May 13, 2009
Smash the Secular State
If you’re like me, you can’t wait for Barack Obama to speak at the University of Notre Dame — if only because it will put a stop to the flurry of news stories and commentaries about the scandal. (Such as . . . the one you’re presently reading. And my piece from two weeks ago where I graciously offered to accept the used Laetare Medal meant for Mary Ann Glendon. NOTE TO FATHER JENKINS: I’m still waiting.) I wish I were shocked at the phenomenon of President Obama at Notre Dame, but upwardly mobile Catholics in America have been kneeling before the world at least since 1960, and (as this article shows) the Board of Trustees at Notre Dame is even more devout. If worldliness is a religion, these are the folks you see at its 6 a.m. daily Mass.
Catholics serious about the defense of life are responding to Notre Dame’s craven gesture in a variety of ways. Alan Keyes got himself arrested walking an empty baby carriage — which a friend of mine called “tacky.” I disagree: Politics deals in visuals, and embryos are tiny. Bloody fetus dolls are tacky — as are the bent wire coat hangers used to such good effect by the pro-abortion movement. I think that an empty baby carriage is an excellent visual symbol of just what an abortion amounts to: a missing kid, like those we put on milk cartons.
Randall Terry and his people, I’ve read, filled up the baby carriages with bloody dolls — a serious mistake. Like those appalling, truthful pictures of the victims of late-term abortions, such visuals have the opposite of the intended effect: They’re simply too horrible, and they lead us to turn away. We do our best to put the issue out of our minds, as “ordinary Germans” did throughout the Holocaust. The best response I’ve seen is a boycott by Notre Dame students of their own commencement exercises, promoted in a sober, dignified video featured here.
One well-meaning response to the scandal that came through my inbox — an old friend helpfully sends me four or five news stories per day on this particular topic — struck me as particularly dangerous. It seems that one pro-life alumnus of Notre Dame is collecting money to take out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune, including the following attempt at being irenic:
To begin, we, alumni of diverse Catholic institutions, commend your defense of human life and dignity in other areas: your commitment to healthcare for rich and poor alike; your insistence on humane redress of our immigration challenges; your rejection of torture as an intrinsic evil.
Then it goes on to cogently make the case for rejecting abortion. Now, as a teacher of rhetoric, I know the importance of picking battles. If you’re trying to win someone over on an issue of life or death, it might pay to fudge the other areas on which you disagree. But this statement concedes too much on issues of prudence and principle (and anyway, Prudence is a principle). As the governing natural virtue, Prudence is the means by which we determine how to recognize and implement Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. It is Prudence that tells us when charging up a hill is an act of courage . . . or simple suicide. Justice determines how steeply progressive our income tax may be . . . and where it shades into theft. And so on.
Catholics who scoff at Prudence and latch onto unconditional statements torn out bleeding from their context in Scripture or Tradition do so, too often, to feed some private sense of moral superiority. Those who answer complicated arguments about immigration with the text “Welcome the stranger” (Dt 10:19), for instance, really ought to read eight chapters further to 18:10-11, which demands that Wiccans be driven out of the country. Exodus goes further: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (22:18). Churchmen once interpreted that one pretty literally, too — and it would be kind of refreshing to see our bishops use that phrase as the title of one of their letters. (“Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live”: The United States Catholic Conference Statement on Religious Diversity.)
Leave aside torture for the moment (I don’t want to steal away Mark Shea’s thunder): Do we as Catholics really commend President Obama’s defense of human life and dignity in every other area but abortion? Is his de facto — nudge, nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more — support for homosexual unions supportive of true human dignity? What of the bureaucratic monster Obama would create as a means of offering “healthcare for rich and poor alike”? Such a system — not in the pastel daydreams of some vestigial Catholic Democrat, but in cold hard reality, which even for Catholics should have some claim — will surely include full coverage for contraception, sterilization, even sex-change operations, and will likely result (as socialized medicine has in larges swathes of Europe) in the acceptance and even promotion of euthanasia. No, in theory a government health system need not include all these abuses — but in reality, it will. And we will be helping to fund it.
So we must oppose such a system for as long as we suffer under the laws and the courts and the legal and opinion elites who’d force us to fund intrinsic evils with our confiscated wealth. Leave aside any libertarian arguments about the proper limits of the State; this State, our State, is relentlessly secular. Its version of secularism is almost devoid of a true understanding of the Natural Law. Ironically, Natural Law — our notion of the truths and goods knowable even to pagans — is rejected out of hand by pretty much everyone but Catholics. Which renders Natural Law arguments pretty much . . . useless. In America, State action will be secular in spirit, utilitarian in execution, and in the service of the modern culture of death. Until and unless we can evangelize and overtly Christianize the State — I’m not holding my breath — we are morally obliged to shrink it, squeeze it, entangle in complications and starve it of funds however we can. We are obliged to be libertarians for the duration.
What this means is that the daydream of so many Catholics nostalgic for the “good old days” of FDR and Monsignor Ryan (the “Right Reverend New Dealer,” as he called himself), the fantasy of a pro-life Democratic party, is in fact a toxic fantasy. It’s an impure thought, to be banished the old-fashioned way: with cold showers and exercise. The proper place of Catholics, for the foreseeable future, is alongside the people at Tea Parties, supporting candidates like Ron Paul — even if some of our fellow travelers are packing heat or smell of weed.