He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Friday, April 4, 2014

Forward Thinking, Backward Lookers

Previously, I've written about backwards thinking on the part of progressives with regard to the relationship between their moral values and their political views.  In the interest of fair treatment, I will write about one of the common errors which conservatives tend to fall into with regard to the relationship between their moral values and their political views.

Whereas progressives frequently impose their political views backwards onto their moral framework, conservatives are much more likely to look backwards at their moral framework for guidance on how to proceed in forming their political views.  Our political views are a special case of applied moral values; we have to apply our moral values while taking into account that the political framework has a specific purpose not shared by the individual moral actor and that this political framework needs to serve people who do not share our values.  Forward thinking is imposing one's moral values forward  onto one's political views without considering that politics is a special case of morality with different aims and limited boundaries.

The problem for conservatives (particularly in Western democratic republics) is that it is extremely difficult to reconcile their moral framework with the philosophical underpinnings of the legal system as it exists in their countries of residence.  The strategy frequently adopted by conservatives in response to this is to straightforwardly apply their moral framework to the issues of personal liberty which are currently controversial while taking a more complex view of the relationship between their moral framework and foreign policy.  Conservatives also tend to be more likely to take for granted settled legal issues from previous generations; this is why the conservatives of one generation can be perfectly comfortable with women voting and the generation of conservatives at the time it was controversial was far less comfortable with it.

This habit of imposing one's moral views straightforwardly onto one's political views is not generally a problem in certain areas.  It would be difficult to find someone who was not opposed to murder on moral grounds, so forward thinking doesn't cause any problems there.  In other areas, it can cause quite serious disputes where different groups have different views on the morality of an act.  For example, a conservative Christian in one era might support a law which would punish banks which charge interest because he views charging interest as immoral.  This brings him into immediate conflict with the aims and interests of many bankers.  A conservative recovering alcoholic might support a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol in another era because he finds it to be immoral based on his experience with it.  This brings him into immediate conflict with those who enjoy a good beer or a nice glass of scotch on occasion.

Where competing moral claims exist, how do we decide which should prevail in our legal system?  The forward thinker has the answer, and it is frequently to require by law that people not engage in behavior which he believes to be immoral.

Related: Can Catholics Support Legalizing Same-Sex Unions?

The commonly controversial example of this sort of forward thinking (which is still making headlines today) is the issue of same-sex marriage.  Many conservatives of various belief systems have opposed and continue to oppose the legalization of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages.  Being in the U.S. where the largest religious demographic is adherents of Christianity, it is no surprise that many forward thinkers with regard to this issue are Christian.  They propose that same-sex unions be illegal for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they believe that the sexual acts of same-sex couples are immoral and that redefining marriage will damage the family unit in certain ways.

One public Catholic Christian has gone so far as to suggest that all Catholics are required to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriages. This is an interesting position, though not a surprising one coming from a forward thinker, and there are many forward-thinking Catholics indeed.  Historically, the Catholic Church has in many places had a much cozier relationship with the State than most in the United States would be comfortable with.  Not surprisingly, many Catholics from those places or cultures feel less of a need for a wide separation of Church and State.

The author of the article (who is one of the increasingly rare staunchly pro-life Democrats in American politics) cites Church teaching and Pope John Paul II for her claim that all Catholics should oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage because it is at odds with Catholic moral teaching.  I completely agree that it is at odds with Catholic moral teaching, which I have written about at some length.  Unlike many self-identified Catholics, my position on this matter is not rooted in dissent from the moral teaching of the Church.  I think it would be a terrible idea for the Catholic Church to allow a "marriage" between two people of the same sex in the Church because it is profoundly incoherent with Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition to do so.

The author of the article quotes Pope John Paul II as having written (or approved the writing) that, "all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions."  I'll not bother over-analyzing the quotation, though I do wonder how exactly we square this with Pope Francis' view on limited civil unions.  Does Pope Francis disagree substantively with Church teaching on sexuality?  No.  Does he endorse the idea that same-sex couples can be "married" in any meaningful sense of the term?  No.  He upholds the definition of marriage in the strongest terms. But interestingly, he and other Bishops do not oppose limited civil unions as a means of the State ensuring civil rights for its citizens.

So what conclusion can we draw from this?  Their views do appear to be in some tension when taken at face value.  Either that is a problem or it is not a problem.  If it is a problem, then it would be a problem because we consider their statements on matters of politics to be a binding part of the Magisterium.  If it is not a problem, then it would not be a problem because we do NOT consider their statements on matters of politics to be a binding part of the Magisterium.

Let's consider the consequences of taking the view that Pontifical statements on political questions are a binding part of the Magisterium in addition to their statements on faith and morals under the appropriate circumstances.  It would be absurd to conclude that the Pope is heterodox or heretical given the massive amounts of evidence against that position, but that is the conclusion one would be left with if we read the selection from John Paul II without any critical analysis.  At that point, we might have to become sedevacantists with respect to the current Pope.

In addition, if we do take that view, then the Pope can just tell us what all our political views ought to be and be done with it.  That strikes me as incredibly dangerous for a variety of reasons.  One of those reasons is related to the marriage issue, as I've mentioned before.  It is very much to our benefit to draw a clear distinction between secular marriage and religious covenants, because if you keep insisting that they are the same, then it follows that the government has jurisdiction to regulate our religious covenants and force us to allow homosexuals to participate in such covenants.  For this reason, it is a staggeringly bad idea to conflate the concepts of marriage as a financial arrangement facilitated by the State and the sacramental union of a man and woman for life in unity with Christ.

Now let's consider the consequences of taking the view that Pontifical statements on political questions are NOT a binding part of the Magisterium.  It avoids some obvious problems like paving the way for the State to have jurisdiction over a sacrament.  It avoids a potentially dangerous precedent which would give the Pope essentially unlimited political authority over faithful Catholics.  That doesn't sound so bad.

But is there an issue with taking this stance which is problematic?  Some people might be concerned that taking those statements as non-binding would relieve Catholics from their duty to oppose the legalization of abortion, for example.  This is not the case for a couple of reasons: first that opposition to abortion does not rest on the teaching of the Popes alone (it was the teaching long before most of the Popes we've ever heard of existed), second that the moral teaching regarding abortion brings us in a very straightforward way to its legal opposition because it is murder and murder is already illegal (except in cases of self-defense).  If we support the law against murder, we must in consequence support the law against abortion to the same degree.  Not because the Pope says so, but because we favor a rational legal standard.

So why would this same reasoning not apply to marriage aside from the aforementioned negative consequences?  It is not so simple to apply the Church's teaching on marriage to the law.  If we are to be consistent, we would need to oppose the legalization of divorce as a grave moral ill.  We might even need to require that all marriages be held in a Catholic Church or with the approval of a Bishop.  We would need to favor enshrining in secular law an annulment process.  This seems pretty untenable, though if someone wants to take that position I will greatly admire their consistency.

In light of the above discussion, what can we make of John Paul II's statement which does not strip it of its meaning entirely?  For one, I think all faithful orthodox Catholics can agree that we cannot support or endorse same-sex "marriages" in a sacramental sense.  I think that we can also conclude that we should be very clear that we do not endorse same-sex sexual acts which may occur during the time of state-issued marriage contracts.  None of this would prevent us from favoring two people being allowed to join their finances or share a health care plan, however.  And I seriously doubt that people sharing health care plans or money was what John Paul II was opposed to, given his other statements.

I am quite content with the notion that faithful Catholics may oppose legalizing same-sex marriage on the grounds of various kinds of legal reasoning.    I am also quite content with the notion that faithful Catholics can favor legalizing limited civil unions even if the term marriage is applied to them so long as it is clear that they are not endorsing what the Church teaches are sinful acts.  What I am not content with is setting the precedent that the Church and State should have a relationship that will impair the integrity of the Church and the State, which is precisely what is proposed unknowingly by those who want to straightforwardly apply the moral teaching of the Church to the laws of the State so as to make them the same.

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