Posts Tagged ‘abortion’


The Anti-Theology of the Body –David Bentley Hart

September 6, 2011

I occasionally check out the David Bentley Hart Appreciation Page to see what has surfaced. This is a splendid review of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, with a focus on the Trans-humanists in our midst (elsewhere I call them Diabolists, recalling G.K. Chesterton’s view of the situation) As is my custom, I have added paragraphs and bolded portions for those of us who read (or is browse?) on the web.


To ask what the legacy of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body might be for future debates in bioethics is implicitly to ask what relevance it has for current debates in bioethics. And this creates something of a problem, because there is a real sense in which it has none at all — at least, if by “relevance” one means discrete logical propositions or policy recommendations that might be extracted from the larger context of John Paul’s teachings so as to “advance the conversation” or “suggest a middle course” or “clarify ethical ambiguities.”

Simply said, the book does not offer arguments, or propositions, or (thank God) “suggestions.” Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life.

Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil.

Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction.

There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus sometime in the second trimester.

But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit.

John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

The far antipodes of John Paul’s vision of the human, I suppose, are to be found at the lunatic fringe of bioethics, in that fanatically “neo-Darwinist” movement that has crystallized around the name of “trans-humanism.” A satirist with a genius for the morbid could scarcely have invented a faction more depressingly sickly, and yet — in certain reaches of the scientific community — it is a movement that enjoys some real degree of respectability.

Its principal tenet is that it is now incumbent upon humanity to take control of its own evolution, which on account of the modern world’s technological advances and social policies has tragically stalled at the level of the merely anthropine; as we come to master the mysteries of the genome, we must choose what we are to be, so as to progress beyond Homo sapiens, perhaps one day to become beings — in the words of the Princeton biologist Lee Silver — “as different from humans as humans are from…primitive worms” (which are, I suppose, to be distinguished from sophisticated worms).

We must seek, that is to say, to become gods. Many of the more deliriously visionary of the trans-humanists envisage a day when we will be free to alter and enhance ourselves at will, unconstrained by law or shame or anything resembling good taste: by willfully transgressing the genetic boundaries between species (something that we are already learning how to do), we may be able to design new strains of hybrid life, or even to produce an endlessly proliferating variety of new breeds of the post-human that may no longer even have the capacity to reproduce one with the other. (For those whose curiosity runs to the macabre, Wesley Smith’s recent Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World provides a good synopsis of the trans-humanist creed.)

Obviously one is dealing here with a sensibility formed more by comic books than by serious thought. Ludicrous as it seems, though, trans-humanism is merely one logical consequence (if a particularly childish one) of the surprising reviviscence of eugenic ideology in the academic, scientific, and medical worlds. Most of the new eugenists, admittedly, see their solicitude for the greater wellbeing of the species as suffering from none of the distasteful authoritarianism of the old racialist eugenics, since all they advocate (they say) is a kind of elective genetic engineering — a bit of planned parenthood here, the odd reluctant act of infanticide there, a soupçon of judicious genetic tinkering everywhere, and a great deal of prudent reflection upon the suitability of certain kinds of embryos — but clearly they are deluding themselves or trying to deceive us.

Far more intellectually honest are those — like the late, almost comically vile Joseph Fletcher of Harvard — who openly acknowledge that any earnest attempt to improve the human stock must necessarily involve some measures of legal coercion. Fletcher, of course, was infamously unabashed in castigating modern medicine for “polluting” our gene pool with inferior specimens and in rhapsodizing upon the benefits the race would reap from instituting a regime of genetic invigilation that would allow society to eliminate “idiots” and “cripples” and other genetic defectives before they could burden us with their worthless lives. It was he who famously declared that reproduction is a privilege, not a right, and suggested that perhaps mothers should be forced by the state to abort “diseased” babies if they refused to do so of their own free will.

Needless to say, state-imposed sterilization struck him as a reasonable policy; and he agreed with Linus Pauling that it might be wise to consider segregating genetic inferiors into a recognizable caste, marked out by indelible brands impressed upon their brows. And, striking a few minor trans-humanist chords of his own, he even advocated — in a deranged and hideous passage from his book The Ethics of Genetic Controlthe creation of “chimeras or parahumans…to do dangerous or demeaning jobs” of the sort that are now “shoved off on moronic or retarded individuals” — which, apparently, was how he viewed janitors, construction workers, firefighters, miners, and persons of that ilk.

Of course, there was always a certain oafish audacity in Fletcher’s degenerate driveling about “morons” and “defectives,” given that there is good cause to suspect, from a purely utilitarian vantage, that academic ethicists — especially those like Fletcher, who are notoriously mediocre thinkers, possessed of small culture, no discernible speculative gifts, no records of substantive philosophical achievement, and execrable prose styles — constitute perhaps the single most useless element in society. If reproduction is not a right but a social function, should any woman be allowed to bring such men into the world? And should those men be permitted, in their turn, to sire offspring? I ask this question entirely in earnest, because I think it helps to identify the one indubitable truth about all social movements towards eugenics: namely, that the values that will determine which lives are worth living, and which not, will always be the province of persons of vicious temperament.

If I were asked to decide what qualities to suppress or encourage in the human species, I might first attempt to discover if there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition to moral idiocy and then, if there is, to eliminate it; then there would be no more Joseph Fletchers (or Peter Singers, or Linus Paulings, or James Rachels), and I might think all is well. But, of course, the very idea is a contradiction in terms. Decisions regarding who should or should not live can, by definition, be made only by those who believe such decisions should be made; and therein lies the horror that nothing can ever exorcise from the ideology behind human bioengineering.

Transhumanism, as a moral philosophy, is so risibly fabulous in its prognostications, and so unrelated to anything that genomic research yet promises, that it can scarcely be regarded as anything more than a pathetic dream; but the metaphysical principles it presumes regarding the nature of the human are anything but eccentric. Joseph Fletcher was a man with a manifestly brutal mind, desperately anxious to believe himself superior to the common run of men, one who apparently received some sort of crypto-erotic thrill from his cruel fantasies of creating a slave race, and of literally branding others as his genetic inferiors, and of exercising power over the minds and bodies of the low-born. And yet his principles continue to win adherents in the academy and beyond it, and his basic presuppositions about the value and meaning of life are the common grammar of a shockingly large portion of bioethicists.

If ever the day comes when we are willing to consider a program, however modest, of improving the species through genetic planning and manipulation, it will be exclusively those who hold such principles and embrace such presuppositions who will determine what the future of humanity will be. And men who are impatient of frailty and contemptuous of weakness are, at the end of the day, inevitably evil.

Why dwell on these things, though? After all, most of the more prominent debates in bioethics at the moment do not actually concern systematic eugenics or, certainly, “post-humanity,” but center upon issues of medical research and such matters as the disposition of embryos who will never mature into children. It is true that we have already begun to transgress the demarcations between species — often in pursuit of a medical or technological benefit — and cloning is no longer merely a matter of speculation. But even here issues of health and of new therapeutic techniques predominate, and surely these require some degree of moral subtlety from all of us.

Am I not, then, simply skirting difficult questions of practical ethics so as to avoid allowing any ambiguity to invade my Christian absolutism? Perhaps. But it seems to me that the metaphysics, dogma, and mysticism of “transhumanism” or Fletcherite eugenics hide behind, and await us as the inevitable terminus of, every movement that subordinates or sacrifices the living soul — the life that is here before us, in the moment, in all its particularity and fragility — to the progress of science, of medicine, or of the species. That is to say, I dwell upon extremes because I believe it is in extremes that truth is most likely to be found. And this brings me back to John Paul II’s theology of the body.

The difference between John Paul’s theological anthropology and the pitilessly consistent materialism of the trans-humanists and their kith — and this is extremely important to grasp — is a difference not simply between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a human being, but between two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a god.

There is, as it happens, nothing inherently wicked in the desire to become a god, at least not from the perspective of Christian tradition; and I would even say that if there is one element of the trans-humanist creed that is not wholly contemptible — one isolated moment of innocence, however fleeting and imperfect — it is the earnestness with which it gives expression to this perfectly natural longing. Theologically speaking, the proper destiny of human beings is to be “glorified” — or “divinized” — in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4), to be called “gods” (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34-36). This is the venerable doctrine of “theosis” or “deification,” the teaching that — to employ a lapidary formula of great antiquity — “God became man that man might become god”: that is to say, in assuming human nature in the incarnation, Christ opened the path to union with the divine nature for all persons.

From the time of the Church Fathers through the high Middle Ages, this understanding of salvation was a commonplace of theology. Admittedly, until recently it had somewhat disappeared from most Western articulations of the faith, but in the East it has always enjoyed a somewhat greater prominence; and it stands at the very center of John Paul’s theology of the body. As he writes in Evangelium Vitae:

Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.

John Paul’s anthropology is what a certain sort of Orthodox theologian might call a “theandric” humanism. “Life in the Spirit,” the most impressive of the texts collected in the Theology of the Body, is to a large extent an attempt to descry the true form of man by looking to the end towards which he is called, so that the glory of his eschatological horizon, so to speak, might cast its radiance back upon the life he lives in via here below.

Thus, for John Paul, the earthly body in all its frailty and indigence and limitation is always already on the way to the glorious body of resurrection of which Paul speaks; the mortal body is already the seed of the divinized and immortal body of the Kingdom; the weakness of the flesh is already, potentially, the strength of “the body full of power”; the earthly Adam is already joined to the glory of the last Adam, the risen and living Christ.

For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us — even “defectives” and “morons” and “genetic inferiors,” if you will — waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendor that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.

Obviously none of this would interest or impress the doctrinaire materialist. The vision of the human that John Paul articulates and the vision of the “trans-human” to which the still nascent technology of genetic manipulation has given rise are divided not by a difference in practical or ethical philosophy, but by an irreconcilable hostility between two religions, two metaphysics, two worlds — at the last, two gods. And nothing less than the moral nature of society is at stake.

If, as I have said, the metaphysics of transhumanism is inevitably implied within such things as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, then to embark upon them is already to invoke and invite the advent of a god who will, I think, be a god of boundless horror, one with a limitless appetite for sacrifice. And it is by their gods that human beings are shaped and known. In some very real sense, “man” is always only the shadow of the god upon whom he calls: for in the manner by which we summon and propitiate that god, and in that ultimate value that he represents for us, who and what we are is determined.

The materialist who wishes to see modern humanity’s Baconian mastery over cosmic nature expanded to encompass human nature as well — granting us absolute power over the flesh and what is born from it, banishing all fortuity and uncertainty from the future of the race — is someone who seeks to reach the divine by ceasing to be human, by surpassing the human, by destroying the human. It is a desire both fantastic and depraved: a diseased titanism, the dream of an infinite passage through monstrosity, a perpetual and ruthless sacrifice of every present good to the featureless, abysmal, and insatiable god who is to come.

For the Christian to whom John Paul speaks, however, one can truly aspire to the divine only through the charitable cultivation of glory in the flesh, the practice of holiness, the love of God and neighbor; and, in so doing, one seeks not to take leave of one’s humanity, but to fathom it in its ultimate depth, to be joined to the Godman who would remake us in himself, and so to become simul divinus et creatura. This is a pure antithesis. For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise.

To the one, a Down syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus far already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look upon him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed.

It may well be that the human is an epoch, in some sense. The idea of the infinite value of every particular life does not accord with instinct, as far as one can tell, but rather has a history. The ancient triumph of the religion of divine incarnation inaugurated a new vision of man, however fitfully and failingly that vision was obeyed in subsequent centuries. Perhaps this notion of an absolute dignity indwelling every person — this Christian invention or discovery or convention — is now slowly fading from our consciences and will finally be replaced by something more “realistic” (which is to say, something more nihilistic).

Whatever the case, John Paul’s theology of the body will never, as I have said, be “relevant” to the understanding of the human that lies “beyond” Christian faith. Between these two orders of vision there can be no fruitful commerce, no modification of perspectives, no debate, indeed no “conversation.” All that can ever span the divide between them is the occasional miraculous movement of conversion or the occasional tragic movement of apostasy. Thus the legacy of that theology will be to remain, for Christians, a monument to the grandeur and fullness of their faith’s “total humanism,” so to speak, to remind them how vast the Christian understanding of humanity’s nature and destiny is, and to inspire them — whenever they are confronted by any philosophy, ethics, or science that would reduce any human life to an instrumental moment within some larger design — to a perfect and unremitting enmity.



The Aspiration to Neutrality

May 4, 2010

John F. Kennedy’s view of religion as a private, not public, affair reflected more than the need to disarm anti-Catholic prejudice. It reflected a public philosophy that would come to full expression during the 1960s and 70s — a philosophy that held that government should be neutral on moral and religious questions, so that each individual could be free to choose his or her own conception of the good life.

Both major political parties appealed to the idea of neutrality, but in different ways. Generally speaking, Republicans invoked the idea in economic policy, while Democrats applied it to social and cultural issues. Republicans argued against government intervention in free markets on the grounds that individuals should be free to make their own economic choices and spend their money as they pleased; for government to spend taxpayers’ money or regulate economic activity for public purposes was to impose a state-sanctioned vision of the common good that not everyone shared. Tax cuts were preferable to government spending, because they left individuals free to decide for themselves what ends to pursue and how to spend their own money.

Democrats rejected the notion that free markets are neutral among ends and defended a greater measure of government intervention in the economy. But when it came to social and cultural issues, they, too, invoked the language of neutrality. Government should not “legislate morality” in the areas of sexual behavior or reproductive decisions, they maintained, because to do so imposes on some the moral and religious convictions of others. Rather than restrict abortion or homosexual intimacies, government should be neutral on these morally charged questions and let individuals choose for themselves.

John Rawls
In 1971 , John Rawls ‘s A Theory Of Justice offered a philosophical defense of the liberal conception of neutrality that Kennedy’s speech had intimated. In the 1980s, the communitarian critics of liberal neutrality questioned the vision of the freely choosing, unencumbered self that seemed to underlie Rawls’s theory. They argued not only for stronger notions of community and solidarity but also for a more robust public engagement with moral and religious questions.

In 1993, Rawls published a hook, Political Liberalism, that recast his theory in some respects. He acknowledged that, in their personal lives, people often have affections, devotions, and loyalties that they believe they would not, indeed could and should not, stand apart from.

They may regard it as simply unthinkable to view themselves apart from certain religious, philosophical, and moral convictions, or from certain enduring attachments and loyalties.” To this extent, Rawls accepted the possibility of thickly constituted, morally encumbered selves. But he insisted that such loyalties and attachments should have no bearing on our identity as citizens. In debating justice and rights, we should set aside our personal moral and religious convictions and argue from the standpoint of a “political conception of the person,” independent of any particular loyalties, attachments, or conception of the good life.

Why should we not bring our moral and religious convictions to bear in public discourse about justice and rights? Why should we separate our identity as citizens from our identity as moral persons more broadly conceived? Rawls argues that we should do so in order to respect “the fact of reasonable pluralism” about the good life that prevails in the modern world. People in modern democratic societies disagree about moral and religious questions; moreover these disagreements are reasonable. “It is not to be expected that conscientious persons with full powers of reason, even after free discussion, will all arrive at the same conclusion.”

According to this argument, the case for liberal neutrality arises from the need for tolerance in the face of moral and religious disagreement. “Which moral judgments are true, all things considered, is not a matter for political liberalism,” Rawls writes. To maintain impartiality between competing moral and religious doctrines, political liberalism does not “address the moral topics on which those doctrines divide.”

The demand that we separate our identity as citizens from our moral and religious convictions means that, when engaging in public discourse about justice and rights, we must abide by the limits of liberal public reason. Not only may government not endorse a particular conception of the good; citizens may not even introduce their moral and religious convictions into public debate about justice and rights. For if they do, and if their arguments prevail, they will effectively impose on their fellow citizens a law that rests on a particular moral or religious doctrine.

How can we know whether our political arguments meet the requirements of public reason, suitably shorn of any reliance on moral or religious views? Rawls suggests a novel test: “To check whether we are following public reason we might ask: how would our argument strike us presented in the form of a Supreme Court opinion?”As Rawls explains, this is a way to make sure that our arguments are neutral in the sense that liberal public reason requires; “The justices cannot, of course, invoke their own personal morality, nor the ideals and virtues of morality generally. Those they must view as irrelevant. Equally, they cannot invoke their or other people’s religious or philosophical views.”When participating as citizens in public debate, we should observe a similar restraint. Like Supreme Court justices, we should set aside our moral and religious convictions, and restrict ourselves to arguments that all citizens can reasonably be expected to accept.

Liberal “Neutrality” and the Politics of Obama
This is the ideal of liberal neutrality that John Kennedy invoked and Barack Obama rejected. From the 1960s through the l980s, Democrats drifted toward the neutrality ideal, and largely banished moral and religious argument from their political discourse. There were some notable exceptions. Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked moral and religious arguments in advancing the cause of civil rights; the anti-Vietnam War movement was energized by moral and religious discourse; and Robert E Kennedy, seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, tried to summon the nation to more demanding moral and civic ideals. But by the 1970s, liberals embraced the language of neutrality and choice, and ceded moral and religious discourse to the emerging Christian right.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Christian conservatives became a prominent voice in Republican politics. Jerry Farwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition sought to clothe the “naked public square”and to combat what they saw as the moral permissiveness of American life. They favored school prayer, religious displays in public places, and legal restrictions on pornography, abortion, and homosexuality. For their part, liberals opposed these policies, not by challenging the moral judgments case by case, but instead by arguing that moral and religious judgments have no place in politics.

This pattern of argument served Christian conservatives well, and gave liberalism a bad name. In the 1990s and early 2000s, liberals argued, somewhat defensively, that they, too, stood for “values,” by which they typically meant the values of tolerance, fairness, and freedom of choice. (In an awkward reach for resonance, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry used the words value or values thirty-two times in his convention acceptance speech.) But these were the values associated with liberal neutrality and the constraints of liberal public reason. They did not connect with the moral and spiritual yearning abroad in the land, or answer the aspiration for a public life of larger meaning.

Unlike other Democrats, Barack Obama understood this yearning and gave it political voice. This set his politics apart from the liberalism of his day. The key to his eloquence was not simply that he was adept with words. It was also that his political language was infused with a moral and spiritual dimension that pointed beyond liberal neutrality.

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds — dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets — and they’re coming to realize that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. . . If-we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at — to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own — then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Obama’s claim that progressives should embrace a more capacious, faith-friendly form of public reason reflects a sound political instinct. It is also good political philosophy. The attempt to detach arguments about justice and rights from arguments about the good life is mistaken for two reasons: First, it is not always possible to decide questions of justice and rights without resolving substantive moral questions; and second, even where it’s possible, it may not be desirable.

The Abortion and Stem Cell Debates
Consider two familiar political questions that can’t be resolved without taking a stand on an underlying moral and religious controversy — abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Some people believe that abortion should be banned because it involves the taking of innocent human life. Others disagree, arguing that the law should not take sides in the moral and theological controversy over when human life begins; since the moral status of the developing fetus is a highly charged moral and religious question, they argue, government should be neutral on that question, and allow women to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion.

The second position reflects the familiar liberal argument for abortion rights. It claims to resolve the abortion question on the basis of neutrality and freedom of choice, without entering into the moral and religious controversy. But this argument does not succeed. For, if it’s true that the developing fetus is morally equivalent to a child, then abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide. And few would maintain that government should let parents decide for themselves whether to kill their children. So the “pro-choice” position in the abortion debate is not really neutral on the underlying moral and theological question; it implicitly rests on the assumption that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the moral status of the fetus — that it is a person from the moment of conception — is false.

To acknowledge this assumption is not to argue for banning abortion. It is simply to acknowledge that neutrality and freedom of choice are not sufficient grounds for affirming a right to abortion. Those who would defend the right of women to decide for themselves whether to terminate a pregnancy should engage with the argument that the developing fetus is equivalent to a person, and try to show why it is wrong. It is not enough to say that the law should be neutral on moral and religious questions. The case for permitting abortion is no more neutral than the case for banning it. Both positions presuppose some answer to the underlying moral and religious controversy.

The same is true of the debate over stem cell research. Those who would ban embryonic stem cell research argue that, whatever its medical promise, research that involves the destruction of human embryos is morally impermissible. Many who hold this view believe that personhood begins at conception, so that destroying even an early embryo is morally on a par with killing a child.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research reply by pointing to the medical benefits the research may bring, including possible treatments and cures for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injury. And they argue that science should not be hampered by religious or ideological interference; those with religious objections should not be allowed to impose their views through laws that would ban promising scientific research.

As with the abortion debate, however, the case for permitting embryonic stem cell research cannot be made without taking a stand on the moral and religious controversy about when personhood begins. If the early embryo is morally equivalent to a person, then the opponents of embryonic stem cell research have a point; even highly promising medical research would not justify dismembering a human person. Few people would say it should be legal to harvest organs from a five-year-old child in order to promote life-saving research. So the argument for permitting embryonic stem cell research is not neutral on the moral and religious controversy about when human personhood begins.

It presupposes an answer to that controversy — namely that the pre-implantation embryo destroyed in the course of embryonic stem cell research is not yet a human being.

With abortion and embryonic stem cell research, it’s not possible to resolve the legal question without taking up the underlying moral and religious question. In both cases, neutrality is impossible because the issue is whether the practice in question involves taking the life of’ a human being. Of course, most moral and political controversies do not involve matters of life and death. So partisans of liberal neutrality might reply that the abortion and stem cell debates are special cases; except where the definition of the human person is at stake, we can resolve arguments about justice and rights without taking sides in moral and religious controversies. But this isn’t true, either.

Same-Sex Marriage
Consider the debate over same-sex marriage. Can you decide whether the state should recognize same-sex marriage without entering into moral and religious controversies about the purpose of marriage and the moral status of homosexuality? Some say yes, and argue for same-sex marriage on liberal, nonjudgmental grounds: whether one personally approves or disapproves of gay and lesbian relationships, individuals should be free to choose their marital partners. To allow heterosexual but not homosexual couples to get married wrongly discriminates against gay men and lesbians, and denies them equality before the law.

If this argument is a sufficient basis for according state recognition to same-sex marriage, then the issue can be resolved within the bounds of liberal public reason, without recourse to controversial conceptions of the purpose of marriage and the goods it honors. But the case for same-sex marriage can’t be made on nonjudgmental grounds. It depends on a certain conception of the telos of marriage — its purpose or point. And, as Aristotle reminds us, to argue about the purpose of a social institution is to argue about the virtues it honors and rewards.

The debate over same-sex marriage is fundamentally a debate about whether gay and lesbian unions are worthy of the honor and recognition that, in our society, state-sanctioned marriage confers. So the underlying moral question is unavoidable.

To see why this is so, it’s important to bear in mind that a state can take three possible policies toward marriage, not just two. It can adopt the traditional policy and recognize only marriages between a man and a woman; or it can do what several states have done, and recognize same-sex marriage in the same way it recognizes marriage between a man and a woman; or it can decline to recognize marriage of any kind, and leave this role to private associations.

These three policies can be summarized as follows:

  1. Recognize only marriages between a man and a woman.
  2. Recognize same-sex and opposite-sex marriages.
  3. Don’t recognize marriage of any kind, but leave this role to private associations.

In addition to marriage laws, states can adopt civil union or domestic partnership laws that grant legal protections, inheritance rights, hospital visitation rights, and child custody arrangements to unmarried couples who live together and enter into a legal arrangement. A number of states have made such arrangements available to gay and lesbian partners. In 2003, Massachusetts, by a ruling of its Supreme Court, became the first state to accord legal recognition to same-sex marriage (policy 2). In 2008, California’s Supreme Court also ruled in favor of a right to same-sex marriage, but a few months after the ruling, a majority of the electorate overturned that decision in a statewide ballot initiative. In 2009, Vermont became the first state to legalize gay marriage by legislation rather than by judicial.

Policy 3 is purely hypothetical, at least in the United States; no state has thus far renounced the recognition of marriage as a government function. But this policy is nonetheless worth examining, as it sheds light on the arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

Policy 3 is the ideal libertarian solution to the marriage debate. It does not abolish marriage, but it does abolish marriage as a state-sanctioned institution. It might best be described as the disestablishment of marriage. Just as dis-establishing religion means getting rid of an official state church (while allowing churches to exist independent of the state), dis-establishing marriage would mean getting rid of marriage as an official state function.

The opinion writer Michael Kinsley defends this policy as a way out of what he sees as a hopelessly irresolvable conflict over marriage. Proponents of gay marriage complain that restricting marriage to heterosexuals is a kind of discrimination. Opponents claim that if the state sanctions gay marriage, it goes beyond tolerating homosexuality to endorsing it and giving it “a government stamp of approval. “The solution, Kinsley writes, is “to end the institution of government-sanctioned marriage,” to “privatize marriage.” Let people get married any way they please, without state sanction or interference.

Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. . . . Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want.

And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants — to marry him or herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let ‘em.

“If marriage were an entirely private affair,” Kinsley reasons, “all the disputes over gay marriage would become irrelevant. Gay marriage would not have the official sanction of government, but neither would straight marriage.” Kinsley suggests that domestic partnership laws could deal with the financial, insurance, child support, and inheritance issues that arise when people co-habit and raise children together. He proposes, in effect, to replace all state-sanctioned marriages, gay and straight, with civil unions.

From the standpoint of liberal neutrality, Kinsley’s proposal has a clear advantage over the two standard alternatives (policies 1 and 2): It does not require judges or citizens to engage in the moral and religious controversy over the purpose of marriage and the morality of homosexuality. Since the state would no longer confer on any family units the honorific title of marriage, citizens would be able to avoid engaging in debate about the telos of marriage, and whether gays and lesbians can fulfill it.

Relatively few people on either side of the same-sex marriage debate have embraced the disestablishment proposal. But it sheds light on what’s at stake in the existing debate, and helps us see why both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage must contend with the substantive moral and religious controversy about the purpose of marriage and the goods that define it. Neither of the two standard positions can be defended within the bounds of liberal public reason.

Of course, those who reject same-sex marriage on the grounds that it sanctions sin and dishonors the true meaning of marriage aren’t bashful about the fact that they’re making a moral or religious claim. But those who defend a right to same-sex marriage often try to rest their claim on neutral grounds, and to avoid passing judgment on the moral meaning of marriage. The attempt to find a nonjudgmental case for same-sex marriage draws heavily on the ideas of nondiscrimination and freedom of choice. But these ideas cannot by themselves justify a right to same-sex marriage. To see why this is so, consider the thoughtful and nuanced opinion written by Margaret Marshall, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court; in the court’s ruling in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health (2003), the same-sex marriage case.

Marshall begins by recognizing the deep moral and religious disagreement the subject provokes, and implies that the court will not take sides in this dispute: Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral, and ethical convicEons that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that homosexual conduct is immoral. Many hold equally strong religious, moral and ethical convictions that same-sex couples are entitled to be married, and that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors. Neither view answers the question before us. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”

As if to avoid entering into the moral and religious controversy over homosexuality, Marshall describes the moral issue before the court in liberal terms — as a matter of autonomy and freedom of choice. The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is incompatible with “respect for individual autonomy and equality under law” she writes. The liberty of “choosing whether and whom to marry would be hollow” if the state could “foreclose an individual from freely choosing the person with whom to share an exclusive commitment. “The issue, Marshall maintains, is not the moral worth of the choice, but the right of the individual to make it — that is, the right of the plaintiffs “to marry their chosen partner?”

But autonomy and freedom of choice are insufficient to justify a right to same-sex marriage. If government were truly neutral on the moral worth of all voluntary intimate relationships, then the state would have no grounds for limiting marriage to two persons; con-sensual polygamous partnerships would also qualify. In fact, if the state really wanted to be neutral, and respect whatever choices individuals wished to make, it would have to adopt Michael Kinsley’s proposal and get out of the business of conferring recognition on any marriages.

The real issue in the gay marriage debate is not freedom of choice but whether same-sex unions are worthy of honor and recognition by the community — whether they fulfill the purpose of the social institution of marriage. In Aristotle’s terms, the issue is the just distribution of offices and honors. It’s a matter of social recognition.

Notwithstanding its emphasis on freedom of choice, the Massachusetts court made clear that it did not intend to open the way to polygamous marriage. It didn’t question the notion that government may confer social recognition on some intimate associations rather than others, nor did the court call for the abolition, or disestablishment, of marriage.

To the contrary, Justice Marshall’s opinion offers a paean to marriage as “one of our community’s most rewarding and cherished institutions.” It argues that eliminating state-sanctioned marriage “would dismantle a vital organizing principle of our society.”

Rather than abolish state-sanctioned marriage, Marshall argues for expanding its traditional definition to include partners of the same sex. In doing so, she steps outside the bounds of liberal neutrality to affirm the moral worth of same-sex unions, and to offer a view about the purpose of marriage, properly conceived. More than a private arrangement between two consenting adults, she observes, marriage is a form of public recognition and approval. “In a real sense, there are three partners to every civil marriage: two willing spouses and an approving State.” This feature of marriage brings out its honorific aspect: “Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family.”

If marriage is an honorific institution, what virtues does it honor? To ask that question is to ask about the purpose, or telos, of marriage as a social institution. Many opponents of same-sex marriage claim that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation. According to this argument, since same-sex couples are unable to procreate on their own, they don’t have a right to marry. They lack, so to speak, the relevant virtue.

This teleological line of reasoning is at the heart of the case against same-sex marriage, and Marshall takes it on directly. She does not pretend to be neutral on the purpose of marriage, but offers a rival interpretation of it. The essence of marriage, she maintains, is not procreation but an exclusive, loving commitment between two partners — be they straight or gay.

Now, how, you might ask, is it possible to adjudicate between rival accounts of the purpose, or essence, of marriage? Is it possible to argue rationally about the meaning and purpose of morally contested social institutions such as marriage? Or is it simply a clash of bald assertions — some say it’s about procreation, others say it’s about loving commitment — and there’s no way of showing one to be more plausible than the other?

Marshall’s opinion offers a good illustration of how such arguments can proceed. First, she disputes the claim that procreation is the primary purpose of marriage. She does so by showing that marriage, as currently practiced and regulated by the state, does not require the ability to procreate. Heterosexual couples who apply for marriage licenses are not asked about “their ability or intention to conceive children by coitus. Fertility is not a condition of marriage, nor is it grounds for divorce, People who have never consummated their marriage, and never plan to, may be and stay married. People who cannot stir from their deathbed may marry.” While “many, perhaps most married couples have children together (assisted or unassisted) ,“ Marshall concludes, “it is the exclusive and permanent commitment of the marriage partners to one another, not the begetting of children, that is the sine qua non of civil marriage.”

So part of Marshall’s argument consists of an interpretation of the purpose or essence of marriage as it currently exists. Faced with rival interpretations of a social practice — marriage-as-procreation versus marriage-as-exclusive-and-permanent-commitment — how can we determine which is more plausible? One way is to ask which account makes better sense of existing marriage laws, taken as a whole. Another is to ask which interpretation of marriage celebrates virtues worth honoring. What counts as the purpose of marriage partly depends on what qualities we think marriage should celebrate and affirm. This makes the underlying moral and religious controversy unavoidable: What is the moral status of gay and lesbian relationships?

Marshall is not neutral on this question. She argues that same-sex relationships are as worthy of respect as heterosexual relationships. Restricting marriage to heterosexuals “confers an official stamp of approval on the destructive stereotype that same-sex relationships are inherently unstable and inferior to opposite-sex relationships and are not worthy of respect.”

So when we look closely at the case for same-sex marriage, we find that it cannot rest on the ideas of non-discrimination and freedom of choice. In order to decide who should qualify for marriage, we have to think through the purpose of marriage and the virtues it honors. And this carries us onto contested moral terrain, where we can’t remain neutral toward competing conceptions of the good life.

I have one more post from Michael Sandal but I think what this one does is show you that the tired defense of marriage as between one man and one woman because marriage is for procreation is just that, tired. Far better to reflect upon the virtue of homosexuality and to discuss that with same-sex marriage advocates. Look at these two reflections on the case for homosexuality as a normative behavior:


The Church refuses to believe that can a condition be “normal” or “natural” when statistics show it leads to early death; sexual addiction and promiscuity; inability to procreate normally; numerous health problems including STDs, cancer, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases; drug and alcohol abuse; and a high risk of depression and suicide.

According to the Catholic Medical Association: Well-designed research studies have shown several psychiatric disorders to be far more prevalent in teenagers and adults with same-sex attraction. These include major depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, conduct disorder, low self-esteem in males and sexual promiscuity with the inability to maintain committed relationships. It is important to note that “homophobia” is not the cause of these disorders as most of these studies were done in cultures in which homosexuality is widely accepted.

This report also notes that 39 percent of males with same-sex attraction have been abused by other males with same-sex attraction. The Family Research Council has also published a report, Getting it Straight: What the Research Shows About Homosexuality , that has a chapter on the health risks involved for those with homosexual lifestyles, including reports from the Center for Disease Control, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the John Hopkins University School of Public Health and others. “The significantly elevated health problems experienced by homosexuals [are] most often the direct consequence of engaging in specific sexual acts and behavior patterns … that are common among homosexuals.”

These papers directly contradict the Marshall opinion argued above. “The destructive stereotype that same-sex relationships are inherently unstable and inferior to opposite-sex relationships and are not worthy of respect.” turns out to be a stereotype without a firm basis in fact.

If you would like to explore more, this is a challenging view of the neutrality topic that Dr. Sandal introduces to his ideas on justice:


The False Gods Of Expedient Mercy

September 29, 2009

Not long ago, in a book review of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., I offered a reading selection that featured an exchange between the abbot of a monastery thousands of years in the future and a young mother who is going to euthanize her baby to end prolonging a death from exposure to radiation. It is a stark confrontation: on the one side the Church and on the other a perfect case for euthanasia. And yet the Abbot achieves something here that needs to be repeated again and again in the Church’s confrontation with the culture of death and its false gods of expedient mercy.

The Authority Of A Simple Direct Command
“I had a cat once, when I was a boy,” the abbot murmured slowly. “He was a big gray tomcat with shoulders like a small bulldog and a head and neck to match, and that sort of slouchy insolence that makes some of them look like the Devil’s own. He was pure cat. Do you know cats?”

“ A little.”

“Cat lovers don’t know cats. You can’t love all cats if you know cats, and the ones you can love if you know them are the ones that cat lovers don’t even like. Zeke was that kind of cat.

“This has a moral, of course?” She was watching him suspiciously.

“Only that I killed him.”

“Stop. Whatever you’re about to say, stop.”

“A truck hit him, crushed his back legs. He dragged himself under the house. Once in awhile he’d make a noise like a cat fight and thrash around a little, but mostly he just lay quietly and waited. ‘He ought to be destroyed,’ they kept telling me. After a few hours he dragged himself out from under the house crying for help. ‘He ought to be destroyed,’ they said. I wouldn’t let them do it. They said it was cruel to let him live. So finally I said I’d do it myself, if it had to be done. I got a gun and a shovel and took him to the edge of the woods, I stretched him out on the ground while I dug a hole, Then I shot him through the head. It was a small bore rifle. Zeke thrashed a couple of times, then got up and started dragging himself toward some bushes, I shot him again. It knocked him flat, so I thought he was dead, and put him in the hole. After a couple shovels of dirt, Zeke got up and pulled himself out of the hole and started for the bushes again.

I was crying louder than the cat. I had to kill him with the shovel. I had to put him back in the hole and use the blade of the shovel like a cleaver, and while I was chopping with it, Zeke was still thrashing around. They told me later it was just a spinal reflex, but I didn’t believe it. I knew that cat. He wanted to get to those bushes and just lie there and wait. I wished to God that I had only let him get to those bushes and die the way a cat would if you just let it alone – with dignity. I never felt right about it. Zeke was only a cat, but —

“Shut up!” she whispered.

“ – but even the ancient pagans noticed that Nature imposes nothing on you that nature doesn’t prepare you to bear. If that is true of a cat, then is it not more perfectly true of a creature with rational intellect and will – whatever you may believe of Heaven?”

“Shut up. Damn you, shut up!” she hissed.

If I’m being a little brutal,” said the priest, “then it is to you, not the baby. The baby, as you say, can’t understand. And you, as you say, are not complaining. Therefore — ”

“Therefore you are asking me to let her die slowly and –”

“No! I’m not asking you. As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to a false god of expedient mercy. I do not advise you. I adjure and command you in the name of Christ the King. Is that clear?”

Dom Zerchi had never spoken with such a voice before, and the ease with which the words came to his lips surprised even the priest. As he continued to look at her, her eyes fell. For an instant he had feared that the girl would laugh in his face. When Holy Church occasionally hinted that she still considered her authority to be supreme over all nations and superior to the authority of states, men in these times tended to snicker. And yet the authority of the command could still be sensed by a bitter girl with a dying child. It had been brutal to reason with her, and he regretted it. A simple direct command might accomplish what persuasion could not. She needed the voice of authority now, more than she needed persuasion. He could see it by the way she had wilted, although he had spoken the command as gently as his voice could manage.


I thought of this passage when I read Sally Thomas’ gripping account of a modern day euthanasia episode in Amsterdam. Ms. Thomas had lived there years ago and one day had been befriended by a neighbor. Upon her return to the states a long occasional exchange of letters and Christmas cards had taken place over the years. One Christmas a self-published, spiral-bound, personal memoir of sorts had tumbled out of a manila envelope and she picked it up and started reading it. I’ll let her pick up the story from there:

I received in the mail a slender book, …its cover illustrated with a photograph of an ornate Art Nouveau door. The title, Life With and Without My Mother, answered the question before I could ask. Taking the book for a tribute to a long life well lived, my heart full for my friend, I sat down and began to read.

At ninety-six, still on her own, this vibrant and stubborn woman was beginning to fail. Always possessed of great physical beauty and vitality, with each visit she appeared more unkempt, more listless. Instead of proclaiming her independence, she began to demand help. This was difficult, and she was difficult about it. She was petulant in the manner of the very old, becoming childish again in her inability to know or to say what it was that she wanted. She complained of pain, which nothing seemed to make better.

Though her son visited from America as often as he could, it wasn’t enough. By his own admission, he found the invasion of his privacy and the interruption of his affairs difficult to bear. He felt haunted, too, by twin specters: the mother he had once known, whom hindsight’s clarity had revealed as overbearing and repressive; and the mother he knew now, overbearing, repressive, and infinitely needy.

I knew that in 2002 the Netherlands had led the way in legalizing euthanasia. I knew that, as early as 1972, the Dutch Reformed Church had affirmed voluntary euthanasia “under certain conditions” as a humane response to suffering. It is one thing to know that such things go on in the world. It is another to be privy to the thoughts of someone as he sits in a cafe with his journal, writing, “I feel that the doctors need to give her the helping hand she deserves. Why let her suffer? Really, the fun for her is over.”

The fun is over? I set the book down on my knees. So much, I thought, for Saint Paul’s quaint admonition that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Here we have no suffering. Never mind the millions who endured the atrocities and privations of the Second World War and felt their lives were still worth clinging to. We don’t think that way any more.

If a third world war began tomorrow, it would not be entirely, derangedly unreasonable to suppose that a population this wed to euthanasia would be the first to die. They would die not from bombs or bullets or anthrax mail but from despair. It would not be entirely, derangedly unreasonable to extrapolate the suicide of an entire culture from that picture of a man in a cafe, musing on his aged mother whose fun is at an end.

Advocates for euthanasia, like abortion advocates, don’t talk in terms of culture, preferring always the person of the moment — the particular individual who has decided, on the basis of “unacceptable suffering,” to renounce the gift of life. They opt for such words as release, as from a prison. They speak in terms of mercy and love. In her 2006 essay “At Death’s Window,” Anne Lamott describes a man who “gave his wife an overdose, and then sealed her upper body in a plastic trash bag with duct tape. Then he had done this to himself, and they died holding hands.” “What love!” Lamott declares.

Apparently, in my friend’s view, love meant listening to an old woman plan her deliberate exit from this life and never once saying, “Are you out of your mind?” It was this revelation, page after page, that gave me emotional whiplash. She had filed — with the death bureaucracy, an entity that still seems incredible to me — one official euthanasia request form after another. She had discussed this option routinely with her doctor, who had put her off, smiling, “Your time hasn’t come yet.” But as the months passed, she remained fixed on the idea. She would ring her son, at home in America, to declare her intent to move to some assisted-care facility, but always, always, the needle in her mind swung back to the point of simply checking out. And as her apparent suffering worsened, her son said nothing except, “Why not?”

Paging through my friend’s memoir, generously illustrated with his own photographs, I was struck by the unassuming loveliness of the placid canals, the winter trees, the brittle blue sky, the orderliness of bicycles chained to a railing. Like his mother he has an eye for beauty and form, and I could easily imagine him seeking refuge in long walks with his camera.

But once I understood where the story was heading, these quiet scenes began to seem not beautiful but sinister. The bicycles, all facing the same direction like a clump of grazing cattle, seemed to whisper of a darker consensus. So did other images, in which anonymous people walked along the canals, sat over coffee in the cafes, came and went from elegant Dutch buildings, all of them consenting to participate in this orderly culture in which, on the very same page, an aged woman’s aging child sat with a doctor, in a routine consultation, to decide that “continuing her life would serve no purpose to her or anyone else.”

As I read, I could picture the man I remembered, wearing a raveled purple sweater, glasses at the end of his nose, reading his mail on the front steps. I could hear him whistling on the other side of the kitchen wall. I could see, in the front yard of our apartment house, the walnut sapling he and his son planted in a moment of faith — or maybe of denial: Who plants a tree in a rented yard? I prayed, with each turn of the page, that my friend would wake the next morning in Amsterdam and find his mother already flown.

This prayer was not granted. On a wintry Saturday morning, my friend breakfasted on yogurt and granola, let in the cheery housekeeper, and made small talk with the relatives who had assembled, one by one, outside the bedroom. At 10:30 the doctor came. The family gathered at the bedside. His mother, my friend observed, appeared “barely visible” amid the bedclothes. She seemed to have shrunk overnight. The doctor explained the procedure — the “process implementation” — for a final time. Goodbyes were exchanged. “You were a dear,” his mother told her son. The doctor asked the mother once more whether “the euthanasia way” continued to be her wish. She responded emphatically that it was, adding, “This probably won’t work.” “Oh, yes, it will,” said the doctor firmly. And it did. There were no photographs of this moment, I noticed.

An argument for euthanasia was put forth by a reader of the piece: “I was once given a tour of a large state hospital for children in California. We were shown ward upon ward of micro- and micra-cephalic infants who would never know a parent or a home. To say that these people were created in the “image of God” begs the question. At the existential moment between life and death, is it not sufficient for us, the living, to commend these lives to God? What else can we do? Thomas offers few specifics.

The old argument still runs that only God has the right to decide the terminus of any life. But God is no longer the only one determining how long men and women live. Man himself is determining that, having extended his average lifespan from the thirties in colonial days to nearly seventy now. Medical advances often prolong the hopeless suffering of those whom Nature, left to herself, would release. Man must shoulder the responsibility thus thrust upon him and must devise some way of mercifully liberating the helplessly ill from needless existence.”

Is it not sufficient for us, the living, to commend these lives to God? What else can we do? Thomas offers few specifics. Later, in another reply, Thomas does in fact offer the example of the experience of a family she knows, “a family of many children and limited means and cramped living space. When the wife’s father, in his nineties, became unable to live alone, the family took him in. They converted their living room into a room for him. The two sons, then fifteen and thirteen, took care of his bodily needs, bathing and dressing him, carrying him to and from the car when the family went out. The daughters kept him company. The priest visited often.

The father died a year ago in May, in his bed, surrounded by family who loved him enough to have gone on caring for him indefinitely, who had not tired of him and his needs, who bore his sufferings with him, who found him even in his infirmity to be good company worth having for as long as he stayed. They still speak of the year he lived and died with them as the best year in their life together, and of the burden of his care as a blessing.”

Well that’s good for them, would go the expected reply, but what about those who have no “resources” like that. You can’t force people to be Christians. And this is true. As it is also true that as Christians we have been chosen to speak the Truth, no matter the cost. We who worship Jesus cannot live in falsehood, because He is the criterion by which true and false are discriminated, the light in which the difference between good and evil is seen. I’m struck many times by the blasé of the atheists who say that they could not reason their way to faith and so have chosen a life of “honest atheism.” And if I stopped them there and said, you realize of course that euthanasia is the logical outcome for anyone who is not living a life of Christian faith, hope, and love. I must confess also that is for the vast majority of the population on this planet — particularly if you count Christians who are failing their vocations in the Church.  

You realize, I would say to the Diabolist friends among us, that you are cutting off the one way you have of enduring suffering when earthly life can give you nothing more. The only thing that stands between you and being crushed by that suffering is the redemptive love of Our Lord. Undo that and everything comes cascading downward:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

 I think of the miserable story Thomas Merton tells of the death of his father:

“We went into the ward. Father was in his bed, to the left, just as you went in the door.

And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of him living much longer His face was swollen. His eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead.

I said: “How are you, Father?”

He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak. But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything.

But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain. I was crushed by it. The tears sprang to my eyes., Nobody said anything more.

I hid my face in the blanket and cried. And poor father wept, too. The others stood by. It was excruciatingly sad. We were completely helpless. There was nothing anyone could do…

What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal.

We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it.

Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.

Indeed the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.

The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being that is at once the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.

This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.”

This “raw wound” that much of the world bears like “a dumb animal” is the hell Christians speak of: lives spent without faith, lives lived upon whose only solution to suffering in old age or to disabled Veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan is euthanasia — a solution that Christians need to keep reminding our fellow citizens over and over again is an outrage, a scandal and a sin.

Ms Thomas writes: “That the old and ill should feel that they are alone with their demons, that those demons render their lives worthless, and that the only sensible, charitable thing to do is to take themselves and their demons as far out of everyone else’s way as possible is an utter disgrace. It is wrong, plainly and simply wrong, that a culture should arrange itself around such an assumption about the worthlessness of human life. If we fail to be scandalized by this state of affairs, then we run the risk of moral numbness.”

She further reminds us that “We are already surrounded by a culture of death, the easy transformation of any decent, law-abiding citizen into a murderer, a murderer’s willing accomplice. If you build it, they will come, goes the hokey-mystical mantra in the movie Field of Dreams. Similarly, if you legalize it, it will happen. Safe, legal, and rare. Isn’t that how the abortion chant goes?

In reality, as a culture, Americans have allowed abortion to become the standard medical treatment for children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome and a host of other diseases. Ninety percent of such children are aborted: That’s how “heroic” our moral struggle has been. That’s how often a loving mother is persuaded that her only merciful option is to assent to the death of her child: a scandal, a disgrace, an outrage and a sin on all our part. We all take part in that tragedy, we are all “good Germans”, as the expression goes, or has it finally become “good Americans” now. It’s about time, one would think.

It’s a tragic fact of the human mind that, once it begins to entertain a proposition, however outrageous, the proposition becomes not a mere proposition but a sane and rational course of action.” Jim Towey in the Wall Street Journal wrote recently about the “Death Book for Veterans”. Bureaucrats at the VA’s National Center for Ethics in Health Care advocated a 52-page end-of-life planning document, “Your Life, Your Choices.”

It was first published in 1997 and later promoted as the VA’s preferred living will throughout its vast network of hospitals and nursing homes. After the Bush White House took a look at how this document was treating complex health and moral issues, the VA suspended its use.

Unfortunately, under President Obama, the liberal secularists at the VA, those who mutter things about “Death With Dignity,” have now resuscitated “Your Life, Your Choices.” The document presents end-of-life choices in a way aimed at steering users toward predetermined conclusions, much like a political “push poll,” which for all intensive purposes was developed by the same class of people. For example, a worksheet lists various scenarios and asks users to then decide whether their own life would be “not worth living.” Nice.

The circumstances listed include ones common among the elderly and disabled: living in a nursing home or to returning Veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, being in a wheelchair and not being able to “shake the blues.” There is a section which provocatively asks, “Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘If I’m a vegetable, pull the plug’?” There also are guilt-inducing scenarios such as “I can no longer contribute to my family’s well being,” “I am a severe financial burden on my family” and that the vet’s situation “causes severe emotional burden for my family.”

No wonder that when Sarah Palin spoke of “Death Panels” she set off a firestorm. On one level the accusation appeared unfair. Yet on another, cognizant of our dismal record on upholding heroic moral virtue, breathes there a soul who didn’t know on some awful human level of awareness, the unspoken assumptions of “Obama Care?”  

Surely a grateful nation can do better by its fallen warriors or help its families with the burdens of looking after their elderly? Perhaps we could begin by simply acknowledging that we are only pretending to be doing the best we can.


The Diabolists Among Us

September 15, 2009


G. K. Chesterton
When Plain Folk, such as you or I,
See the Sun sinking in the sky,
We think it is the Setting Sun,
But Mr. Gilbert Chesterton
Is not so easily misled.
He calmly stands upon his head,
And upside down obtains a new
And Chestertonian point of view,
Observing thus, how from his toes
The sun creeps nearer to his nose,
He cries with wonder and delight,
“How Grand the sunrise is to-night!”
by Oliver Herford
from Confessions of a Caricaturist

“What I have now to relate really happened; yet there was no element in it of practical politics or of personal danger. It was simply a quiet conversation which I had with another man. But that quiet conversation was by far the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me in my life….

The thing befell me in the days when I was at an art school. An art school is different from almost all other schools or colleges in this respect: that, being of new and crude creation and of lax discipline, it presents a specially strong contrast between the industrious and the idle. People at an art school either do an atrocious amount of work or do no work at all. I belonged, along with other charming people, to the latter class; and this threw me often into the society of men who were very different from myself, and who were idle for reasons very different from mine. I was idle because I was very much occupied; I was engaged about that time in discovering, to my own extreme and lasting astonishment, that I was not an atheist. But there were others also at loose ends who were engaged in discovering what Carlyle called (I think with needless delicacy) the fact that ginger is hot in the mouth….

Along the front of the big building of which our school was a part ran a huge slope of stone steps, higher, I think, than those that lead up to St. Paul’s Cathedral. On a black wintry evening he and I were wandering on these cold heights, which seemed as dreary as a pyramid under the stars. The one thing visible below us in the blackness was a burning and blowing fire; for some gardener (I suppose) was burning something in the grounds, and from time to time the red sparks went whirling past us like a swarm of scarlet insects in the dark. Above us also it was gloom; but if one stared long enough at that upper darkness, one saw vertical stripes of grey in the black and then became conscious of the colossal facade of the Doric building, phantasmal, yet filling the sky, as if Heaven were still filled with the gigantic ghost of Paganism.

The man asked me abruptly why I was becoming orthodox. Until he said it, I really had not known that I was; but the moment he had said it I knew it to be literally true. And the process had been so long and full that I answered him at once out of existing stores of explanation.

“I am becoming orthodox,” I said, “because I have come, rightly or wrongly, after stretching my brain till it bursts, to the old belief that heresy is worse even than sin. An error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes. An Imperialist is worse than a pirate. For an Imperialist keeps a school for pirates; he teaches piracy disinterestedly and without an adequate salary. A Free Lover is worse than a profligate. For a profligate is serious and reckless even in his shortest love; while a Free Lover is cautious and irresponsible even in his longest devotion. I hate modern doubt because it is dangerous.”

“You mean dangerous to morality,” he said in a voice of wonderful gentleness. “I expect you are right. But why do you care about morality?”

I glanced at his face quickly. He had thrust out his neck as he had a trick of doing; and so brought his face abruptly into the light of the bonfire from below, like a face in the footlights. His long chin and high cheek-bones were lit up infernally from underneath; so that he looked like a fiend staring down into the flaming pit. I had an unmeaning sense of being tempted in a wilderness; and even as I paused a burst of red sparks broke past.

“Aren’t those sparks splendid?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“That is all that I ask you to admit,” said I. “Give me those few red specks and I will deduce Christian morality. Once I thought like you, that one’s pleasure in a flying spark was a thing that could come and go with that spark. Once I thought that the delight was as free as the fire. Once I thought that red star we see was alone in space. But now I know that the red star is only on the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. That red fire is only the flower on a stalk of living habits, which you cannot see. Only because your mother made you say ‘Thank you’ for a bun are you now able to thank Nature or chaos for those red stars of an instant or for the white stars of all time. Only because you were humble before fireworks on the fifth of November do you now enjoy any fireworks that you chance to see. You only like them being red because you were told about the blood of the martyrs; you only like them being bright because brightness is a glory. That flame flowered out of virtues, and it will fade with virtues. Seduce a woman, and that spark will be less bright. Shed blood, and that spark will be less red. Be really bad, and they will be to you like the spots on a wall-paper.”

He had a horrible fairness of the intellect that made me despair of his soul. A common, harmless atheist would have denied that religion produced humility or humility a simple joy: but he admitted both. He only said, “But shall I not find in evil a life of its own? Granted that for every woman I ruin one of those red sparks will go out: will not the expanding pleasure of ruin …”

“Do you see that fire ?” I asked. “If we had a real fighting democracy, some one would burn you in it; like the devil-worshipper that you are.”

“Perhaps,” he said, in his tired, fair way. “Only what you call evil I call good.”

He went down the great steps alone, and I felt as if I wanted the steps swept and cleaned. I followed later, and as I went to find my hat in the low, dark passage where it hung, I suddenly heard his voice again, but the words were inaudible. I stopped, startled: then I heard the voice of one of the vilest of his associates saying, “Nobody can possibly know.” And then I heard those two or three words which I remember in every syllable and cannot forget. I heard the Diabolist say, “I tell you I have done everything else. If I do that I shan’t know the difference between right and wrong.” I rushed out without daring to pause; and as I passed the fire I did not know whether it was hell or the furious love of God.”
Reading Selection The Diabolist by G.K. Chesterton

A Commentary by Garry Wills:
The line of argument shows what straits Chesterton was in. He had come to the shocking awareness of evil, and this had pushed his solipsism to its most terrible state. If the world was his own illusion, all evil had its source in him, along with all “reality.” That is why he identifies moral restrictions and the intellectual bounds of reality –virgins seduced and stars dissolve, The “pyramid” is really a swaying tower for him, and the slightest relaxation or “relativism” will topple it. Chesterton was creating “the star” with his arguments; the spark’s foundation is a huge pyramid of symbolism hung in empty air.

The art student shattered the entire fabric of Chesterton’s argument by admitting the indictment: he wanted to quench stars. Here was a desire not touched by the “justifying” arguments, the mutually supporting but mutually enclosed ideas of Chesterton’s discourse. It entered the scheme of things like a destructive blast from another world. “What you call evil, I call good.” The Diabolist said, inverting the entire cosmos in Chesterton’s mind. As the student went down the stairs to meet his friends, he left a stunned and defeated enemy behind him. But as Chesterton followed him down the stairs, he half heard whispered plans of some proposed innovation in evil, to which the Diabolist replied, in the words which Chesterton remembers with a compelled accuracy, “If I do that, I shan’t know the difference between right and wrong.”

I rushed out without daring to pause, and as I passed fire I didn’t know whether it was hell or the furious love of God.”

This is what happens when you enter into modern internet forums and choose to debate abortion, homosexuality (gay marriage) or atheism. You meet those who literally can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, the descendants of GKC’s diabolist. Historically their arguments were also encountered and rejected during the great nineteenth century debate over slavery in Lincoln/Douglas. Then as now the arguments are the same, rooted in a moral relativism. “I wouldn’t choose to have a (slave/abortion) but I wouldn’t want to restrict you’re right to choose.”

Recently I have been debating abortion with the usual suspects on an internet forum. After some jousting over who abortion really benefits (that it fundamentally is a sexist injustice against women and children), I followed up with a jibe against President Obama and his pro-abortion policies. “Pro-abortion” gets the juices running for it flies in the face of the greatest conceit of “pro-choice” advocates: that somehow they are advocating for some kind of freedom or expansion of a benefit. Read this rant and file under “Lies The Liberal Media Spreads: Nobody is Pro-abortion.” What leaps off the page is that the argument is advanced by Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight — only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

These are the two things I want you, please, to remember – abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

I want to thank all of you who protect this blessing – who do this work every day: the health care providers, doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who put your lives on the line to care for others (you are heroes — in my eyes, you are saints); the escorts and the activists; the lobbyists and the clinic defenders; all of you. You’re engaged in holy work.

This is an argument rooted in moral relativism and that uses religiously charged terms (“holy,” “blessing,” “Saints,” “God’s gift”) in a blasphemous disregard for the religious and their beliefs. That it comes from someone who is the Dean of a Divinity School simply illustrates further the sad decline of the Episcopal Church in America. I would offer that the baiting going on in that quote is directed toward Fundamentalists but serves to insult all religious. I don’t get the point of any of it, except for its self promotion. Want a pro-choice religious speaker at your next abortion clinic promotion? Contact Reverend Kathy at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Specially discounted summer rates now available.

Now many if not most pro-life advocates are traditional religious believers and see the gravely unjust or immoral acts of abortion to be sins. They understand sins precisely as offenses against God. That is their reason for opposing abortion; and thus it is God’s reason in their view, the unjust taking of innocent human life, which motivates them to oppose abortion and requires that human communities protect their unborn members against it. But there is a difference between Fundamentalists who might cite scripture (“in thy mother’s womb I formed thee” Jeremiah 1:5) as their chief or even sole reason to oppose abortion, and other pro-life advocates (my hero, Robert P. George, for example). The latter are unwilling to cede the scientific or philosophical to the pseudo intellectual sophists who populate the left, and apply human intelligence to the question. 

Before we assign a value to the sanctity or value of human life, we need to understand it, they say. When does human life begin, at birth, at the fetal stage, at some “ensoulment” of the human – perhaps a certain kind of brain wave that might indicate a unique type of human intelligence? Roll those PBS science tapes, Jerome.

Robert George explains the science behind his position on abortion: “A human being is conceived when a human sperm containing twenty-three chromosomes fuses with a human egg also containing twenty-three chromosomes (albeit of a different kind) producing a a single-cell human zygote containing , in the normal case, forty-six chromosomes that are massed differently from the forty-six chromosomes as found in the mother or father. Unlike the gametes (that is, the sperm and the egg), the zygote is genetically unique and distinct from its parents. Biologically, it is a separate organism. It produces, as the gametes do not, specifically human enzymes and proteins. It possesses, as they do not, the active capacity or potency to develop itself into a human embryo, fetus, infant, child, adolescent, and adult.

Assuming that it is not conceived in vitro, the zygote is, of course, in a state of dependence on its mother. But independence should not be confused with distinctness. From the beginning, the newly conceived human being, not its mother, directs its integral organic functioning. It takes in its nourishment and converts it to energy. Given a hospitable environment, it will, as Dianne Nutwell Irving says, “develop continuously without any biological interruptions, or gaps, throughout the embryonic, fetal, neo-natal, childhood and adulthood stages – until the death of the organism…

The significance of genetic completeness for the status of newly conceived human beings is that no outside genetic material is required to enable the zygote to mature into an embryo, the embryo into a fetus, the fetus into an infant, the infant into a child, the child into an adolescent, the adolescent into an adult. What the zygote needs to function as a distinct self-integrating human organism, a human being, it already possesses.”

Some have attacked this argument as the “gradualness of gestation,” but it is not the “gradualness” but the “continuous,” that is, the continuous development of a single lasting (fully human) being…. As the human zygote matures, in utero and ex utero, it does not “become” a human being, for it is a human being already, albeit an immature human being, just as a newborn infant is an immature human being who will undergo quite dramatic growth and development over time.” If no arbitrary line separates the hues of green and red, shall we conclude that green is red? This is what the left calls for that science simply refutes by the very nature of the human being.

The sophists of the left love to divert the argument into stages of human development or personhood or to get the Fundamentalists lost in debating when “ensoulment” occurs. The bald fact of the matter is that they do not believe that all human beings are persons, or have fundamental rights. They are not scandalized by the concept of a “human non-person” and “post-personal” human beings (as well as severely retarded human beings who never were and never will be “persons,” as they are pleased to define the term) to whom the promises of basic rights and equality under the law do not apply. The same arguments were applied to blacks under slavery. Recall that it was Lincoln who cut through the moral relativism of the slave owning class to mark the high ground in the argument. Slavery was simply wrong he argued, the way that abortion is wrong today.

How strange that the man who upheld his intrinsic worth, who fought for his right to be free returns the favor by co-opting his benefactor’s Family Bible during his Presidential inauguration, turning his back on his hero and fighting for the confederacy in the abortion wars. We live in interesting times. Obama is the Anti-Lincoln.

These are the same folks who wish to establish the grim doctrine that homosexuality is simply a matter of fate, and the dehumanizing idea that one’s core identity is determined by one’s sexual desires. We are more, immeasurably more, than our sexual desires. And morally disordered desires are hardly limited to homosexuality or to sexual desires of any kind. Those who succumb to homosexual desires are, like all sinners, to be loved and assured of the transforming power of God’s forgiveness. In law and social practice, they should not be subjected to unjust discrimination, but neither should the practices that define “the gay community” be put on a social or moral par with the union of man and woman in marriage. Yet speak to these truths on an online forum and you will be castigated as “homophobic.”

Peter Kreeft writes: “Beneath a moral difference you always find some moral argument. Otherwise it’s not a moral argument. Because all argument needs a common premise. You can’t even imagine a totally new morality any more than you can imagine a totally new universe, or set of numbers or colors….Try to imagine a society where honesty and justice and courage and self-control and faith and hope and charity are evil, and lying and cheating and stealing and cowardice and betrayal and addiction and despair and hate are all good.  You just can’t do it….You can create different acceptable rules for driving and speech and clothing and eating drinking…but we are not free to make murder or rape or slavery or treason right, or charity and justice wrong. We can create different mores but not different morals….We know from experience that we’re free to choose to hate, but we’re not free to experience a moral obligation to hate, only to love.”

Affirm the Gay conceit that homosexuality defines your humanity? Condemn the queer to living a life out of congruence with his faith? Turn your back on mothers and children who need something other than the violence of an abortion? Give a war induced quadriplegic a pamphlet with a contact for the hemlock society? Those who support such aberrations begin with common logic: So we can agree that there are relative scales of value, and that the value of a life can be understood as varying based on context, and can be compared to the values of other things. The difference between someone who is “anti-life” and someone who is “anti-choice”, then, isn’t in their belief in value — it’s in the way they measure and evaluate it, and the way they adjudicate the value of a life in a given context with the value of other things…

And the answer is No. No, we can’t agree. To the young, the early dead and their survivors, the baffled, the defeated, I don’t think we can be tender enough. These are the ones the left ideologues prey upon with their glib moral relativism. Only the Church defends against them.


Understanding the Magisterium

July 23, 2009
An Illustration From The Baltimore Catechism

An Illustration From The Baltimore Catechism

Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council has stated emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles” (Dei Verbum, Ch2 10). Scripture, therefore, is not the Church’s sole point of reference and, as John Paul II pointed out in Fides Et Ratio, this is the kind of assertion we find in Biblicism or Christian fundamentalism. Rather the “supreme rule of our Catholic faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the two others.

The task of the Magisterium becomes “giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 85) and this is a task that has been entrusted only to the Magisterium. It cannot be performed by theologians or biblical exegetes, for example (protestations to the contrary). We can find the reason for this in the catechism: “The authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 85) “The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abide in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 890) 

The rule of what we must believe as Catholics was defined by the First Vatican Council (1870). Thus: “Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching [magisterium], proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed” (Dogmatic Constitution, De Fide, Ch 3).   Note that the “solemn judgment”, also referred to at times as the extraordinary Magisterium, refers to an infallible teaching emanating from the sacred deposit of faith and derives from the sensus fidelium (or the supernatural sense of faith – sensus fidei) of the Church. Sensus fidelium is the “sense of the faithful” and refers to the idea that beliefs, consciences and experiences of the faithful is one of the valid sources of truth in Catholic theology. Its very nature preserves it from fundamental error and is rooted in the promise of Christ to protect his Church (the mystical body of Christ) from error through the guidance of the Spirit.

So while nostrums such as “everyone makes mistakes” and “no one is infallible” may guide the ordinary citizen in the conduct of his secular affairs, when it comes to matters of the extraordinary Magisterium and its guidance by the Holy Spirit, these apparent common sense maxims no longer apply – derisive comments by the Church’s cultural detractors not withstanding. And it is here one must understand that the extraordinary Magisterium is just that: something rarely invoked (only twice in the past couple hundred years: Pope Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854), and Pope Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption of Mary (1950)) and begs to be distinguished from the ordinary and universal Magisterium which pours out thousands upon thousands of encyclicals, exhortations, homilies, addresses, letters and messages (estimated to be more in the last forty years that the previous 1960).

“Ordinary” means that it is accomplished via the ordinary means of teaching that the Church uses, and “universal” means that it is taught by the entire body of bishops, and usually over a period of time. For generally when a doctrine has been taught as authoritative over time and by many popes and bishops, this indicates that it is a teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium and must be received and believed as faithfully as teaching that is solemnly defined by pope or council. The Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, no. 25, taught, “Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith or morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.”

Much of the moral teaching of the Church is taught only by this ordinary and universal Magisterium. For example, abortion: “There can obviously be no room for any legitimate dispute among Catholics about the moral evil of abortion. Yet there has never been a solemn definition accompanied by anathemas against this heinous practice. But there is no need for one, since abortion has been condemned in numerous documents of the Church, starting with the Didache, a very early Catholic writing probably dating from between 80 to 90 A.D., and continuing on to the numerous documents and sermons of John Paul II and of many other contemporary bishops throughout the world. And whether or not the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI (1968) was infallible of itself, as some have argued, its teaching clearly was, for the doctrine that contraceptive acts violate the natural law has always been taught in the Church. Thus Catholics must reject any minimalist understanding of doctrine that would reduce it to only those pronouncements that have been solemnly made.” (Thomas Storck, “What Is the Magisterium?” Catholic Faith Magazine July/August 2001).

Moreover, we must distinguish the “ordinary and universal Magisterium” from simply “the ordinary Magisterium.” This latter is authoritatively discussed in the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII (1950) and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, of the Second Vatican Council (1964). Pope Pius XII wrote: “Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such… does not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority [Magisterium]. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority [Magisterio enim ordinario haec docentur], of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you,…heareth me” (Lumen Gentium no. 20).  

Lumen Gentium teaches that Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be revered by all as witnesses of divine and Catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated (Lumen Gentium no. 25).  In this case the Magisterium is ordinary but not universal. Even so, it demands a “loyal submission of the will and intellect” on the part of the whole Church. It must be emphasized, though, that when this passage refers to bishops, it is speaking only about those bishops “who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff.”

How does the charism of infallibility work? “There is something like a Catch 22 here (in the idea of sensus fidelium, which the Magisterium interprets). If the sense of the faithful is measured by the belief of those who are faithful, then those who are not faithful to the Church’s teaching do not have a voice in defining what is the Church’s teaching. One may be forgiven for suspecting an element of circularity in this reasoning. Those who disagree with the official Magisterium are, by definition not faithful and therefore are not part of the sensus fidelium that bears witness to the truth of what the Magisterium teaches. In untangling this knotty question it may be useful to recall Cardinal Newman’s example of how the faithful held out for what would come to be recognized as orthodoxy when most of the bishops were leaning toward the Arian heresy (the belief that the Son is not co-equally God with the Father). In the liturgy and devotional life of the Church the faithful intuited the necessity of affirming that Jesus Christ is at once God and true man. They knew they worshiped Jesus Christ as God and, if he were not God, they would be guilty of idolatry. The bishops assembled in council would in time be led by the Spirit to recognize and ratify what the faithful believed. (Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, (Basic Books;New York,2006) What Augustine called the City of God is, like the earthly city, a creature of time. Unlike the earthly city, its destination is eternal life, the New Jerusalem. That is the Tradition, the truth that is passed on from generation to generation. The oft-quoted words of Jaroslav Pelikan are in order: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.” (Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters).

 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it (the sacred deposit of faith). At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86) Hence the reciprocity noted earlier between it and Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Tradition is like the conscience of a community or the principle of identity that links one generation with another; it enables them to remain the same people as they go forward throughout history, which transforms all things. Yves Congar has written that “Tradition is memory, and memory enriches experience. If we remembered nothing it would be impossible to advance; the same would be true if we were bound to a slavish imitation of the past. True tradition is not servility but fidelity.” (Y.M.J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (London: 1966)

Here is another Fr. Neuhaus analogy that I liked concerning the Church and the Magisterium:

“The Church is called the barque of Peter on its way to the destination of the promised Kingdom. In the third Eucharistic prayer we ask God “to strengthen the faith and love of your pilgrim Church on earth.” The images speak of stability and movement, of communal identity through time. Employing the nautical imagery, the Magisterium is in command on the bridge. Once may be asked to help out from time to time, but one is not in charge. In a different turn on that image, Newman said that, all in all, he was very happy in the barque of Peter, and he was happier the farther he was from the engine room. Those on the bridge and in the engine room have their appointed tasks and, we are assured, the charisms necessary for carrying them out. As do we all. We are pilgrims and passengers and members of the crew beckoned onward by what the Church calls “the universal call to holiness.” Which is to say, beckoned on by Christ and the promise of the Kingdom. What is expected of us is to respond to the call where we are, and in doing so to allow ourselves to be carried where we are to be.” (Y.M.J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions)

Thinking of the Jaroslav Pelikan quote above, I would posit that the life of the Church can be understood as a continuing conversation. If seen in this way, then the Magisterium is the moderator of the conversation and sets the rules, making sure it is a conversation and not a shouting contest. Tradition said Chesterton, is the democracy of the dead, and the Magisterium assures that, in that sense, the conversation is democratic. The conversation is not about whatever anybody wants to talk about it. It is about, in the words of the New Testament letter of Jude, “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). What is called “the deposit of faith” — the truth (comprised of particular truths) by which the Church is constituted; the revelation of God in the history of Israel and preeminently in the incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ, and witnessed by the divinely inspired Scriptures. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s sentire cum ecclesia – thinking with the Church — begins with thinking. Theology has been described as fides quaerens intellectum – faith in search of understanding. In this sense, every faithful Christian is a theologian trying to think his way more deeply into the faith once delivered to the saints with the help of the Magisterium via sentire cum ecclesia.  

Not just sometimes but at the deepest level we confess, “I do not understand, but I believe.” And in believing we understand in a way that, as the prophet Isaiah wrote is “a peace that surpasses understanding” (Isaiah 26:3). We are finite, God is infinite. In the twelfth century, St. Anselm wrote, “God is greater than that which cannot be thought.” (Anselm in Proslogion, Ch. 15) The Church, through the Magisterium, teaches us how to think and speak rightly about that which cannot be adequately thought or spoken….Fr. Neuhaus again: “When the Church speaks infallibly, the faithful Catholic assents with heart and mind. We may not understand the pronouncement, we may think the teaching poorly expressed or inadequately supported by argument, but we obey, remembering that the etymology of obedience is “responsive listening.” …The alternative to obedience is to turn the conversation into a cacophony of Christians making it up as they go along. Obedience does not come easily for there is in all of us the rebellious spirit of John Milton’s Satan (Non serviam), who would rather rule in hell than obey in heaven” (Anselm in Proslogion, Ch. 15)

Obedience clashes with the current cultural ethos that exalts freedom. The Church remains profoundly misunderstood by not only its secular critics but by those who sit in her pews on Sundays. The Church is not primarily a bureaucratic institution — although there are, to be sure, bureaucracies to carry out many of the Church’s activities and, sadly, bureaucracy may often be the face of many parishes. Nor is the Papacy or the Magisterium, as the secularists would have us believe, political offices that exist primarily to carry out executive and legislative functions. Rather, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God. This claim, which is part of our faith, is sheer nonsense to our scientific-materialist detractors. The papacy and the episcopate were established by Christ himself, not to legislate, but to teach Christ’s savings truths to his people. Contrary to its depiction in the Boston Globe and other secular media, the Magisterium does not ”ban” abortion or contraception or homosexual activity; banning is a legislative act — rather the Magisterium teaches the truth that such acts are intrinsically immoral, contrary to Christ’s saving truths and incompatible with the sharing of divine life.

Robert George, writing in The Clash of Orthodoxies, explains: “Understanding the nature of the Church and its authority makes all the difference when it comes to issues of moral consequence. People who view the Church as essentially a political body and the Magisterium as a legislative office will chafe under the authority of decisions that strike them as restricting freedoms they enjoy. They will test those decisions by appeal to conscience — understood now, not as a judgment of what one is morally required to do or not do, but, rather, as one’s feeling about whether a certain activity — abortion, premarital sex, or whatever — is in fact morally available for one’s choice, the Church’s teaching about the wrongfulness of that activity notwithstanding. By contrast, people who understand the essentially mystical reality of the Church and the function of the Magisterium as teacher of Christ’s saving truths will adopt an attitude of humble — and grateful — submission to the Church’s moral teachings. They understand those teachings as making known the mind of Christ and thus helping to make possible our salvation. Such people will treat those teachings as principles of the formation of their consciences. And they will struggle to live in accordance with them.” 


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