Upholding morality in politics
Right or Wrong?
Are you ready for a break from Presidential politics, recounts, etc? Let's talk about some basics.
Were the moral issues involved in the recent election, such as abortion and death penalty, merely matters of personal preference? Or is there an objective moral order — a natural law — that determines whether an act is right or wrong?
Natural law is not merely a Catholic teaching. Aristotle and Cicero affirmed it. Everything has a nature built into it by its maker. General Motors built a nature into your Chevy and gave you directions to show you how to act in accord with that nature so the car will achieve its purpose. Our "Maker" has built a nature into us that we ought to follow if we are to achieve our goal of eternal happiness.
We can know the law of our nature, as Aquinas put it, by "the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil." And our Maker has given us directions in Revelation, including the Ten Commandments which express the "principal precepts" of that natural law (Catechism, No.1955).
The first, self-evident principle of the natural law is, in Aquinas' words, that "good is to be done and promoted and evil is to be avoided." The good is that which is in accord with the nature of the subject. It is good to feed gasoline to a car. It is not good to feed it to a man. And it is not good, i.e., it is evil, to steal or murder, because such acts are contrary to the natural human inclination to live in community. While we can affirm through reason the objective rightness or wrongness of acts, we generally have neither the right nor the ability to judge the subjective culpability of the person who commits that act. To be culpable, one must know the act is wrong and choose to do it.
The natural law governs human law as well as personal conduct. Martin Luther King cited Aquinas when he said, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that "An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." So, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955, she made a natural law statement. Legally enforced racial segregation is unjust and a civil law that mandates it is void. As St. Thomas put it, if a human law "deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law." We may be obliged to obey an unjust law "to avoid scandal or disturbance," but a law that is unjust because it would compel one to violate the Divine law must never be obeyed.
"Moral truth is objective," said John Paul II in Denver "and a properly formed conscience can perceive it." But our intellects are weakened by original sin and people do sincerely disagree on applications of the natural law. If you and I disagree on the morality, say, of abortion or homosexual acts, we cannot both be right. "If ... we consider one action in the moral order," says St. Thomas, "it is impossible for it to be morally both good and evil."
An authoritative interpreter is needed if the natural law is not to become relatively useless as a standard for law and human conduct. "Christians," John Paul said, "have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the [Second Vatican] Council affirms: ... `[T]he Catholic Church is by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth. Her charge is to ... teach ... that truth which is Christ ... and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself.' ... The Church puts herself ... at the service of conscience, helping it to ... attain the truth with certainty."
Everyone has a pope, an ultimate visible authority on moral questions. If that authoritative interpreter is not the real Pope, it will be a pope of the individual's own selection, usually the individual himself. On the other hand, Christ is God, the Church is his and the Pope is his Vicar on earth. It makes sense to recognize that we have only one Pope, not six billion and that his name is John Paul because he is the successor of Peter to whom Christ gave the keys.
The papacy is a gift of God, affording us an opportunity for moral certainty on applications of the natural law. However, the obligation of Catholics to accept the teaching authority of the Pope does not diminish the importance of framing issues in terms of the "universal moral law" which provides, as John Paul put it at the U.N., the "moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples."
If we do not affirm objective norms that always prohibit certain conduct, how can we define any moral limits to what the state and truth-spinning politicians, can do? "Indeed," said John Paul in 1993, "if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power." As in this year's political campaigns.
Professor Rice is a professor in the Law School. His column appears every other Tuesday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, November 14, 2000