Besotted with the preservation and acquisition of power, the Obama administration has executed several political moves that directly or indirectly undermine the Catholic Church. The abandonment of the Defense of Marriage Act, the loss of funds for sex-trafficking victims and the direct assault on religious liberty by the Health and Human Services contraception mandate have caused a soporific American Catholic Church to coalesce around an ancient message: An unjust law is no law at all — we will not comply. Still, standing for the truth is one matter; being able to articulate it is another.
Catholics look upon these political and societal moves with grave caution, as we have seen them before. Though it touts itself as a new regime of freedom and fairness, our modern world is doing little else than entering into the ideological morgue and revitalizing the pagan ideals of child sacrifice, unbridled sexuality and self-defining family structures — all of which our forefathers in the faith fought hard to correct. However, as we watch the Obama administration and other global secular powers pull and tear at the seams of our society, we must ask ourselves: Is this not all just our opinion? Our religious opinion?
In my previous article, “Recipe for a Rights War,” it was shown that while the Church can defend herself from the state through arguments of religious liberty, she cannot then turn and use religious arguments to encourage the state to deny the liberty of others, e.g., same-sex “marriage” advocates. If the Church is going to speak to non-Catholics about what is and is not permissible within society, it cannot be that which is only germane to Catholics. It must be a standard for all people. It must be something that is natural to all people.
In his 2011 address to the German heads of state, “The Listening Heart: Reflections on the Foundation of Law,” His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI commented, “Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the state.” Historically, Catholicism “has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law.” To wit, Catholicism has no sharia-law equivalent, because the Church does not advocate a religious-political system, i.e., theocratic regimes. Moreover, the Church is not apolitical. Rather, she simply holds human society accountable to that which is universal in humanity: nature and reason together or, in other words, natural law.
Natural law has been observed as the foundation of human politics since the birth of Western civilization amongst Greeks and Romans. The high scholasticism of such greats as St. Thomas Aquinas held natural law to be the only viable source of human law, and even the early Enlightenment thinkers used their version of natural law to articulate man’s inalienable natural rights. However, the standard of natural law has begun to crumble. In the same address, the Pope observed, “The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term.”
Stepping back from the isolated debates over the HHS mandate and same-sex “marriage,” the principle-guiding question of all rights-based speech is whether or not natural law even exists. And though our culture claims to believe in natural and inalienable rights, it rejects the notion that those natural rights logically imply a discernable universal and natural standard, effectively claiming the benefits of a natural universal standard without the adherence to one.
Underneath the political jargon, our culture is aggressively promoting what can only be referred to as individual rights, wherein the individual himself is the autonomous standard. These supposed rights include the unadulterated freedom for each individual to self-determination and self-creation. In essence, a right is synonymous with a desire and should be granted, assuming it hinders no one else. The self-serving twist of this view is that the standard of non-hindrance is complete froth. The stance imports the assumption that individual choice — especially regarding sexuality and family — have next to no effect on other people or society as a whole. Consequently, it treats people’s radical freedom as if they were in a social vacuum; and it ignores the facts that sexual and familial decisions and their effects — e.g., pornography, promiscuity, divorce, adultery, single-parent homes, abortion, contraception, failing demographics, etc. — cause legislative and financial ripples throughout the state.
As we peel back the sordid layers of this view, its lurid strategy of survival surfaces. Since those virtues that are natural to all humanity hinder modern man’s insatiable will, our culture has turned to mitigating the effects of its vices via technology. For example, instead of teaching temperance to children, we hand out contraception and make abortion a right. Maybe most telling, the case for abortion is now bulwarked by the fact that it supposedly lowers crime rates by removing unwanted children. Regardless of its veracity, our culture parades the fact that it is willing to murder a host of human beings for the sake of unchecked sexuality, and society finds legitimacy in the possibility that some of those innocent beings would grow up to commit a crime.
Surely we are witnessing the revitalization of the darkest of pagan principles. As one of the first pagans to turn and contemplate nature — Aristotle — observed, “This is why, without virtues, [man] is the most unholy and the most savage of the animals, and the worst with regard to sex and food.”
Natural law, however, is no trump card. It speaks in general principles within the hearts of humans, and it has been rationally specified in many ways. The call here is to disabuse our society of natural law and restore the Catholic vocabulary necessary for proper political engagement. We cannot afford to win legal battles of utility at the cost of our intellectual tradition. The Church must contextualize all political struggles according to nature and reason; because she stands not only against the Obama administration for reasons of religious liberty, but also as one of the last great beacons of the civilized amongst the barbaric.
This is Part 2 of a Register series on Catholic political thought.
H.H. Ambrose is a writer for St. Peter’s List (StPetersList.com) and resides in Pennsylvania.