Morality & Truth? Thou Shalt Not Judge

by Fr. Charles Irvin

January 1999

The O. J. Simpson trial, the Clinton impeachment “trial” and the on-going debate over doctor assisted suicide (and euthanasia) are sewn together in a quilted patchwork. The common thread weaving through each is the sentiment that “what is seen as true and what is seen as moral is, as George Will recently put it, merely perspectival.” Is truth a matter of one’s autonomous perception of reality?

Whether or not it’s a fact that Mr. Simpson actually murdered his wife and their mutual friend Ron Goldman is, we are told, to be seen in the context of the Los Angeles criminal justice system, defined for us as a racist system bent on demonizing O. J. Simpson, a black man. Whether or not William Jefferson Clinton sexually used twenty-one year old White House intern Monica Lewinsky is, you must understand, not to be seen as true in itself but rather must be seen in the context of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s obsession with both dethroning Bill Clinton as well as persecuting his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And whether or not euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide is morally wrong is, we are told, not to be seen as true in itself. Rather it is to be seen in the light of contextualism, a situation allowing autonomous individuals to decide when, where and how they will die and, according to the rector of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, to do so “with integrity, courage and conviction.” The good rector then went on to instruct us that the “great gift of contextualism… is its high regard for the burden of human freedom.”

What interests me is the notion he places before us, namely to consider that by being “unburdened” of the natural law, and being likewise “unburdened” of faith’s call to yield to the providential care of God, one takes on dignity and a noble burden. Well, I believe the rector is quite right – in supplanting God and taking dominion over human life, one makes oneself equal to God, a very great burden indeed!

But there’s nothing new in this gravity, nor in the consequences that follow. One needs only go back to the beginning, to Genesis 3:4 and to take on all of the weighty consequences that follow.

Classical liberal education taught us that truth is a universal, a constant – something fixed and “out there” to which my mind submits and assents. We were taught that what is true for me was true for you, as well as true for all intelligences that apprehended it. The same held for moral truths. What was moral for you was moral for me, just as what was immoral for you was immoral for me. Rendering these things down to the level of personal perspective reduces truth and morality to matters of opinion; it requires suspension of belief — as well as abandonment of the ability to live in reality.

Presently there approximately (at last count) 1,500 individuals who are in jail for lying under oath during civil litigations. These individuals were all subsequently tried and convicted in the courts of these United States, many of which have “Equal Justice Under the Law” cut in stone on the facades of their buildings. With great interest all of these convicted souls must now be watching and waiting to see how our proudly proclaimed “Rule of Law” deals with William Jefferson Clinton. For what is now on trial is not what Mr. Clinton did or did not do. We all know perfectly well what Ms. Lewinsky did to him, not what he did to her! And we all know perfectly well what the public opinion polls are telling us, as well as the posturing, huffing and puffing going on between Republicans and Democrats. What we have yet to determine is whether or not Americans want a legal system in which justice is dispensed equally for all. Allied to that is the question of whether or not the President of the United States stands under the law along with the rest of us, equally and on the same plane. It seems to me that our American Revolution had at issue the notion that the English monarch was subject to the Rule of Law. Related to that is the present question of whether or not we want our president to have the privileges of royalty, and thus be “above the law”.

The sexual escapades of William Jefferson Clinton are legendary, obsessive, compulsive and addictive. The consistent responses of his codependent spouse are likewise well documented and plain for all to see. Those matters are not at issue. What is on trial is our legal system — and along with its undergirding principle we have come to summarize in the phrase: “Equal Justice Under the Law”. But, then, that was on trial in the O. J. Simpson matter. And we know the verdict given us back then.

As for euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide? Well, what’s on trial here is whether or not the preservation of human life is a matter of morality that we all hold together in a commonly shared good. We fought the Civil War over the notion that human life was not under our own personal dominion. We are now asked to decide that morality is merely personal opinion — that morality is a matter under the dominion of the autonomous individual. Is morality truly something that burdens the individual with his or her freedom to exercise in dominion over human life “with integrity, courage and conviction” separate and apart from a society constituted in ordered liberties? Or is it a burden we should all share together in a society of commonly held goods?

The year of Our Lord 1998 was notable for a number of astonishing things: Outrage was muted, Shame was closeted, Morality was privatized and Truth was reduced to one’s individual perspective, while Honesty was buried under a mountain of Indifference. Democracy, too, seems to have been made subject to opinion polls, all of which raises the question: Why do we have elected representatives whom we send to Washington? Why not simply electronically take public opinion polls and tally the direct votes of the American people on any issue?

Two decades ago Guilt was excommunicated from the hearts of all freedom loving Americans. We became New Age devotees of Self Esteem, all other values being consigned to outer space. Confession (it follows) has become out-dated, is now thought to be another antiquity of the Victorians. And Sin? Well, sin is seen as just another form of a mental illness, a neurotic imbalance, a matter for psychiatric therapy. One now need only make one’s own individual and private contractual arrangements with God when it comes to either objective or subjective sin.

One of the chief lessons we learned in 1998 was that there is no sin unless and until one confesses it. And it is now no longer a matter of being a personal wrong. It is a “wrong” to the extent that one’s actions have “disappointed” others. And guilt? There is no guilt unless and until one admits it. There is no crime unless and until one is successfully prosecuted and convicted of its commission. There is no evil in one’s heart so long as one has good intentions. In our New Reality, intentionality defines what is and what isn’t. Thus lying is really not lying, perjury is really not perjury and sex is not really sex. This allows many to declare that our Chief Executive’s behavior is indefensible while at the same time they are vigorously defending him. [It’s time for me to find shelter in Alice In Wonderland, because evidently seeing is now not believing.]

According to a recent piece by a New York Times columnist, anyone who has not committed adultery should not reveal that fact in public lest he or she thereby launch a New Inquisition against all who are seeking election to public office. (Doesn’t everybody indulge in adultery?) Public displays of virtue, he declared, only invade the privacy of us all and can unleash terrible questions that will then be used to attack everyone. So wrote William Safire on 29 December 1998. What a fitting epitaph for Anno Horribilis 1998! So there you have it: Virtue now attacks your privacy rights. One wonders how much Larry Flynt paid Mr. Safire for such an emancipation proclamation.

For those who feel threatened by the voices of Virtue the defense employed these days is to demean and attack all who dare to accuse. Investigators and Special Prosecutors are thought to be the Dominicans of The New Inquisition. The righteous, you see, are all a part of a vast Conservative Conspiracy whose operative animus is vindictive, judgmental, prosecutorial, and hypocritical. In a world of sinners those possessed of virtue cannot be allowed a public voice because they threaten the complacency, the tranquillity and the security of us all.

And so we say “Farewell!” to the Year of Our Lord 1998, that magical year in which we reclassified the Ten Commandments, replacing the Divine Imperatives in one stroke with our own self-affirming Eleventh Commandment: “THOU SHALT NOT JUDGE”. Obviously the new Eleventh and the old Ten cannot coexist in the same souls at the same time. Self-esteem, our newest idol and god, must be duly served by consigning moral judgments into the outer darkness.

As Americans enter the New Millennium, does God now stand censured? Perhaps it is time to rewrite our Declaration of Independence so as to expunge all references to the Divine and declare that now all of our human rights founded upon the ground of Self Affirmation.


About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”