Church Critics Have Long Abandoned the Real World

“The Catholic apologist,” says Arnold Lunn, in Now I See, an account of his intellectual and personal conversion to the faith, “bases his argument on the appeal to external facts.” The apologist’s opponents, then (1938) as now, “agree only in their appeal from objective truth to subjective prejudice, from external facts to personal intuition.”

Yet we hear constantly that it is exactly the reverse. I’m regularly greeted with the accusation of believing what I believe about abortion, for example, only because of my Catholic faith. In one sense, a trivial sense, this is true. I am more likely to believe anything because I have been taught it, and in this I am no different from anyone; the objection applies as much to my opponent, and is equally irrelevant. If I grew up on one of the Pacific islands in the days of Captain Cook, I would be more likely than now to think that it was a good and healthy thing to roast and eat the flesh of my enemies captured in battle, but surely that is neither here nor there as far as the morality of cannibalism is concerned.

The opponents, projecting their vagaries onto us, seem to believe that we are actuated by some feeling or other that has been induced in us by our upbringing. Well, such a feeling may or may not be there. I find that I am in danger of not having any “feeling” at all about moral evils, or far too little, than of being afire with indignation. Numbness is more common than oversensitivity. But the church’s teachings are based upon facts, and appeal to facts. The hardest thing to do is often to get people to recognize what is in front of their eyes, because we sin mainly by denying what we can see, and that means we will justify ourselves with all the greater and more implacable fury. To let up on that for a moment would be to allow reality to assert its obvious claims again. That baby’s a boy!

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Already in Lunn’s time the alternatives to the faith all deflected attention away from reality. “The new moral codes which are to regenerate mankind,” says he, “and which are peddled round by commercial travelers in new religions, all resolve themselves, in the last resort, to an appeal based upon the authority of intuition. All these modern prophets appeal to a funny feeling inside,” which Funny Internal Feeling he names by the happy term, FIF. What we deal with is the conflict between Facts and FIF.

People who have fallen from the faith will say that we don’t need “religion,” by which they mean some fuzzy thing that has a candle in it, to be good. Catholics have never denied that people can be, in common parlance, good, by following the dictates of natural reason, but that is not at all what these opponents are saying. They mean that everybody has a FIF, and it is this FIF that can guide us into lives that are passably decent. Cannibals evidently did not have the same FIF in their bellies when they drank an enemy’s blood from his skull, but people who turn to a FIF for moral direction do not commonly consider how wicked man with a FIF can be.

The FIF is sometimes thought to have arisen from our evolution, and that gives the FIF a more impressive pedigree than if you attributed it to the habits of approval, appetite, contempt, and disgust you have picked up from your principal teachers in mass culture and mass entertainment. “I have a Funny Internal Feeling about forbidding abortion,” no one will ever say, “because I picked up the habit unconsciously after watching a lot of worthless television.”

Lunn sees the result and expresses it with a dry wit. So he takes on that vulgar popularizer of science, that strange Victorian fusspot aspiring to the foul, Mr. H.G. Wells, who wrote a whole book, God the Invisible King, on a new deity for a new age. You might think that a science-fellow would base his opinion by appealing to facts and arguing from them, but no; it is all FIF:

Chastity, or as Mr. Wells prefers to describe it, “a superstitious abstinence that scars and embitters the mind, distorts the imagination, makes the body gross and keeps it unclean, is just as offensive to God…” as to Mr. H.G. Wells. “God has no special preferences or commandments regarding sexual things.”

Which is all fine for Mr. Wells. If you ask him how he knows this, “Mr. Wells will reply with unruffled dignity, ‘Thus saith FIF.’”

Lunn then turns to a work by one Mary Borden, who rejects the FIF of a prominent Victorian agnostic, to the effect that nobody ever says that justice is a vice or injustice a virtue. She says instead that young intellectuals in her day certainly did question those things. She might as well be an undergraduate at Yale, right now. In her words: “If you lived in the world of the twentieth century you’d find that quite a number of people, who take themselves seriously, disagreed. In fact, you’d find it the fashion to ridicule justice.” Or, as an undergraduate once said to me at the height of a heated argument, “What was right for the Nazis was right for the Nazis.” You would declare, says this Miss Borden, “that there was no such thing as right or wrong, beauty or ugliness.”

So on what then does she rely? She was, says Lunn, “an enthusiastic advocate for divorce reform,” which in her day, rather than in America fifty years previously, meant a loosening of the laws, not the reverse. But on what grounds? Nothing, she confesses, but a feeling—a FIF.

But it is just this FIF that the Catholic shrugs away. We believe that God made us and so we are not surprised to find that people will experience a natural attraction to the good and an aversion to evil. But we are fallen creatures, and dare not base anything upon such evanescent and subjectively experienced sensations.

The case against abortion is not based upon a FIF. The “case,” such as it is, for abortion but against infanticide, is based upon a FIF alone, since there is nothing to provide a morally significant distinction between the fetus and the newborn. The Catholic position, by contrast, is based upon two premises alone, one scientific and one moral. The scientific one is simply put. The fertilized egg is a human life. It is not vegetable. It is not canine. It is alive; it is not dead, like a corpse; it is not inert, inactive, like an acorn on a sidewalk or a seed on your windowsill; it is not inanimate, like an accretion of coral. It is not a part, like a toe; it is not a parasite, like a tapeworm; it is not an abnormal and pathological growth, like a cancer. These terms can all be defined with precision, and not one of them is appropriate for the zygote. Not one of them is close. You might as well call a squirrel a rock, or a blade of grass a slug.

These are facts. There is no conceivable definition of LIFE that can include every single-cell creature in the world but exclude the single-cell creature that is the human zygote. Its very motion through the Fallopian tube proves conclusively that it is self-active with its own aim, like other living creatures, and that it is biologically separate from the mother.

That is all we need for the minor premise. The major premise is a moral law: Innocent human life is never deliberately to be destroyed. That major premise is also based upon observable facts, which I have not the time to examine here.

So if you deny the conclusion, which is that it is impermissible deliberately to destroy a human fetus, you must deny either of the premises. There is no FIF. You may have that Funny Internal Feeling, or you may not, or you may have one feeling rather than another, but none of it is to the point. But the minor premise is a matter of scientific fact. Then you must deny the major. You must say that it is sometimes permissible to kill innocent human life. And that in fact is what the more logical and the more monstrous among us have said. Instead of reacting against the moral villainy of slaying newborns, and reconsidering their FIF as regards abortion, they hold to the FIF, and excuse the killing of the baby.

All of the Church’s moral teachings are so. All of them, no exceptions. Every other system that I see is either semi-Church, monstrous, or a FIF.

I do not think that the Word was made flesh, to dwell among us, and to be mocked, slandered, tortured, and crucified, so that we might all follow a Funny Feeling.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is H.G. Wells at his desk.

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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