and freedom of the individual human subject by replaced by the utilitarian principle of the greatest good of science and society.4 Joseph Mengele, the Nazi medical researcher, if he were present at that meeting, would no doubt, have been asked to stand up and take a bow.

In Canada the law of the land has replaced divine law and the natural law. This law of the land is passed by legislators who can be voted out of office, but it can be modified, opposed, and in fact dominated by the decisions of a Supreme Court whose members can not be removed from office by the public. The public has no say in their appointment, which is entirely in the hands of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister can, if he or she wishes, appoint to this court judges who act in keeping with ideologies hostile to the principles of natural and divine law. The Supreme Court, in fact, includes many judges who act in this way. This Court, in defiance of moral truth and the evidence of science, has denied the unborn the right not to be unjustly killed, and has even denied them legal recognition of the scientific fact of their humanity. Many other moral falsehoods have received the legal recognition of the Supreme Court of Canada. Sadly, these court decisions have become accepted by the public even as moral law, despite the fact that their decisions inflict grievous injustice on a massive scale, without mercy and from which there is no escape.

The old coarse and brutal communism is dying in the west. However, subtle socialism lives on. Pretending to defend the legitimate needs of the disadvantaged, socialists reject the Catholic moral principle of subsidiarity, which holds that societal functions should be performed by those most closely involved. Socialists are hostile to the God-given authority of parents and see the family as the single greatest obstacle to their dominance. At the United Nations, only the collective is of value. The individual no longer counts. The third world poor are to be contracepted or aborted out of existence. In due course, only those genetically approved of, may be allowed to procreate, and the total number of the world population may be strictly controlled. As a manipulative tactic, even a 'world religion' is in the planning, and all of this is to be done in the sacred name of autonomy.

In 1370, just a few years after Dante's death, St. Catherine of Siena dictated these words she had received while in ecstasy and in dialogue with God the Father. Referring to those in authority she said, " So, were the prelate, or any other lord having subjects, on seeing one putrefy from the corruption of mortal sin, to apply to him the ointment of soft words of encouragement alone, without reproof, he would never cure him … But, if he were a physician, good and true to those souls, as were those glorious pastors of old, he would not give salving ointment without the fire of reproof."5

These words resonate today. They apply with particular force to the practice of medicine. For the sake in particular of our Christian patients and our medical care givers, and indeed for the good of all, we must not be afraid to expose and denounce these moral falsehoods which have come to be accepted as true, even by large numbers of people who consider themselves to be well-informed and loyal Catholics. The rapid pace at which chemical abortion, in-vitro-fertilization, embryo research, and euthanasia are occurring are a sign of the times which, as witnesses to Christ, we cannot ignore.

Modern ethicists simply assert man's complete moral autonomy as if he were a being not contingent upon God, his Creator. They try to justify themselves with the trappings and panoply of philosophy. Their true spiritual and moral status was vividly foreshadowed by Dante in his poignant and perceptive portrayal of Francesca. Both she and they reject their ultimate accountability. We have no choice but to choose, either the autonomy of the beast or the freedom of the children of God.


1 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy . Inferno. Bantam Books. New York. Canto V. p.45. verses 97 - 142. [Back]

2 Richard Rorty. Contingency, irony and solidarity. p.189. [Back]

3 William A. Frank, Starting Points For Philosophy, History and Metaphysics in Fides et Ratio. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. Vol. 23, no. 2, Spring 2000. p. 18. [Back]

4 Dianne N. Irving Library [Back]

5 The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena: A Treatise on Prayer. Kegan Paul and company. London. 1907 p.247. [Back]