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There is No Substitute for the Light of Christ

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 04, 2013

An article in the January-February issue of Catholic Answers Magazine sets forth what the cover calls “the non-religious case against abortion”. In “Forty Years Is Long Enough”, staff apologist Trent Horn expresses serious concern about the acceptance of the abortion status quo by too many pro-lifers: “Some pro-lifers think that legal abortion will always exist and we simply have to get used to that fact. I disagree.” It is time, Horn insists, to unleash logical and effective natural arguments to turn people away from abortion, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Now Catholic Answers Magazine is an excellent publication which I recommend highly (go to And there is certainly nothing wrong with Horn’s natural arguments. But the suggestion that such argumentation is the key to success misses an important point. Whether we are pro-life is not determined primarily by our logical grasp of the natural law. For most people, it is not a recognition of the humanity of the unborn child that turns the tide but a recognition that human life is a sacred thing. Purely natural arguments are rarely sufficient to change the mind of even a single person. They certainly are not enough to transform an entire culture.

While it may not be necessary in theory, it is definitely true in practice that a conscious grasp of the natural law—and especially a willingness to accept it as real and normative even when we do not instinctively follow it—is almost always dependent on religious faith. Trent Horn is absolutely correct when he insists, in a reference to the legalization of abortion in the United States by the Supreme Court in 1973, that “forty years is long enough”. But it should be obvious by now that it is going to take something more than rational argument to build the kind of culture of life which can sweep those forty years aside. It is going to take evangelization.

Parallels between the rights of the unborn and, for example, the rights of women or the rights of gays would suggest that if we recognize the rights of one group we ought, logically, to recognize the rights of all the others. As Horn points out, there is no objective moral difference between murdering one’s two-year-old daughter and murdering one’s unborn baby. But it is a highly unusual person who can avoid rationalizing a significant moral difference between the two unless he already believes in the sanctity of human life. And, in fact, infanticide itself is becoming increasingly common despite the subjective differences in how we perceive or bond with the two-year-old and the unborn child.

The natural law is not unknown in pagan societies, and some elements of the natural law invariably take strong root in every culture. But particularly in sexual matters, where the temptations are very strong and very widely shared, a pagan view of the human person usually leads to a widespread cultural acceptance of what we might call a doctrine of convenience for the powerful. We can justify promiscuity, fornication, contraception, homosexual relations, and abortion because they appear to increase pleasure and reduce hardship for those who have the actual power to choose. The same doctrine provides a screen for the constant sexual, emotional and economic abuse of women and children, and justifies the actual enslavement of the powerless.

The natural law prohibits all of these things. Yet it is typically pagan societies in which such practices become endemic. As societies Christianize, these practices typically die out over time. The difference is not the force of the natural arguments but the ability of the human person, aided by grace, to both grasp and follow them. At root, the difference is the belief that each person is a son or a daughter of God, called into existence by name and invited into the Divine Family of the Trinity. It is Christianity which most fully reveals this special, inestimable quality of human life—along with our obligation to cherish it under pain of alienation from God Himself. God says to each human person exactly what He said to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5).

Trent Horn is right that we need to have far greater confidence that the culture wars can be won, and we need to commit ourselves to the right strategies to win them. But with each passing season it becomes clearer that we are not so much debating rational policy decisions as we are fighting powers and principalities which have far too much influence over our neighbors’ lives (and sometimes far too much influence over our own).

Horn is also right that this has gone on long enough. But it is not just forty years. It has in fact been hundreds of years since Christians in the West began to embrace the powerful myth that religion (and in particular Christianity) is merely a subjective and private sentiment. This is the myth that excludes grace from our interactions with our fellow-citizens and from the public square. I do not deny that we need a renewal of clear thinking. But the key to that is a spiritual renewal, by which I really mean a Christian revival. Indeed, the need for such a revival is now terrifyingly obvious.

Some, I suppose, will misunderstand me, thinking that I am advocating a sort of fideism, or a kind of Protestant revivalism which emphasizes emotion and Biblical proof-texting at the expense of reasoned argument. Inevitably, enemies of Christ will denounce my “fundamentalism”. But none of this is the case. We need to appeal to the whole person, body and soul, intellect and will, reason and faith. But what we cannot do any longer is segregate these things, thinking to make the world successful by reason without faith, or to make people good through argument without grace. Perhaps the greatest mockery in the modern secular world is this strange notion that God (nice as the idea of Him may be) can be made irrelevant to human affairs, while we proceed from strength to strength all on our own.

The danger of natural law arguments—or even of simple exercises of logic—is not that they are wrong or even that they are unnecessary. They are certainly right and certainly necessary; at times they may even be the very best thing we can offer someone in Christ. But the danger is that in the absence of grace they will be taken for exactly what our culture most often takes them to be—arguments made by some against others, for the convenience of their own particular prejudices. We must remember that this is how people in pagan cultures most often think—I mean in terms of convenience. In the absence of grace, life is reduced to convenience—convenience embraced for oneself and rejected as base in others.

True philosophers are always very thin on the ground. We must get used to the idea that the natural law will bear little or no fruit in isolation from Jesus Christ. Every argument, every initiative, every decision, every choice must be made in the light of Christ, to advance the knowledge of Christ, to enrapture others with the love of Christ. This in fact is what life means for the Christian, who yearns to say “it is now not I but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

In the interior life, this is called holiness. As an outward-directed program, it is called evangelization. Oriented toward cultures which formerly enjoyed a knowledge of the Faith, it is called the new evangelization. The common thread is that at every level and in every way, Christ is irreplaceable. The lesson? Accept no substitutes.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: nix898049 - Oct. 22, 2016 7:57 PM ET USA

    So few modern secularist politicians care to think deeply about reality and their subsequent moral superiority is a cover for sloth? This has the ring of truth, for sure. Thank you for pointing out a near occasion of spin.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 07, 2013 1:54 PM ET USA

    spledant7672--I check the blogosphere and see that a lot of sincere Protestants are left in the cold regarding how to change the direction of this Republic. They believe that they don't have their own repentance to achieve, since they profess to be Christians. You see the error. How, indeed, will we reach these people if we do not go where they are? I am open to any suggestions.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Jan. 05, 2013 5:16 PM ET USA

    Last night I got back from a meeting with people wanting to be catalysts for political change. I have been having growing misgivings, not just about my involvement in this process but about the whole way of looking at things that always leads to me getting involved in stuff like this. There is so much common ground with the others at the meeting but everything I've learned over the years is leading me more in the direction of this article. Thank you.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 05, 2013 1:06 PM ET USA

    Caught your drift, Dr. Mirus. We are eating the rotten fruit of the Protestant Revolt. That is the point at which a substantial number of Christians no longer considered faith and obedience virtues. The result, as you pointed out so accurately, is the "enslavement of the powerless."

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 05, 2013 9:17 AM ET USA

    Absolutely right on! Careful, prudent, truthful, courageous and charitable words! Christian charity at its best.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Jan. 05, 2013 6:55 AM ET USA

    I agree with you. Somewhere post mid 60s the Church seemed to lose its way in how it taught not only about Christ but how to be a Christian in the modern World. In the 50s and 60s there movements such as the YCW (Young Christian Workers) and YCS (Young Christian Students) who learnt "Applied Christianity" - by that I mean they used the See-Judge-Act methodology developed by these movements. Basically study through the Gospels how Christ reacted to situations and apply in today's world.