The Catholic Thing
The Pluralist Game Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 06 July 2012

This is how it works. The political liberal, unable to win much support for the goodness of the activity he wants permitted, makes this suggestion to his adversaries: why don’t we let each individual decide for himself whether or not he wants to do X? His doing X does not affect you, since the state is not forcing you do to X. So this is a perfectly neutral position consistent with individual liberty. By permitting others to do X, you are not approving of X. All you are doing is allowing each person to choose to do or not do X.

The Pluralist Game is the name of a book that consists of a collection of essays by the late political philosopher and Fordham professor, Francis A. Canavan, S. J. (It is also the name of a lecture I have given for several years at Summit Ministries, which is where I am writing this column).

Fr. Canavan makes the point that the pluralist game is a sort of bait and switch. The pluralist promises neutrality in exchange for your support, but winds up giving you something far different than what he promised. You are forced to acquiesce to a set of beliefs that are, in fact, hostile to what you believe. They become over time part of the unquestioned infrastructure of our public life, and thus make it more difficult for you and your dissenting compatriots to live consistently with what you believe about the nature of the good life.

In order to appreciate the full significance of this process, let’s replace X with a few substantive moral issues over which citizens deeply disagree and about which the U. S. Supreme Court has offered its wisdom.

Consider first the issue of abortion. In Roe v. Wade (1973), Justice Harry Blackmun opined that because experts – including philosophers, theologians, and physicians – disagree on whether the fetus is a person, “the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

Nevertheless, he concedes elsewhere in the opinion that if Texas (the state whose law was being challenged in the case) could show that the fetus is in fact a person, this would undercut the right to abortion because the fetus would then be protectable under the Fourteenth Amendment.

      Apostles of pluralism: Justices Blackmun (left) and Douglas

Consider next the issue of contraception. In the Supreme Court’s holding in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Justice William O. Douglas overturned Connecticut’s anti-contraception statute on the grounds that a married couple’s decision to use contraception is constitutionally protected by a “zone of privacy” that can be inferred from combining the principles behind several of the Constitution’s amendments and their implications.

Marriage, reasons Douglas, is a pre-political association that is more fundamental than the Bill of Rights or the Constitution itself. He illustrates this point by drawing our attention to numerous other associations that the Court had already recognized as protectable under the Constitution, even though they are not directly addressed by it.

The freedoms of association, to educate one’s children as one wishes, to assemble, and to be a member of groups and parties in order to promote one’s philosophies and beliefs are all within the scope of the Constitution’s protections.

So given the Court’s generous understanding of the wide diversity of equally reasonable views on abortion as well as the eclectic range and variety of associations whose integrity the Court claims to jealously guard, it would seem that those who defend the Court’s holdings on abortion and contraceptive use would think it inconsistent with these holdings to treat these practices as public goods that dissenting associations are forced to provide directly to others.

I am, of course, talking about the HHS mandate and its requirement that religious institutions and private businesses (with some narrow exceptions) must provide contraception and abortifacient drugs in their employees’ health care plans, even if the leadership of the religious organization or the ownership of the private business believes it is a violation of conscience to cooperate materially with the distribution and use of contraceptives and abortifacient drugs.

This is the pluralist game in all its glory. The promise of personal and corporate liberty on the matters of abortion and contraception – as asserted in Roe and Griswold – was, at least for its truest believers, a ruse. It was, it seems, never really about respecting diversity and contrary visions of the good life as we draw closer to our pluralist paradise.

It was about eradicating one understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and replacing it with another. It was, as we now know, the first of many steps in a hostile take-over, one that will not be complete until the Church and its people are entirely banished from public life.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University. He is the author of Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, and (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) the forthcoming A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics, a festschrift in honor of Hadley Arkes.
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written by Gian, July 06, 2012
Is it ever possible to play the pluralist game honestly?.
In other words, is a perfectly liberal state conceivable?.
written by Jon S., July 06, 2012
Excellent column, Professor Beckwith. Sadly, the pluralist game has been all too willingly played by members of the hierarchy and managers of Catholic institutions.
written by Frank, July 06, 2012
It begins with benevolence and the lofty platitudes to be fair. But this both disregards and denies the timeless immutable truth that life is not fair. It begins with noble goals and evolves into the hands of a dictatorial totalitarian tyrant who justifies and maintains power at the point of a gun. Roe and Griswold were decided to quote Justice Brennan, from "emminations and penumbras" not written but nonetheless exist in The Constitution.
Jesus did not trust himself with man for he new what was in man. Secular attempts to apply equity devolve into tyranny and death. We saw that in the French Revolution. The Founding Fathers were both master grammarians and scholars of history and they too knew that men were no angels and anyone who says "it can't happen here," is whistling past the graveyard of history. Thus the Second Amendment; yes the Second Amendment is not about hunting. As long as the government stays within its Constitutional scope, fine. On the other hand, as the Constitution is cravenly circumvented, subverted and citizens find themselves imprisoned or dead at the hands of a craven government, I'll remember that the first human right is that of self defense. In the meantime, I'll vote keep the guns well oiled, practice at the range. JSmitty, we just disagree. Great article Dr. Beckwith.
written by Paul Adams, July 06, 2012
@jsmitty: it is more than hypothetical. Think of same-sex marriage, the transformation it involves in the nature of the pre-political institution of marriage. It is not simply about the toleration of a practice traditionally condemned or the expansion of certain rights to the small minority of individuals who wish to exercise them. It is about the imposition of a new orthodoxy by the state through school curricula (California, Canada) and court rulings about adoption and foster care, wedding photography businesses, admission to and graduation from counseling and social work programs, and so on. We can see from Canada (see Farrow's A Nation of Bastards) or the UK how far-reaching the effects of this seemingly neutral, live-and-let-live strategy are. Dissent from the new orthodoxy, whether on religious or other grounds, becomes stigmatized and eventually criminalized. Bait-and-switch is an apt term.

Pluralism might not be the right word, but the process through which a matter of private choice (as of a married couple to use contraception under Griswold) becomes a public mandate (e.g., to pay for abortifacient drugs through 'insurance' coverage of one's employees) is indeed a pattern.
written by Titus, July 06, 2012
Jsmitty takes issue with both Dr. Beckwith's examples and, it appears, his overall thesis. I am willing to defend both.

The Warren Court, like the Supreme Court in general, may not be "democratic" in the sense of popularly elected, but that does not prevent it from having recourse to pluralism as a political or legal philosophy. Dr. Beckwith is decidedly not using "pluralism" simply to mean "a system in which various parts of a constituency vie for political power through elections." Rather, as he makes fairly clear in the beginning of his piece, he is referring to the normative philosophy that advocates legal latitudinarianism on a wide, or even the full, array of ethical questions. This is the conventional use of the term.

In this sense Roe and Griswold were products of pluralism: the Court acknowledged that there were competing moral visions on the topics at hand and concluded that it was inappropriate for the state to prohibit certain practices on the basis of one such vision. The result was presented as a victory for liberty and the Court treated the entire endeavor as a non-zero-sum game, as if there were no costs to proscription of that moral vision.

This, of course, is absolutely false. There are abundant social costs to the policies promulgated by the Court. Moreover, the results are not, as the Court and its defenders would have us believe, that Court's decisions render the state neutral vis-a-vis the various competing views. The proscriptions announced in Roe, Griswold, and similar cases put the law, and all of its social and cultural forces, soundly on the side of those who say (in these cases) "abortion and contraception are good, not evil."

Dr. Beckwith's further point is that the people who were responsible for these innovations---the plaintiffs and their attorneys, if perhaps not the justices, who often look more naive and self-important than cunning in retrospect---knew this. They knew that what they were selling as "live and let live" was actually "I win and you lose." They weren't terribly secretive of it back then and they've been quite frank about it since. See, e.g., United States v. Virginia (in which Ginsburg attributes to the Court an imperative to eradicate traditional understandings of the roles of the sexes).

Nobody, at least, not anybody claiming respectability, goes out and says "our goal is to banish the Church from the public square." But Dr. Beckwith did not claim as much. Rather, Dr. Beckwith's claim is that the liberal cultural enterprise of the last fifty years will not have achieved its full success until that result is reached. That is neither an original nor an unreasonable thesis.
written by David Severy, July 06, 2012
This world is not my home, I just passing through. I'm not responsible for the sins of other people, only for my own, yet God forbid I cause another to stumble. Those who play in the sand box of politics should know that their houses built on sand will fall.

Daniel 2
31 Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
32 This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.
34 Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.
35 Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.

Mark 14:58
 We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.
written by Athanasius, July 06, 2012
I think a big part of the problem is that a large part of our populous is poorly catechized, and so they like the juvenile "freedom" that comes from this pluralism, and they lack the maturity to see the evil it does to society. I see this in the confirmation class that I teach where 9th and 10th graders have very poor knowledge of the faith. It is hard to teach deep truths to teens who don't go to church or never talk religion at home. One hour a week for 26 weeks a year can't correct this knowledge deficit. We need a sustained effort at remedial adult faith formation in order to change hearts so that we can then have a populous that will change laws and override bad court decisions.
written by Other Joe, July 06, 2012
The debate over abortion was framed as "choice" and was said to be limited to those circumstances, particularly rape and incest, in which abortion might be seen to be the lesser of two evils. That is pluralistic. They win, we lose. Now the issue is framed as an unrestricted right to kill babies including those who survive the abortion. Even judges must now recognize that in the third trimester, the bump in the mother is not mere tissue mass. But we’ve come a long way baby since the pluralistic bait. Consider the case of a baby delivered alive from a botched abortion. That child is an American citizen by law and by definition. Yet many of our leaders maintain that that citizen, innocent of any wrong doing, may be killed and without benefit of representation, or review or delay. Some people call that murder and it fits the dictionary definition of murder better than any of the usual euphemisms. When murder is defined away in the interests of convenience and self-esteem, we are not as far from martyrdom as we might like to believe.
written by Chris in Maryland, July 06, 2012
To jsmitty:

The "elimination of the Church and her people from public life" is reality, not hysteria. It is fantasy to believe this is not the aim.

Here for instance is an example from Harvard's JFK School of Govt (where I studied): Gloria Steinem was invited to speak, and her topic was the need to censure and eliminate political speech from people motivated by traditional Judeo-Christian morality. This is what Pres. Obama and Sec. of State Clinton mean when they say "freedom of worship."

Or as Justice Ginsberg might disclose, among the reasons she inclines away from the US Constitution, in favor of "20th century models" is that "the free expression" of religion is the one of the most objectionable texts in the Bill of Rights (it's so yesterday, and impedes Leviathan's "progress").
written by Manfred, July 06, 2012
I am afraid that Pluralism is a red herring. The real issue is Social Engineering-how does a nation impede population growth in the most efficacious manner? Marriage cannot be an absolute with reproduction solely in the hands of the spouses. Contraception and abortion have to be introduced as well as same-sex marriage as all these patterns reduce population growth. They have to be normalized so as to build support among the population. Religions have to be marginalized as they encourage fecundity. Religious leaders have to be brought over the population control side so as to encourage their congregants. Anyone arguing theology or morality is tilting at windmills. Hard-core pragmatism is the rule of the day. See statements from past presidents. See Justice Kennedy's argument in 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Instead of having to cope with the capture and incarceration of criminals, it is easier and less expensive to contracept and abort them. Reflect on the last fifty years and I am sure you will agree with my premise of the governments' motives.
written by Sue, July 06, 2012
Social Engineering is the goal, and pluralism is the method. Manfred is right that religious leaders have to be "brought over" to the other side, and Dr Beckwith is correct that the pluralistic arguments of the 60s were what (with Rockefeller and Hesburgh help) turned a lot of the clergy and laity into pluralist zombies. Thank God we have crystal-clear papal encyclicals to point and cling to.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 06, 2012
It can't happen here? It already is, however incrementally is progesses. The City of San Francisco passed a resolution denoucnig the Catholic Church as a hate organization, and the 9th Circuit Court upheld the city's right to do so. The hard Secualists--actually Marxists--who control much of our lives look not to our own American traditions of law but to Europe and Canada where, clergymen are jailed and/or fined for defending the dignity of marriage. The Defense Department has joined in the national effort to ensure government sponsored pro-homosexual indoctrination is conducted at all levels of the military with dire conseqences for those who refuse to do the equivalent of signing the oath of loyalty oath to Henry VIII. The President has purposely put self-excommunicated Catholics in high-profile positions so that he can call them the "good Catholics" while those who actually follow the Church's teaching are traaitors loyal to a foreign power that is the enemy of freedom. What is to wonder about here? Harry O was tutored early in life by the notrious Communist Frank Marshal Davis who xlimed that reports of relgious persecution behind the Iron Curtain were Catholic propaganda.
written by jsmitty, July 06, 2012
@ Titus

Yes but neither Griswold nor Roe "promulgated" anything. Birth control was already completely unrestricted in America (e.g. the Connecticut law in question had not been enforced in years). Abortion was generally legal in America also prior to Roe. Around 2/3 of all US women lived within a two hour drive of a state with legalized abortion.

Yes..legalized abortion and frequent contraception have led to many baleful effects. But this does not constitute evidence for a narrative in which the Church and her members are being slowly driven out of public life.

The Church is probably not going to win the public argument over birth control. Indeed there really is no longer a public argument as proved by the fact that the USCCB did not attempt to challenge the HHS regulation on the basis of the immorality of birth control but rather on grounds of religious freedom. But losing the argument is different than being "driven from the public square"

I think the Church is gradually winning the abortion argument as evidenced by the fact that there are generally fewer abortions than there were almost since the early 70's.

@ Paul Adams. I will concede if gay marriage becomes the law of the land, this could ( I repeat could)make life difficult for the Church. But why not have a piece that deals with the legal ramifications and legal threats of "gay marriage" vis a vis religious organizations than a nearly 50 year old Supreme Court decision (the bete noir of pro-life activists but forgotten by almost everyone else) and a HHS regulation that requires insurance companies to provide birth control. You make a much stronger case than the author did.

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