Saturday, October 16, 2004


Matters of Principle

By David Mills

Most Pressing Question

But the most pressing church-state question this year is whether the churches should "tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life." Put another way, not Kerry’s, but I think more to the point, the most pressing question is, from what sources are Americans allowed to take the principles that govern our life together and on what grounds are religious principles allowed or excluded? The incoherence of Kerry and company’s arbitrary exclusion of religious principles from public affairs promotes the confusion so destructive of our common life.

One thing should be made clear before we go on. In the matters at issue in our public life, the churches assert no sectarian doctrine and demand of their politician members nothing resting upon their authority alone. They only say aloud what is taught by natural law—in other words, they tell their members to support what everyone knows, but many have forgotten or have refused to see.

Killing the unborn, the aged, and the sick is wrong, and no politician should need the church to tell him so. So with the nature of marriage, and so with embryonic experimentation, and so with cloning. Of course, sexual liberals will deny this, and there is no neutral authority to which we can appeal to show them that such beliefs are indeed true. But the sexual liberals’ denial of reality is no excuse for the Catholic politician’s doing so.

Kerry—now the poster boy for the secular and unconstitutional definition of "the wall of separation between church and state"—represents all those politicians who profess allegiance to churches that expect their members to represent their teachings in their individual callings, but who refuse to do so. Most of them are Catholic, but some are Orthodox and some even (at least in the last administration) Southern Baptist. Most are Democrats, but the Republicans have a goodly number as well.

Here I will take the Catholic politicians as the example, because one of them wants to be President of the United States and because the Catholic Church has spoken most clearly on this matter, most recently in the Vatican’s doctrinal note on "The Participation of Catholics in Political Life" and the American bishops’ "Catholics in Political Life." As Joseph Bottum of The Weekly Standard put it:

The Doctrinal Note marks at least the beginning of the end of the Vatican’s toleration of what the pope’s biographer George Weigel has called "Cuomoism" in the American Church: the effort to finesse abortion by declaring oneself personally opposed but politically supportive of laws allowing abortion. Catholics have a "duty to be morally coherent," the Doctrinal Note declares, and the Catholic fight on the life issues—abortion, euthanasia, and cloning—is not some merely prudential question, to be decided by political give and take. The Catholic Church doesn’t take political positions—except when politics intrudes into something, like the right to life, that ought to be beyond the power of politicians.

Having It Both Ways

There are two problems with the politician who reduces his religious faith to Values He Cannot Impose On Others.

First, as legislators who vote on all sorts of legislation covering almost every aspect of human life, they vote to impose their values (or principles) every time they vote. A vote for or against a tax break is a vote for a particular principle about the nature of government and the citizen’s rights, in particular how much money a government may take and how much a citizen may expect to keep. A vote for a new welfare benefit is a vote for a particular principle about the nature of the collective responsibility for the people served (or disserved).

We vote for our representatives precisely because we want them to impose their values, and we prefer the values of the man we vote for to those of the man he’s running against. The man who tells us by what principles he works is a man whose future actions we can—in a fallen world, always only to some extent—predict, and therefore know whether we want him in office. So, as I said at the beginning, the legislator who refuses to Impose His Own Values is ignorant of his proper calling, which is worrisome in itself. This means he will spend his time in office trying to impose his values without telling his constituents what values he would impose.

Second, these politicians do not have to be Catholics if they do not hold Catholic principles. If they fear imposing Catholic values on others, they can stop being Catholics and live openly by the principles they actually hold. One of the most important of which is that those matters the Catholic Church teaches are matters of natural law (that is, known to and binding upon everyone) are not so. This is a defensible principle, but an Imposed Value nevertheless, imposed not least upon the unborn whose right to live this Imposed Principle, imposed by men-who-don’t-impose-their-principles, is denied.

One would think better of such a politician if he chose either to live by the principles of the faith he professes and let the voters decide whether they want to be represented by a faithful Catholic, or to live by the principles of the faith he holds and let the voters decide whether they want to be represented by an ex-Catholic. (He may, of course, not know clearly what his actual faith is, which ignorance of principle gives his political life a certain useful flexibility. I think the church threatens such politicians not only because it expects them to believe what they do not want to believe, but because it expects them to speak of fundamental matters they would prefer to leave unknown, even to themselves.)

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