Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) was a British analytic philosopher who early in life met and was deeply influenced by the great Austrian logician and linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein. Her most original contribution to philosophy is the monograph Intention, a study of reason as applied to human actions. The American analytic philosopher Donald Davidson described Intention as “the most important treatment of action since Aristotle.” Early in her twenties Anscombe and her future husband converted to Catholicism. Some of her contemporaries regard her as the greatest woman philosopher in history. The Anscombe Society is a group of Princeton University students (chapters now on two dozen campuses across the nation) who celebrate her life and works, in particular her writings on traditional marriage and family values. Typical of Anscombe’s views on human sexuality is the following sentence: “Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be.”
A four-volume set of critical essays on Anscombe’s works by leading philosophers titled simply Elizabeth Anscombe (edited by Roger Teichmann) was published in 2016. As the result of Anscombe’s public debate with C.S. Lewis, which he lost, Lewis found himself obliged to rewrite the third chapter of his book Miracles for the 1960 edition. A large and scattered number of Anscombe’s essays were posthumously gathered and published. One of those volumes is Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. Of particular interest in that volume are her views on what might be called the moral compass.
The Compass Explained
For Anscombe, the needle on our personal moral compass points either to our hatred or to our love for God. In her brief essay “On the Hatred of God” Anscombe alleges that the sinner who rebels against God does so because he hates the “divine law repressing vices,” and hates even more the promised punishments inflicted for our sins. Such hatred provokes the resort to atheism. “They [atheists] do not want God to exist, hence they do not acknowledge God. For nearly two hundred years now philosophers have been entangling themselves in involved arguments that they may believe there cannot be one supreme and infinite deity: in fact on this account they reject the worship of God as being unworthy of a free spirit; they despise the worshipers of God and mock them as slaves.” For this reason, atheists try to raise every argument they can against the so-called proofs of Christianity from prophecy and miracles. G.E. Lessing and David Hume are cited by Anscombe as the two critics of Christianity that most need to be refuted in the matter of miracles and prophecies. This refutation she offers in Chapters 2 and 3.
Are We Immortal?
Next Anscombe examines the question of the immortality of the soul. If there is no God, as the atheists desire, there can be no immortal soul (which conviction will have an injurious effect upon morals since it excludes the possibility of heaven and hell). Anscombe first reasons that the soul cannot be regarded as an immaterial substance, which is the usual error that a skeptic makes when trying to deny its existence. That is to say, the soul may well be immaterial (even a skeptic can admit that possibility based on our understanding of thought itself as something that resists a description like “mere atoms of matter”), but it is not a substance in the sense that a chair or a bed are substances. We do not think of letters of the alphabet or numbers as material substances, though we may think of them as the substance of our thoughts. This is the source of much confusion as to the nature of the soul versus the nature of the mind, but a valid definition of the soul will remove the difficulties for Christians and skeptics alike.
How then are we to logically distinguish the immaterial soul from the material body, if the soul is not a substance the way the body is a substance? Philosophically, it can’t be done. One might be able to infer the possibility of the soul as separate from the body, perhaps in much the same way that Plato inferred the Ideas as separate from the material world. As to the immortality of the soul, that can be inferred in much the same way that mathematical formulas (such as E=Mc2) might be said to have an immortal existence, being true now, in the past, and forever. But, in the end, we are obliged to refer to revelation when asserting the existence of a spirit (soul) that transcends the body and does not disintegrate with it upon the body’s death. We are also obliged to refer to the promise of Christ’s revelation, rather than natural reason, when we believe that the body will be restored with the soul for an immortal existence of its own. It will not please the atheist at all to hear this as an argument for the resurrection of the body, since he takes nothing to be true by divine revelation, but only what is true by the light of human reason (and those truths are only provisionally true, since we can never be absolutely certain of anything, according to most atheists).
A Personal God?
As Anscombe suggests, we may infer the nature of God based on biblical passages such as the one in Genesis, where God reveals that humans will be made in his “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:27). What does this mean? Is God a physical body? Obviously not. Is God a person? Not in the sense that humans are persons. But it stands to reason that if we are to imagine and reason about what God is, we would have to say that to a lesser degree our spirits, as opposed to our bodies, must resemble the spirit of God in certain ways. What ways? God seems to be a creative Being with intellect and will. These three aspects of God’s power would seem to be required for the creation of the universe and all the laws that govern it. It would seem that God delights in creation, as humans do. God has a sense of good and evil. God prefers good over evil, just as we would. God is free and made us to be free. The list of personal attributes in God goes on and on once we concede that scripture is right to speak of us as being made in God’s image and likeness.
Finally, we can see that the traits of the human spirit are made so similar to God’s that we should want to share in God’s goodness forever; hence the belief arises and persists that the human soul is immortal, thereby sharing the glory of the eternal Creator. This much we can reasonably infer as we like, or rely simply on revelation. What is surely more difficult to reasonably infer on our own is whether the body will share in the immortality sought by the soul. And so, Anscombe concludes, “It is only from revelation that we can believe in anything else – namely in the resurrection.” It follows that if we want it, namely the immortality of the body and of the soul together and in communion with a loving Creator, we cannot possibly find hatred for God as a way to get it.
Authority in Morals
One can reasonably assert that the discussion of moral authority should be had before morality can be discussed. Is there such a thing as moral authority and where is it located? Anscombe rightly points to the central problem of moral authority: human beings are fallible, so who can be trusted with moral authority? It is definitely possible that, for one reason or another, those who teach morals may teach untrue things about morality. The teaching of untrue things is more likely to occur when teaching morality than when teaching physics or mathematics. The reason for this is that there is no universal moral authority granted to teaching morals if the teacher’s authority is himself alone. The teacher of physics or mathematics is relying upon the collective authority of his profession to assert his authority. But there is no comparable authority for morals, unless it be granted that religion provides such an authority. Even then, it can be argued that different religions have a different grasp of moral principles. For example, Catholics and Protestants may disagree on morals; Christians and Muslims may disagree a good deal more vehemently.
Some will argue that a teacher of morals is not necessary, since conscience itself is the ultimate authority on right and wrong. But this precludes the possibility of an authority outside one’s own, and raises once again the spectre of moral judgments wrongly made. After all, we do lie to ourselves from time to time, and what is to prevent us from lying to ourselves about whether what we are doing is right when in fact it is wrong? What prevents us from doing just that is our adherence to some dogmatic teaching that comes from an authority decidedly higher than our own? As Anscombe remarks: “Now some dogmatic beliefs are revealed and could not be known otherwise. The question arises whether this could be essential to some moral beliefs.”
Moral doctrines, to be sure, are revealed to us by one authority or another. But there is only one authority that claims to be infallible, and that is the authority of divine revelation. For example, the biblical commandments of Moses against lying and stealing and killing (received directly from God) are injunctions that we learn as matters of faith, to which authority we give our assent. Anyone who does not get exposed to these biblical injunctions, however, is free to ignore them, and many do. The prisons are full of them, and as the authority of religion declines in a society, the prison populations explode. But there are proven instances throughout history, and in many civilizations, when the biblical injunctions were not even known. For example, in the the Roman empire about the time of Nero and for centuries thereafter it became fashionable for Roman spectators at the Colosseum to applaud the feeding of Christians to the lions. Yes, the Romans had their gods; they may even have honored them in their fashion; but clearly in their collective mind these gods had not provided, as surely the infallible God of Moses and Jesus had, the forbidding of wholesale murder for entertainment.
Are Total Massacres Ever Justified?
In 1958, Anscombe in a pamphlet titled Mr. Truman’s Degree vigorously objected to Oxford University’s awarding of an honorary doctorate to Harry S. Truman because he was a mass murderer of civilian populations. Anscombe also indirectly treated the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an undated manuscript titled “Christians and Nuclear Weapons Designed for the Destruction of Cities.” The manuscript does not indicate that Anscombe had ever read any part of the letters Albert Einstein had sent to President Roosevelt early in the war. In one of the letters Einstein remarked: “… it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future…. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable–though much less certain–that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Given the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the last sentence proved to be a colossal understatement.
Anscombe begins her analysis of the matter by pointing to the fact that throughout history nations have acquired the habit of being in conflict with each other; such conflict allowed the assumption that all the members of one nation were the enemies of the other nation. It became a matter of assumed honour to wipe out the enemy in their entirety – men, women, and children – and thereby secure the safety and triumph of the conquering nation. Such was the fate of ancient Melos when it was conquered by Athens. Upon the arrival of Christianity, when it was preached that we should love our enemies, such an attitude died its slow death through the centuries … at least until 1945.
As Anscombe notes: “This appetite for massacre is with us still, though only occasionally is it quite blatantly expressed …. It was so expressed by the U.S. people who spoke up favoring [Lieutenant] Calley when he was found guilty in respect of a little massacre – by hand – of Vietnamese villagers. It was because he did it by hand that it was thought an atrocity. Massacre by advanced technology would never get you into trouble in modern warfare – unless you fell into the hands of the population you were bombing.” But clearly the range and number of nuclear weapons manufactured by the United States and Russia, trained upon each other as they are, is a calculated risk, far beyond anything seen in the ancient world, of many entire cities and their civilian populations being wiped out simultaneously on both sides. This becomes a matter for the Catholic conscience to contend with. It would be one thing if a nation merely threatened another nation with annihilation if it was attacked. Possibly that threat alone would be enough to stop such an attack; but what if the enemy did attack? Would retaliation accomplish anything more than the annihilation of both sides?
Anscombe wonders: “It may be argued that it is not necessarily wicked to threaten what it would be wicked to do. And that I do not deny. If you are an individual threatening the like to someone who has his guns sighted on your family, and this can make him desist, maybe you are justified in making your threat, even though it would be wicked to carry it out. But then you can – perhaps – know that you do not mean to carry it out.” That is to say, Anscombe objects to the view that annihilating the enemy’s whole family because he is in the act of annihilating yours is only to meet evil with comparable evil. Thus it follows that if all-out war is to happen, and entire cities are to be bombed, can Catholics really approve when millions of innocent civilians, along with the enemy’s army, are going to be massacred?
Anscombe concludes that there are “going to be a large number of highly respectable people who think it is all right actually to engage in massacre, and who are necessarily sustained and strengthened in that conviction by their role in the preparedness which is part of making the threat. You can’t pretend the threat is not meant. In those circumstances you might say: Well, as far as government – i.e. the top deciders – are concerned, it’s rather like Russsian roulette. The man who plays Russian roulette doesn’t mean to shoot himself, only to incur the risk of doing so…. These considerations lead me to think that Christians have to regard themselves as not contributing to the debate on policy, and as people who mustn’t get into the position of having to be willing to set off certain sorts of destructive apparatus; just as they ought to regard themselves as excluded from dropping bombs on cities.” From the above we can rightly conclude that Anscombe, in retrospect, was condemning as unchristian the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Without actually saying the words, Anscombe demonstrates the twin horrific events of 1945 as instances of hating God, since what was done to the least of Christ’s brethren at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was done to him.
On Hating the Unborn
A deeply troubling question for Anscombe was the debate over whether abortion at any stage kills a child of God. This matter is treated in her essay “The Early Embryo: Theoretical Doubts and Practical Certainties.” It was not entirely clear in Anscombe’s mind whether the uniting of the sperm and the ovum immediately produces what should be called a human being. Yet she allows that we all began in such a way, and could not have begun otherwise. Our DNA is certainly unique and differs somewhat from the DNA of our parents. More to the point: “In the horror of our time, when people are willing to kill babies, and others to approve or seek the same, I note that those stalwarts who resolutely oppose abortion (what a pity we use that obfuscating word!) almost universally hold that the human zygote is a human being, and therefore that killing it is murder. Indeed, it is certain that most killing of unborn babies is murder, the killing being done at a stage where the baby is, if only seen, visibly a human being…. so long as there is a doubt about the matter anyone proposing to procure an abortion should indeed be deterred by the possibility they are killing a human being. But also, even if it were certain that, for example, a week-old conceptus is not yet a human being, the act of killing what is the earliest stages of human life has evidently the same sort of malice as killing it later on when it is unquestionably a human….”
Anscombe objected strongly to the language of having an abortion, as if it were comparable to having an appendix removed or having a tooth extracted. This Orwellian bastardization of language cannot stand, as she points out: “People who kill them will speak of fetuses, not babies. But I heard Hymie Gordon, the head of genetics at the Mayo Clinic, saying: ‘I have talked with lots of mothers who were consulting me, and I have never heard one of them ask ‘How is my fetus getting on?’” Moreover, Anscombe insists, it is a lie circulated in certain circles that the Catholic Church ever believed or taught that procuring an abortion at an early stage was permissible. The lie is rooted in St. Thomas Aquinas’ acceptance of the Aristotelian notion that “hominisation” does not immediately occur in the womb upon conception. Obviously, St. Thomas Aquinas did not speak dogmatically for the entire Catholic Church, his knowledge of biology was tainted by Aristotle’s sometimes defective biological speculations, and these philosophical thoughts were never meant to justify abortion, which Thomas always condemned.
On Hating Motherhood
“On Humanae Vitae” is Anscombe’s 1978 commentary on the encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968. By that time artificial methods of birth control had been devised and become epidemic among the populations of the world. In his encyclical Pope Paul said: “In fact, as experience bears witness, not every conjugal act is followed by new life. God has wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fecundity which, of themselves, cause a separation in the succession of births. Nonetheless the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by their constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”
The official Catholic position on artificial birth control had been well known decades earlier. Popes Pius XI and Pius XII had spoken against it. Before them the great Catholic pundit G.K. Chesterton had remarked, “They insist on talking about birth control when they mean less birth and no control.” Anscombe admits right off that before she read the encyclical she wondered if it would assert the traditional conservative Catholic view of birth control, with which she agreed, or whether it would be possible to detect a theological slide into a more “progressive” policy. The official Catholic view had been to allow the rhythm method, which was viewed as natural and given by God to rational parents who could use it to limit the number and frequency of offspring. The Church’s official view of artificial methods of birth control was (as Paul VI affirmed) that it is against the natural law.
Anscombe partitions the intentions for the sexual act: (1) for pure pleasure without the chance for conception; (2) for pure pleasure but open to the act of conception. Two methods of birth control are possible: the artificial method and the rhythm method. One is natural, the other is not, but neither method is open to conception. It should be clear to anyone that the principal difference between the two methods is that one can be used any time, whereas the other is subject to a monthly schedule. One method lends itself more immediately to promiscuous sexual intercourse (most often the convenience of fornication without consequence); the other method more obviously lends itself to intercourse between married partners who wish, for various reasons, not to be overburdened with too many children. Anscombe likes it that this latter method is approved by Paul VI, and that he applauds married partners who seek as much information as they need to assure themselves of the accuracy of the rhythm method. The rhythm method is not an artificial method, for the simple reason that God gave it to parents as a respite from an always otherwise too frequent, burdensome, or life threatening impregnation.
Hedonism vs Chastity
The hedonistic aspect of artificial birth control, its frequent and illicit contribution to sex outside of marriage, to prostitution, to fornication, to bestiality, and to other forms of sexual activity that challenge the notion of sex as proper to the dignity of a Christian life, are noticed by Anscombe. “Make no mistake: it is the whole Catholic Christian idea of chastity that is under fire in the modern world. It is also under fire from those who reject Humanae Vitae. I used to think you could argue, sufficiently to convince a Catholic, that no sort of sexual acts could be excluded if once you admitted contraceptive intercourse. But the enemies of Humanae Vitae seem now to embrace that conclusion. Not indeed without any restriction, but at least as far as concerns sexual activity between two people, I suppose adult people. For though I know Catholics who solemnly defend and commend homosexual activity, I don’t know any who make propaganda for bestiality, group-sex, or pedophilia. No doubt, however, all that will come as the world at large becomes accepting of these things…. Briefly, I will end by pointing to its [Humanae Vitae’s] connection with human dignity…. A young African friend of mine [not a Catholic] when Humanae Vitaecame out, said, ‘The Pope has struck a great blow for human dignity!’ and I was glad to learn from him.”
Anscombe laments this crucial divide between the Church and the world. “And the dignity and honor of human sexuality rightly conducted equally does not enter into the world’s picture of human dignity: this is not, for the world, the place to set up a standard. Then the Church and the world are precisely opposite in their tendency.” As they pretty much always have been.
Advice to the Clergy
In reply to the question “Who is going to save our Church?” Archbishop Fulton Sheen said: “Not our bishops. Not our priests and religious. It is up to you the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and your religious act like religious.” Consistent with Sheen’s advice, Anscombe wrote “An Adress to the Clergy: On Contraception and Natural Family Planning.” Perhaps every bishop, priest, and religious should consider reading it as a way of reasoning about and explaining the theological intricacies of such matters to the laity.
Anscombe begins her address by raising an interesting question: what difference does it really make whether one method of family planning should be used rather than another since they both achieve the same desired effect: the limitation of family size? Well, there is a very significant difference, of course. You can use the rhythm method, which is natural; or artificial devices, which are not. It’s as if you were to ask whether, when executing a criminal, it makes no difference how you do it, as long as you get the intended result. But no one really believes this. It would be unnatural to starve or torture a criminal to death as his method of execution. There should be a certain dignity in dying, not a perverse, unnatural pleasure in watching someone die. So birth control can be done by methods that vary in their claim to dignity. How is it possible that the rhythm method is not dignified? Is it more, or less dignified than wearing a condom or taking a pill? And finally, one might ask, is abortion as a method of family planning clearly the least dignified way, or is it no less dignified than artificial devices? Anscombe concludes by agreeing with Humanae Vitae: “One must not do evil that good may come of it.”
The evil that is done by artificial birth control is called unnatural because it denies the natural order of our physical organs. Sodomy is called unnatural for the same reason. So is incest; so is mutual masturbation and group sex; and most obviously, rape. Our human dignity demands that we recognize and respect the integrity of our natural functions. Humans ought to know this instinctively. The medieval schoolmen used to refer to connatural knowledge – “the instinct of a thoroughly honest person for what is honest is an example.” By inference, it might be suggested that the advocates of artificial methods of birth control are not honest with themselves about whether such methods achieve human dignity or diminish it. The Church teaches that every temptation to unnatural conduct comes from the Devil, and we are foolish to succumb, because that too diminishes our dignity.
Finally, Anscombe takes aim at the rank hedonism in the West that argues “One or two children is quite enough, thank you.” This implies a deep discontent with motherhood, perhaps even a fear or hatred of it, and a preference for something less sacred and holy as a path to fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. There is no greater purpose (Anscombe mothered seven children). She issued a warning to all concerning the dignity of family life. “Remember that it had to be for grave reasons that you adopted a policy of extreme limitation, not just for the ease in your lives. There is already a ghastly dearth of children in the West because of the present fashion.”
Plea to the Bishops
Perhaps Anscombe’s most important reflection concerns the clergy themselves. She took to heart Archbishop’s Sheen’s encouragement of the laity, that they should speak up and be heard by a reluctant clergy. “The clergy I’d like to speak to are … the ones who do the big cop-out, I mean the great evasion, who despise the teaching of the Church and tell anyone who asks them ‘It’s just a matter of private conscience.’ This is cowardly, and careless of people’s souls. Such clergy do not reflect how much damage they may be doing…. How such clergy can be stirred up I don’t know. Clearly the bishops are in the strongest position to urge them to stop saying that, to become more serious and shoulder their pastoral task.” Anscombe reminds us of St. Paul’s urging that we ought to purify our hearts. How do we do that without true and righteous teaching and preaching? “But that, after all, is what the Church as teacher is for…. the Church teaches also those truths that are hateful to the spirit of an age.” The age we are in may well hate the Church more than any other age in history. Yet to be hated so much by so many can be taken as a sign that the Church is still very much a thorn in the Devil’s side.