From Catholic Culture:
Recently I exchanged emails with a correspondent who argued that a Catholic political stance in favor of abortion is morally acceptable because the evil of abortion is something that we know only from Faith, and not something that all men can know as demonstrably true. When I suggested in reply that the Catholic position on abortion is based on natural law, and so its truth is knowable by all, my correspondent responded that I was simply wrong. It is not possible, he said, to understand the evil of abortion experientially, as we do with other actions proscribed by civil law. Therefore, Catholics such as Joseph Biden and Nancy Pelosi (and Fr. Robert Drinan before them) can recognize the evil of abortion from their Faith while, at the same time, legitimately choosing to vote in favor of it as a matter of civil law.
This is, of course, merely a more sophisticated expression of the argument against “imposing our religious views” on others (including, apparently, on ourselves). In fact, it raises the argument to the Nth degree, in effect asserting that we may not endorse a public prohibition of anything that all men cannot (or do not?) know certainly and experientially to be evil. The mind boggles at the complacent absurdity of this argument.
Natural Law and Natural Justice
The first defense against such absurdity is to insist, with the Church, that it is an essential purpose of civil government to foster justice: to ensure that each person receives his due, to criminalize actions which strip another of what is rightfully his, and to punish those who commit such crimes. A large part of civil government is necessarily occupied with the protection of life, property and legitimate human opportunity from both internal and external assault. It is precisely our natural knowledge of these things which forms the basis of our civil pursuit of justice; in other words, our responsibility for proper civil government derives immediately from the natural law.
Now, in considering natural justice as a practical matter, it will often be preoccupied with those things about which most citizens agree, but it is ludicrous deliberately to restrict its implementation to such matters, let alone confine it to those things about which the entire body of citizens claims to be certain. A moment’s reflection reveals that such an approach is unworkable. There may be any number citizens or groups of citizens who fail to understand that stealing from businesses is wrong, that blacks and whites have equal human rights, that children are not mere things, that women possess the same dignity as men, that workers have a right to the fruits of their labor, and so on. In fact, history is replete with instances of entire cultures which have failed to recognize some aspects of the natural law that our own culture finds obvious (and vice versa).
But just as ignorance of the positive law is no excuse, neither is ignorance of the natural law, for the understanding of the natural law and its codification in positive law is a work of reason which citizens are always expected to possess even when they fail to exercise it properly. Consequently, operating with prudence, civil government not only may but must act in accordance with natural justice, however dimly perceived. In fact, the failure to so on a major scale is sufficient to render a government illegitimate, and to permit its legitimate replacement should the opportunity arise. While in practice no culture and no government ever recognizes all of its obligations under the natural law, every government has a duty to pursue natural justice even when—perhaps especially when—some among the citizenry wish to deny justice to others in their midst while claiming that this denial is necessary or even good.
It ought to go without saying that the first requirement of justice is to protect that which is both dearest to each person and most fully his own, namely his very life. It is a relatively simple exercise of reason to understand that all innocent human persons have a right to life, and that there is a moral obligation to protect that right through all the stages of a human person’s existence. The fact that, for any number of reasons, some persons are blind to this reality when it comes to groups they dislike or find inconvenient does not provide a warrant for declaring the protection of life optional for these groups. In practice, of course, grave injustices may arise and there may be very little anyone can do about them. But in theory, the obligation to protect the right to life is clear, and there can be no possible justification for concluding that, because not all citizens recognize that right, it is therefore permissible for those who do recognize it to frame laws as if they do not. The only possible excuse for someone to work in favor of the violation of the right to life, or in favor of any other grave natural moral evil, is serious confusion; but again, such confusion about naturally-knowable goods is rightly considered blameworthy.
Christianity Clarifies Nature
Because of the weakness of the human intellect and the influence of the passions, men frequently make mistakes about what is good, and so they misunderstand issues of natural justice. For this reason, pagan societies frequently have large gaps in the understanding and application of the natural law. It is also true that the light of faith and the influence of grace lift the intellect out of darkness and help it, without superceding nature, to perceive more accurately all natural truths. As societies have become Christian, their sense of natural justice has been strengthened and many disputed principles have become more clearly understood and more properly valued.
Thus, for example, many pagan societies (or even nominally Christian societies too influenced by pagan ideas) have erroneously held that some human groups are not fully human, that some particular human condition renders one less than human, or that in any case human persons themselves possess neither an innate dignity nor rights. How often has might made right, with the powerful neatly disposing of the less powerful according to their whims! In our own culture, we tend not to be blind about the stages of human life (our biology is too good), or about racial or sexual equality. But we tend to be very confused about what a person is, about the meaning and purpose of sexuality, and about whether any person has sufficient dignity to trump the desires of those who are healthier, wealthier or more powerful. Thus the inconvenient and defenseless in society are again at grave risk—the unborn, the handicapped, the elderly, the ill. Renewed exploitation of women by men, and of children by parents, is not far behind.
Now it is certainly true that there is a cultural clash between those whose intellects and consciences are enlightened by Christianity and those whose intellects and consciences have become darkened through their own weakness, cultural pressures, and personal sin. But in the civil order this clash is primarily over the understanding of natural justice, and those who properly perceive the demands of natural justice can have no excuse for failing to answer those demands even when others lack understanding. They certainly may not use the foolishness and perversity of their neighbors as an excuse for the promotion of injustice in the name of civic responsibility. Matters that can be known only through Revelation are quite different. Here God calls each one to Himself in a free response of Faith. But with natural justice it is otherwise. In the pursuit of justice, men make serious demands of each other for the sake of what is naturally good and right. Moreover, in the civil order, the exercise of justice is necessarily coercive.
But let us suppose for a moment that the right to life of the unborn child is not a matter of natural justice. Let us suppose instead that is can be known only through Faith that an unborn child is a human person with the same rights as his parents, including a right to life which all just societies must recognize. If such were the case, would a Christian who recognized the personhood of the unborn be justified in voting in favor of abortion because his fellow citizens cannot be expected to recognize that personhood? Answer: The very idea is absurd.
If I know, from whatever source, that my friends are persons, but I see that others who are less enlightened wish to deny their personhood and murder them, am I justified in promoting laws that protect such murder? Laws that make it easier? Laws that encourage it? Laws that reduce the murderers risks? Am I not rather obliged to do everything in my power to protect the rights of my friends, to frame laws and policies based on a recognition of their personhood, to restrain and, if necessary, punish those who unjustly try to take their lives? By what possible convolution of argument would I be justified in thinking the blindness of others gives me the responsibility of protecting that blindness through laws that both perpetrate and justify the gravest possible injustice to my friends?
It is wrong to think that there are two conflicting truths, a sacred truth and a secular truth, a religious truth and a civil truth. We cannot say, “My religion teaches me that unborn human life is sacred, but the secular world teaches me either nothing or the opposite. Therefore, when I am in Church, I will defend the unborn, but when I act in the civil order, I will work to ensure that the unborn may be killed. In this way, I will fulfill both my religious and civil responsibilities.” Of course, nobody argues this way, and in any case, those who favor abortion in the civil order do not condemn it when they are in Church. Instead, they are either deeply confused at all times or, very likely in some cases, they are simply cultural opportunists at all times.
With respect to this last point—that of cultural opportunism—I return to a suspicion I have raised on many occasions, the suspicion that most pro-abortion Catholics are driven primarily (albeit often unknowingly) by a desire for acceptance and favor among those they regard as the leaders of our culture. Though the number of politicians active both in the 1960’s and today is growing small, it has been widely noted over the years that many politicians, including many Catholic politicians, who became advocates of abortion in the 1970’s and beyond, were on record as firmly opposing abortion a decade earlier. One cannot judge any person’s motives, but one can recognize that in politics as in life in general—and perhaps especially among those who are attracted to politics—there is a strong desire to “fit in” with the movers and shakers, the cultural elite, the Right People.
There is, in other words, a strong desire to adopt fashionable positions rather than to assume personal responsibility for one’s decisions. In any case, it is a failure to assume personal responsibility (and often a lie as well) which causes people to justify their positions by saying they are “personally opposed but” or that they “must not impose their religious views” or that they are justified in approving, promoting and protecting grave evil because a great many of their contemporaries neither know the difference nor (so my correspondent asserted) can be expected to know the difference.
None of this is new. These are ever the arguments of the weasels and the wafflers who wish to be justified in the sight of all, and who love nothing more than to appear to occupy the moral high ground while behaving exactly as the prevailing culture wishes them to behave. Such arguments, when they do not come from those who are profoundly confused morally, are merely the stock in trade of hypocrites. Were the same arguments propounded to justify slavery or the exploitation of women, their fallacies would be immediately spotted, exposed and denounced. The fact that our cultural elites frown on these positions would actually compel Catholics who support abortion to reach, in these other cases, a straightforward and logical conclusion at last.
Can you imagine the following? “I am personally opposed to slavery, but it is my civil duty to make it legally possible for the many who suffer from too many responsibilities to own slaves.” Or, “I know from my Faith that women have the same human dignity as men, but exploitation of women is a widespread need in civil society and to uphold the right of men to act on these needs, we must frame laws that protect this exploitation.”
No, such assertions are taken seriously only when they pander to the larger culture. They are nothing more than evidence of a secularized conscience, a conscience formed not by the will of God but by the will of Mammon. A very high authority once said that we cannot serve both; indeed, the open mind boggles at such currying of favor even when it is unconscious, which is why I described it as complacent absurdity. Only in a topsy-turvy Wonderland does this logic hold—in Wonderland, where we can safely agree with Humpty Dumpty that our words mean exactly what we choose them to mean, neither more nor less, and where—sadly—the one who continually greets the sweetest of little roses with a cry of “Off with their heads” is the true queen of our hearts.