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"Settled Doctrine" Print E-mail
By James Schall   
Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The term “settled doctrine” comes up among Catholic and other supporters of Obama or over controversies about selecting judges. Roughly, the argument is: In almost all nation-states, no longer can we politically replace the various abortion decisions of the legislatures and courts. The people won’t allow it. It is now “settled doctrine” that we will continue this practice in whatever form necessary. In effect, political parties explicitly or tacitly accept this situation. We cannot reasonably discuss it further. Continued “dialogue” is useless. Let us go on to other pressing issues. The “common good” is harmed if we keep harping on this single issue.

What should we make of this view? Our civilization is based on the Socratic principles: “It is never right to do wrong” and “It is better to suffer evil than to do it.” Aquinas said that law is made for men, the majority of whom are not perfect, that we should change law only gradually. Both Aristotle and Aquinas added that some things were intrinsically wrong. We should die rather than do them. Murder was one of these things. To prefer continuation in life at any cost by yielding any principle or betraying any friend was the mark of a coward. It was by dying that Socrates affirmed that “No evil can harm a good man.” Had he yielded, as he could have, his life would not have been worth living. By dying he established what civilization was about.

In the trial of Christ, moreover, we read of the dreaded affirmation that “It is better that one man die than that the people perish.” The irony contained in this proclamation, of course, was that the people did perish because one man died. Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Lecture, likewise encapsulated the foundation of our civilization: “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, nor to support false actions! His rule: “Let that (evil) come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.” And Eric Voegelin said: “We do not have to participate in the evils of our time.”

So this “settled doctrine,” what is it? At every step it is a lie. It is a lie about when life begins. It is a lie that the fetus is not human from conception. It is a lie that we cannot strive to do something about it. It is a lie that it is the common good that these infants perish because we decide that it is “necessary,” a “choice,” a “right,” “the law.” It is a lie that we do not need the infants that we have systematically killed. It is a lie that each abortion is not an intentional killing of one of our kind by one of our kind.

“Settled doctrine” is a rule-of-the-thumb judicial maxim, like “Odiosa sunt restringenda” or “In dubiis libertas." These latter are legal customs designed to protect the one who must obey from unclear, though generally just laws. Can we have “settled doctrine” over unjust laws? This is the claim we are confronted with.

The “settled doctrine” of slavery was challenged on grounds of its moral rightness. From whence could such grounds arise? Surely not from “settled doctrine” itself. “Settled customs” in the ancient world maintained that, given a choice between death and slavery after defeat in battle, most men would choose slavery. Therefore, slavery was tolerated. Those who chose death over slavery were always more admired.

The same people who oppose the “settled doctrine” of slavery on moral grounds reject these same grounds when it comes to aborted human beings. This obtuseness can only be explained as a willful blindness justified as a conflict of “rights.” The shifting reasons given for abortion have come to be simply, “We will it.” All arguments for it are at bottom based on lies. But “rights,” we are told, do not apply to human beings at every stage in their growth. We used to say that if children managed successfully to be born, they were human. But now we also eliminate the born. The so-called “right to a dead fetus” or to a “perfect child” is claimed to be a higher obligation.

“Settled doctrine?” It is settled only if we will it to be settled. It is “settled” if we lie to ourselves about what it is we kill. It is “settled” if we reverse the Socratic principle that founded our civilization, namely, “It is, after all, right to do wrong.” Why? Because we will it. “Quod placuit principi, legis habet vigorem” (I-II, 90, 1, ob. 3).

In the end, “No evil can come to an unjust man.” This too is “settled doctrine” among those who deny what Benedict XVI called, in Spe Salvi, the “Final Judgment.”

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Linda W. Smith, October 22, 2008
Thank you, Father Schall. Your words and those of Prof. McClay on the First Things web site today provide reassurance that the truth can still set us free. Whether or not we will be allowed to speak it for long remains to be seen. In the meantime, thank you. LWS
Director of Catechesis
written by Stephen Matuszak, October 22, 2008
Thank you very much Fr. Schall for reminiding us of the fundamental principles of our civilization and our duty to resist participating in such evil as the murder of the innocents, even at the cost of livlihood, home, or life itself! Those who argue the issue is settled have shirked their responsibility to defend the unborn and turn bck the culture of death - a fight that can only be rewarded in the Kingdom of little ones. Yes, a civilization is defined by its treatment of its weakest members.
written by Augustine, October 22, 2008
Once again, Fr. Schall hits the nail on the head. I encourage everyone to read his books, e.g., Another Sort of Learning, or his On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, or his Roman Catholic Political Philosophy.
written by Daniel, October 23, 2008
40 years ago it was settled doctrine that abortion was illegal. That did not hold back the liberals from unsettling that doctrine. In the end, it is the call of Christians to be change agents in their society. Just as that led to the change in Roman laws in the fifth and sixth centuries, so it will lead to the change in laws today. We cannot allow the deceptiveness of short-term convenience to distract ourselves from the long-term devestation of vitiating the value of human life.
written by James the Least, October 23, 2008
Excellent column, Fr. Schall, but the most telling response, in my view, to the whole "settled question" claim is that, before the Court imposed its will, it was a settled question in most states that abortion was a grave evil. Where was all the high-minded respect for "settled questions" then? Our opponents are indeed liars and deceivers of the first caliber.
written by Gunnar Gundersen, October 23, 2008
Great article. Thank you for highlighting the commitment of our faith to Truth, even if it leads to death on the cross. I think that many people who critize our "absolutist" position on life today and being divisive might have considered Jesus to be a divisive figure for speaking the truth and being Truth too. We must remember that our duty to God and our fellow citizens is not to be as live and let live as possible but to pursue and live the Truth, who is Jesus Christ.
Bob\'s Mom
written by Kay Crnkovich, October 25, 2008
Father Schall, we can't live without your wisdom. This quote from someone whom I don't know is appropriate...."No bargain can be made with truth, because truth is not negotiable."

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