What do Catholics do when late-term abortion is declared “sacred ground,” and “gay marriage equality” is treated in our fundamental law as a basic requirement of justice and decency?
We should stand our ground, of course, but that’s easier said than done. Man is social, and today he must find ways to live with others in a society of complex interdependencies. With that in mind, it matters that the Supreme Court, which counts as our highest authority on matters of public principle, insists that our public order is based on an understanding of human life radically opposed to natural law. And it matters even more that we live under a regime of Hope and Change that wants to remodel attitudes and human relations in the name of “equality,” “tolerance,” and “inclusion.” Those words are sacred in today’s politics. No mainstream social authority or political force seriously disputes them or the project of social reconstruction they are thought to demand. To do so is to be banished as a bigoted extremist, and religious and philosophical convictions that lead some in that direction are targets for suppression.
How should we act as the policies that result from such views become more intrusive and their effects on everyday life more pervasive? Politics is mostly a matter of prudence, and the problem with prudence as a guide is that it is very difficult to apply in times of confusion. That says nothing against it as a standard, but it does make it very difficult to know what we are to do as Catholics, citizens, and human beings under present circumstances.
The Catechism tells us that
Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it.
It follows that
Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.
So not all groups that try to exercise political authority deserve to be treated as governments. If a gang of criminals takes over a town, or a foreign invader subjects a region to brutal and inhuman occupation, obedience to their commands is not normally required. But how do we apply such principles in the case of a regime that has wide public and institutional support, even though its fundamental proclaimed principles are directly opposed to natural law, good public order, and rights as basic as the right of children to a father and mother and of babies not to be killed? That is the situation in which we find ourselves today.
At one time the Church provided a remedy for an essentially bad regime in the form of the papal deposing power. The remedy didn’t work well, but its existence and occasional exercise maintained the principle that government is not simply a matter of will but is subject to higher restraints. Today that remedy is out of favor, and has been replaced by international sanctions and ultimately humanitarian intervention (military action) against those who violate human rights. These new remedies are not likely to be helpful, since it is the current understanding of human rights that is the problem: international sanctions in the form of denial of aid are commonly applied, for example, against states that reject current Western views on abortion and the normalization of homosexuality.
A conceivable remedy, one that often occurs to Americans, is the right of revolution. The Catechism recognizes that right under conditions like those governing just war generally:
Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.
Those conditions won’t often be satisfied, and certainly aren’t satisfied today. For starters, politics is cooperative, so there’s no point attempting revolution when it would put us at war not only with the government but with our fellow citizens and civil society generally. Even if we succeeded in toppling the government in the face of such overwhelming opposition, why expect its supporters to turn around and cooperate in setting up something better?
The result is that Catholics rarely treat a government as illegitimate overall, and almost never do so when it enjoys widespread community acceptance. We’re not in the business of establishing the New Jerusalem here and now, but instead look to prudence, which leads us to cooperate with even bad governments that seem stable and can call on substantial public support. Catholics treated the Roman Empire as legitimate, for example, even though the Romans executed Christians who refused to render Caesar homage as a god. Is the divinity of each individual will, the religious principle inspiring the current American order, really worse than the emperor’s divinity or the divine mission of the Roman state and people? It may be that our government is more reformist than the Roman government, so it enforces the implications of a bad principle much more comprehensively, but its ability to do so makes it all the more difficult—and therefore imprudent—to undertake what amounts to a war against the established order.
There are of course exceptions to the general rule of cooperation. As the Catechism says,
The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.
So we shouldn’t burn incense to Caesar, and we shouldn’t participate in abortion or solemnization of same-sex “marriage.” But what else shouldn’t we do? The scope of government is much broader than in the past. How far does the right or duty of conscientious objection go when an activist government—and all Western governments are activist—attempts to remake society down to the level of the family in ways at odds with natural law and the common good? To what extent should we treat not just specific acts but large parts of a system designed to advance “social reform” as something we must reject and resist?
The issue is coming up more and more often. I’ve argued that Obamacare and the system of state-run schools are part of an effort Catholics must oppose to turn human life into a single integrated system, and rather than supporting them we should do what we can to loosen their hold and promote alternatives. More recently, a number of Catholic and other clergymen have raised a similar issue in connection with the state version of marriage, and pledged they would refuse to sign government-provided marriage certificates or otherwise act in ways that lend credence to its legitimacy.
Such issues can be multiplied indefinitely. Should Catholics swear an oath to uphold the Constitution? Work for a company whose “corporate vision” emphasizes “tolerance and inclusion” that include compulsory celebration of “sexual diversity”?
Such issues are becoming ever more pressing, and it’s likely many of them will resolve themselves in a way we don’t like: doctors, pharmacists, bakers, and photographers who refuse to get with the program are being pushed out of their professions, and the same will likely happen to teachers, managers, and others who refuse to participate in celebrations of what they must condemn. In the end the question may be less what forms of cooperation with destructive social structures are permissible than how we will manage to make a living in an age of ever more comprehensive leftist Gleichschaltung.
To avoid such a result we must make every effort possible to present and argue for the full range of Catholic moral teachings publicly, so they don’t seem the private opinions of a few strange people. Downplaying them on the grounds that an edited version of the Faith might be more acceptable to secular people is a fundamental mistake that we and our leaders should avoid. As someone said, silence is death—and that is not at all prudent.