What do the definition of life and the philosophical concept of “secondary causality” have to do with hot-button issues that separate Catholics and Protestants? A lot, I believe, and what follows here is an introduction to a concept that can be explored in more detail.
We live in a time when nominalism, existentialism, and plain old ill-will have robbed many of fundamental common-sense certitudes. Witness the spectacle of a member of the nation’s highest court refusing to define “woman,” justifying herself with the flimsy pretext that she is not a biologist, as if foundational realities regarding human nature were the exclusive domain of a caste of experts in white lab coats.
Those who have not lobotomized themselves with the dirty scalpel of progressive ideology can say what a woman is, what a man is, and what a baby is, even if the latter is still in utero.
Speaking of which, those of us who are anti-abortion (and we should not fear that label) need to be able to define that thing we say we are for: life. There are many philosophical definitions of life, but none of them improves upon the simple one that Brother Francis taught us: “the power of immanent activity.”
Brother illustrated this by describing a scene outside of his office window: It was a windy day, and there were leaves and other small objects being blown in one direction by the powerful gusts. The uniformity of motion was disturbed by a small bird, not much bigger than some of the objects being blown about, going in the opposite direction. The inanimate objects were all subject to transient action, that is, they were being acted upon by the force of the wind. But that bird, being alive, was capable of activity that was inherent to itself, or, as the definition has it, the bird was capable of “immanent activity” because it was alive, the power of locomotion being the basis of numerous acts of sentient life.
As a material object, the bird is subject to transient activity as well — it can be blown about, thrown, eaten by a predator, etc., but inanimate objects (like the dead leaves, bits of paper, sand, etc.) are only capable of transient activity. There is nothing in them by which they can act. The principles of activity are all outside them. The tiniest living plant, no matter how fragile, how dependent upon other things, how radically contingent, is capable of acting by a power intrinsic to it: growing, assimilating nutrition, reproducing its kind. If a living thing has the higher nature of animals, it can also move, know, and pursue the objects of its appetites. Man, as a rational animal, has the higher faculties of intellect and will in addition to all those other powers he shares with lower forms of life. In the higher gradations of life, immanent activity takes on a nobler character, but whether he is exercising the powers common to lower life forms or those requiring the use of his mind, man’s life (his anima, which also means soul) is the principle of his immanent activity. It so happens that the superior nature of his immanent activity puts man at the pinnacle of material creation.
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Even though living beings are capable of immanent activity, and man specifically is capable of the elevated activities of thinking and willing, it remains true that all that is not God is radically dependent upon God, for such is the very notion of creatureliness. God not only created all that is, He also sustains it in existence. Yet, does it not remain true that all the immanent activities of living things on earth are really and truly their acts, things proper to them that they actually do? Yes! This is the case whether we consider the mighty oak reaching toward the sky by assimilating water, nutrients from the soil, and sunlight; or the bee making honey and wax; or the man plying his trade. In all its grand totality, creation is the work of God, its First Cause; yet, God willingly and purposely operates through secondary causes all the time. Rain may drop from the heavens — by which I mean the sky — but it does so following laws of nature that are measurable: there is a cycle, dependent on the stable natures of things, by which water evaporates, becomes clouds, then eventually returns to the thirsty ground or the aquatic surfaces of the world in a scientifically observable way (regardless of the sometimes frustratingly imperfect predictions of the meteorologists!). We can truly say that God makes it rain as He sustains all that is and gave to the water, the sun, the atmosphere, etc., their natures by which these activities occur. But the genuine causal role of these created things cannot be denied. It is observable, and is no mere phantasm. This is what we call “secondary causality.” A secondary cause is defined by Father Wuellner as “a cause under and dependent upon the first cause; a created cause; a cause that can only specify the kind, but not the being of the effect.”
The words “first” and “second” here have nothing to do with mere chronology. We are speaking metaphysically. The simplest way to clarify the notion is to say that what is second is absolutely subordinate to and dependent upon what is first. (A longer explanation can be found on our site.)
God could have established a created order in which all making and all change comes about directly and exclusively from Him, just as He created all that is ex nihilo in the beginning. He could have opted to be not only the First, but also the Only Cause. But He did not do so. Instead, He ordained sexual and asexual reproduction so that animals and plants can reproduce themselves. He also made man, created in His image and likeness, to be himself a maker. He remains the First Cause, but all living material things come from others of their kind acting as secondary causes; man’s industry can, “under and dependent upon” God, yield goods of all sorts: agricultural, mechanical, technological, literary, artistic, moral, etc.
Common sense and daily experience tell us this is real. Without secondary causality in creation, the universe would be a far more mystifying thing and no stable order would be observable. The laws of gravity, gas diffusion, motion, entropy, etc., would all be non-extant. Among the myriad cause-and-effect experiences of human life, we would be left wondering where babies come from, since it’s not Mommy and Daddy (with God infusing an immortal soul). Imagine if Volkswagens just dropped from the sky by divine fiat, and we needed no factories to produce them. This might seem like a sort of theocratic socialist paradise, but such a world would be less predictable and more dangerous, with nobody to sue for deaths and injuries from falling Volkswagens.
Secondary causality is so present to us that we usually take it for granted. I recall my mother informing me that the grass would not simply cut itself. Neither, apparently, would the First Cause descend to do the job. That was appointed to me, apparently as a result of Adam’s sin along with the more immediate maternal command. (And let me say that Louisiana summers lend a certain poignancy to the words “the sweat of thy face” [Gen. 3:19].)
Speaking of parental commands, in our family lives, we understand that good parenting helps children to develop well, whereas bad parenting is harmful. Heli was blamed for failing to discipline his sons, leading to dreadful consequences for his house and for all Israel. By contrast, Abraham (whose original name, Abram, means “good father”) carried out a wonderful job of parenting with Isaac. While offspring eventually become responsible for their own actions, both good and bad parenting have undeniable effects — as do good and bad education, good and bad moral example, etc. All this fits into our category of secondary causality.
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The order of grace parallels the order of nature and builds upon it. The natural man is elevated by grace into the supernatural order. He is a “new creature” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15). He is not only alive with the natural life of man, but he has the “eternal life” that comes from grace: “Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3; cf. many other passages). That life is consummated in heavenly glory, but is commenced on this side of the grave by grace, so Saint John could write, while yet in this veil of tears, “God hath given to us eternal life. And this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11). This new and higher life also has its own “immanent activity” that is proper to the new nature grafted into us by grace. Acts of faith, hope, and charity, of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, the Fruits of the Holy Ghost (Gal. 5:22-23), and the sublime Beatitudes are all proper to this life. Without the First Cause giving us eternal life, such acts would be impossible, but the acts are nonetheless our acts, and we shall be judged upon them as upon our evil deeds: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works” (Apoc, [Rev.] 20:12; cf. Matt. 16:27, Matt. 25:31-46, Rom. 2:6-8).
Just as God is radically necessary and we contingent in the order of nature, so, too, is He indispensable and we utterly dependent in the order of grace. Yet, without a hint of contradiction or an iota of irony, our Christian common sense must here also acknowledge secondary causality at work. It would not do to use the examples of the sacraments, for our Protestant brethren do not accept them — or, to be more accurate, not all Protestants accept all seven. To limit ourselves to explanations that they would accept, let us consider the Bible, preaching, the Twelve Apostles, the wood of the Cross, human language, even grace itself, which, while so sublime a thing, is not, after all, God Himself. All of these are creatures, yet all have a real causality in human salvation. Moreover, each can be further broken down into constituent parts that show more minute secondary causes at work. Preaching, for instance, necessitates created human language, our human minds, the modes of transportation or broadcast by which the preacher is made present to his auditors, the vocal chords of the preacher, and the ears of those who hear (“Faith then cometh by hearing” [Rom. 10:17]), etc.
Concerning authentic preaching, Jesus said to the seventy-two disciples, “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me” (Luke 10:16). From God, the First Cause, to the sacred Humanity of Jesus, to the disciples, to their hearers. A clear-cut case of secondary causality operating in the supernatural order.
Next time, I would like to illustrate the concept of secondary causality with further Biblical examples, showing how certain key doctrines of the Protestant Reformers are refuted by the clear scriptural data on the subject.