People pray in Federal Plaza following a eucharistic procession through downtown Chicago from St. Peter Church in the Loop as part of a Fortnight of Freedom event June 24. The annual fortnight campaign, initiated by the U.S. bishops in 2012, calls for a two-week period of prayer, education and action on preserving religious freedom in the U.S. The observance ends July 4, Independence Day. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
, derived from the
Latin for judge, is defined as “one chosen to judge or decide a
disputed issue”; also, “one who has the power to judge at will”.
Many insist that an arbiter for
morality and behavior is irrelevant today, that enlightened societies
have progressed beyond judging morality and behavior, unless behavior
breaks a law. Nonetheless, it is evident that human beings, though
many will not admit it, need an arbiter. The fundamental question is
who or what will this arbiter be?
Belief systems are at the heart of this
question. Scientific materialists deny a Deity and anything
transcendent, including objective Truth. Many believe in a
“disengaged Supreme Being, or force”, including Deists, New
Agers, and Buddhists; Star Wars is a modern depiction of such a
“force”. There are those who believe in an “engaged Supreme
Being”, including many traditional Jews and Muslims. Most
Christians believe in a “Trinitarian Supreme Being in solidarity
with man, even as man.”
Pantheists and dualists accept numerous
deities, some opposing others. Syncretists adopt bits and pieces of
more than one of these belief systems. Agnostics profess to be
ambivalent on the matter of a Supreme Being, with most eventually
drifting into the camp of the scientific materialists or the
Many scientific materialists who are
critical of “Deity as arbiter” fail to acknowledge, or recognize,
that they themselves have need of an arbiter. To those who assert
that they are post-morality, offer a view contrary to the avant-garde
positions on homosexual activity and reproductive “rights” and
see what happens.
Consider. Whether one makes this choice
explicitly or implicitly, all rely on an arbiter for essential
questions of justice, truth and falsehood, good and evil. For those
who believe in a Supreme Being, the Deity is this arbiter, with Truth
revealed by the Deity’s corporate presence on Earth (in the sense
of a cohesive association of believers) and revelatory texts. For the
remainder, this arbiter is the state, the prevailing viewpoint of the
milieu or of an avant-garde subculture, another human being, or
Traditionally, those who believe in an
“engaged Supreme Being” have accepted this Being’s corporate
Earthly presence and revelatory texts as revealing objective Truth,
as being immutable. Today, many Jews, Christians, and Muslims who
profess belief in an “engaged Supreme Being” have adopted, for
all practical purposes, the attitudes of those who believe in a
“disengaged force”; thus, revelatory texts are seen as constructs
of man, perhaps noteworthy as works of art and wisdom, but not
binding. Similarly, religious institutions are merely advisory, not
having the authority to bind and loose. This belief system, aligned
with that of the scientific materialists, is disposed to make the
state, a fashionable viewpoint, another human being, or themselves
the final arbiter of moral questions.
The state can be a capricious arbiter.
Historical events, crises, and spellbinders often alter the state’s
position on justice, human rights, and liberties. Even an enlightened
constitution, if unlinked to anything immutable, can be
re-interpreted or changed to fit the times and the demands of
expediency. For those scientific materialists who declaim the tyranny
of religion and the absurdity of objective Truth, one might pose this
question: if there are no objectively valid moral norms, then why
should I subject myself to “tyrannical” state laws the
preferred arbiter of many scientific materialists - if these laws
conflict with my own desires? Why not insist that others obey
these laws to promote an orderly society while doing what is
in my own interests?
Likewise, the prevailing viewpoint or
that of an avant-garde subculture. Like leaves in a meadow, these
viewpoints remain “anchored” for a time, but are carried away by
the stiff winds of this or that event, “anchoring” elsewhere
until the next storm emerges.
Human beings are notoriously fallible.
Making even the wisest among us an arbiter of moral questions is
risky business, not to mention investing authority in a Hitler or
Many of us make ourselves the
arbiter of everything, though we may not admit it to others, or even
ourselves. This purely subjective attitude leads to a cacophony of
viewpoints, none more valid than any other, resulting in moral
confusion and metaphysical myopia.
Wouldn't a rational and disinterested
observer conclude that an arbiter affirmed by wise and courageous
people across the centuries, countercultural in every age, battered
by external and internal tribulation, inured to the present whims and
fashions, and tested by the experience of millennia, is more credible
than transient states, viewpoints anchored to a particular milieu, or
fragile human beings? Despite unfaithful and predatory people in the
Church, it was this Church that first bestowed human dignity on
women, slaves, the poor and dispossessed, lepers, and foreigners, a
forerunner to the universal rights of man and constitutional
Contrary to what scientific
materialists would have us believe, it isn’t a matter of pitting an
anachronistic arbiter of people of faith against enlightened liberty.
The question is: who or what is the arbiter of morality and behavior?
The choice is between an arbiter who understands man’s nature and
offers a demanding path to genuine happiness and freedom, and fickle
states, fashions, and human beings that can’t deliver what they
promise. So it has always been.