The Catholic Thing
Sola Scriptura Secularism and Hobby Lobby Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 04 July 2014

On this page on Tuesday, Hadley Arkes raised a very important concern about the way in which the beliefs embraced by the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case, the Green Family, were portrayed by the Court:

In the style of old, “religion” was reduced simply to claims of “belief” held “sincerely.” The Greens professed to “believe” that human life begins at conception. That is an anchoring proposition in the textbooks on embryology, but it was reduced here to a mere “belief” – as indeed religion itself was reduced to mere “belief,” without a ground of reason.

Hadley’s observation is clearly correct. But it is not unique to this opinion. It is largely the way legal scholars and academic elites often characterize religious beliefs that seem to pose a threat to the dominant liberal account of the good life. Rather than portraying the religious belief as an intellectually serious rival to the liberal account of the subject that is in dispute, the religious belief is presented as an entirely different subject.

The reason for this, it seems to me, is that these critics of religion mistakenly think of all religious beliefs as merely the deliverances of what has historically been called special revelation, which may be accessed by the believer through Scripture (e.g., the Bible, Qu’ran) and/or ecclesial authority.

So for the typical secular academic, a Catholic’s belief in the full personhood of the embryo (with which the Protestant Green Family is in agreement) is no different than his belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Thus, for the secularist, just as the Catholic account of the consecrated bread and wine adds a religious something not found in the purely scientific account of the bread and wine, the Catholic view of the embryo adds a religious something to a purely secular account of nascent life.

By employing this sleight of hand, the secularist is able to beg the question as to the issue in dispute by making it seem as if it is really a matter of two allegedly incommensurable subjects – faith and reason – rather than a matter of two contrary answers to the same question: is the embryo one of us?

               A philosophical analysis of an empirical reality

As Hadley rightly notes, the deliverances of embryology are immensely helpful here. But for the more sophisticated secularist – one who denies the embryo’s personhood but not its humanity – the pro-life advocate must employ the resources of philosophy, since it is those resources that the sophisticated secularist employs to make his case as well.

The secular critic argues that what makes any being a moral subject is its present capacity to engage in certain acts we typically attribute to persons, e.g., the ability to communicate, have a self concept, etc. Thus, for the secular critic, an embryo is not a moral subject, i.e., a person.

Although the prolife advocate does not dispute that persons may do these things, he disagrees that the doing of them is what makes a human being a person. Rather, personal acts are perfections of the sort of thing an embryo is, a being with a personal nature. This is why a blind, unconscious, or developmentally disabled man is still a man. Our judgment as to what he lacks implies that we know what he is. Thus, for the prolife advocate, the embryo is one of us because of what it is, not what it does.

But this means that the position of the Green Family – that the human embryo from its very beginning is truly one of us – is not an answer resulting merely from ecclesial edict or scriptural exegesis, even though it is an answer tightly tethered to these other resources. Rather, it is the result of the same sort of reasoning engaged in by the secular critic of religion: philosophical analysis of an empirical reality.

Thus, the Green Family’s belief is no more or less “religious” than the secularist’s. For each is offering an answer to the same question, albeit within the confines of contrary traditions of philosophical reflection.

In that case, certain critics of the Court’s Hobby Lobby opinion – those who portray it as a victory of faith over reason – are either ignorant of the nature of the dispute or, they know if they are honest about its nature, it will not advance their political agenda.

If it is the former, then there is hope for mutual understanding and serious but respectful public argument. If it is the latter (and I fear this is the case), then we are dealing with adversaries who not only reject faith, but reason as well. Adiuva nos Domine Deus

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, where he also is co-director of the Program on Philosophical Studies of Religion. Among his many books are Politics for Christians: Statecraft As Soulcraft(InterVarsity Press, 2010) and Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (17)Add Comment
written by Gian, July 04, 2014
The really sophisticated secularist neither denies the personhood nor the humanity of the unborn but invokes self-owership of the mother over her body.
written by Paul Rodden, July 04, 2014
Most of the people I know in the pews talk and act as if religion is an entirely different subject, too. Something to be 'sequestered', as you put it in that brief video on the FUS YouTube Channel.

It's a sort of 'double-truth' theory they have introjected from culture because they don't know anything else. It's tragic.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, July 04, 2014
The same can be said for same sex "marriage": it is not a Catholic issue i.e. not a religious issue at all. It does violence to a wholly different set of laws.
written by Manfred, July 04, 2014
With all due respect, Prof. Beckwith, discussion of the case is endless. We who arw trained, believing, practicing Catholics must understand that we have received gifts which all others in this Nation have not received, namely, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first is WISDOM, and the last is FEAR OF THE LORD.
The central question is: Is it ever permissible to directly take innocent human life? The answer is always NO. Therefore, Wisdom and Fear of the Lord dictate to us to err on the side of prudence in matters of contraceptives, abortifacients and abortion itself. Those who oppose us will never see God! Ancient Jews referred to them as goyim/gentiles, people who really do not matter. People who follow false gods of pride, selfishness, wealth, prestige, who seek the praise of the World. We really cannot communicate with them as their "eyes" have become so clouded they can no longer discern that they are steeped in their sins. We Catholics know that a horrific punishment will come as God's JUSTICE demands it. IMHO the punishment has already begun.
written by Francis O'Connell, July 04, 2014
The differentiation of life vs. person seems to be reasoning that I encounter more and more from secularists. It brings out an interesting contrast for the same people who tend to regard the euthanizing or hunting of animals to be an anathema. Witness the outrage over the Facebook posts by the cheerleader with her dead exotic prey. Now I happen to share some of the same sentiments about the treatment of higher forms of animal life, but the contrast of reasoning here is another example of the incoherent belief systems of secularists. Think about the inconsistency of the many who are at once narcissistic and misanthropic (except that the combination is perfect for being a hedonist)
written by schm0e, July 04, 2014
...a refreshing read here.

Except that the Secularist's belief IS religious.

And they're the ones with the keys to the earthly arsenals of power.
written by Romy, July 04, 2014
Weren't American slaves considered to be human non-persons? Also the treatment of Jews under the Third Reich.
This secular argument has been used as a tool of eugenics forever. It justifies a utilitarian approach toward our fellow man. Ex: A department in my company used to be called "Personnel". Now, it is called "Human Resources". With this attitude, it may be easy to justify a sort of intellectual hierarchy that correlates with a hierarchy of human-ness. The higher you are on the intellectual scale, the higher your inherent quality of what constitutes a person.
written by Rich in MN, July 04, 2014
On my local EWTN affiliate a few days ago, I saw a great video by a young, energetic pro-life speaker from Canada named Stephanie Gray. She addressed the question of 'my body' from a few different angles, including the reality that a uterus is designed specifically and solely for 'the other.' I cannot do justice to Ms. Gray's presentation here. Instead, I will just call attention to her work.
written by Sharon, July 04, 2014
Religion means relationship, and for Christians, their relationship with Jesus is at its very core. The secular world has tried to define faith as merely a system of beliefs. Granted, beliefs are important and help to organize a religious community. But it is the relationship with the divine that is the essence of religion.

In a world that celebrates relationships of all kinds, Catholics should not feel compelled to downplay their relationship with Jesus, but should openly and joyfully celebrate it.
written by Myshkin, July 04, 2014
Anyone who believes that the relation between the "I" and "my body" is one of ownership is completely unsophisticated philosophically. Take a philosophy class pleas!
written by Athanasius, July 04, 2014
I have recently read excellent books by Stephen M. Barr and Benjamin Wiker that point out have even in the hard physical world of physics, chemistry, and biology you can't disprove God and in fact recent discoveries lend credence to a universe designed specifically for man. In light of these discoveries, secularists resort to unprovable premises such as multiple universes, or the big bounce. These premises require as much faith as Christianity, maybe more. These are arguments designed with the desired end in mind rather than letting the truth lead where it will.
written by Paul, July 04, 2014
Happy July 4th from Canada.

Sadly, some think the unborn have to be wanted to be human beings. I can't understand why they can't see the flaw in their logic.
written by Micha Elyi, July 05, 2014
The sophists who are eager to excuse murder of the most innocent by waving their hand at "self-ownership" forget that there are limits to what ownership makes permissible.
written by Kevin in BC, July 05, 2014
Well said, Paul.
written by bill bannon, July 06, 2014
Mr. Beckwith goes beyond papal caution when he says Catholics believe in the personhood of the early embryo. Here is St. John Paul in section 60 of Evangelium Vitae saying the Church has not committed itself in respect therein but holds that the early embryo should be treated AS IF it is a person:
" Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life".59
In the beginning of that passage, St. John Paul is allowing that the Magisterium has not committed itself on scientific debates about what? About when a person is present. The fact that on about day 14 or so, two or three identical twins or tripulets may be present is one of the scientific problems out there. But that is because of totipotentiality in the cells...they are uncommitted to a role for two weeks and because of that, a scientist can tease the mass into twinning. So the twinning is not key...the totipotentiality is key.
St. John Paul was aware of such debates but then in the passage returns to lamguage similar to Mr. Beckwith...but not infallible nor does he cite the infallible. His inclination is towards Mr. Beckwith's position but unlike Mr. Beckwith, he does not assign early personhood to " Catholic" "belief" in the deepest most serious sense.
Watch a similar hesitation in a passage St. John Paul quotes from Vatican II: " The Second Vatican Council, as mentioned earlier, sternly condemned abortion: ' From the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care, while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.'"
Do you see the dichotomy again? Abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes but what about the very early must be guarded with the greatest care but is not guarding it an unspeakable crime.
Where is all this leading to? Being overweight in the majority literature militates against implantation as does the birth control pill. Is every Catholic woman who is overweight murdering a person within them potentially year round? We have three realities: a cautious Magisterium which will not commit that the early embryo is a person; a non cautious pro life belief that goes beyond the Magisterium's hesitancy; and we have no one in the whole Church even arguing that women should stay slim because overweight is equivalent to the pill.
Where does this leave intelligent non Catholic leaders all over the world on how they should judge such matters? It's confusing until we get a Pope who takes time out, reads all aspects and brings this matter under the extraordinary magisterium...infallibility.
written by David, July 18, 2014
Many of us who disagree with the court's ruling however, do so because the court missed the point that it is not a matter of whether the Green family must themselves do or not do anything. It was whether a profit-based CORPORATION, The Hobby Lobby, must COMPLY with the LAW. Corporations are mere legal constructs. A corporation does not have a soul. A for-profit corporation is merely a legal construct that facilitates commerce. The court was wrong to say that Hobby Lobby does not have to comply with the law because of religion. Hobby Lobby is not a religious entity and therefore granting it religious exemptions from the law is inappropriate. What the court said is akin to declaring that if you work for a profit-making corporation whose owner happens to be a devout non-Christian - perhaps a Muslim - then the owner is entitled to restrict his employees ability to eat pork, drink wine, etc. It is a terrible precedent.
written by Francis J. Beckwith, July 24, 2014
David: if corporations are mere legal constructs, then the only persons who can carry out the HHS mandate for Hobby Lobby are the individual members of the Green Family. Thus, what you are suggesting is direct government coercion of individual citizens to materially cooperate with what they believe is evil.

Thus to say that HL is not a religious entity is meaningless, since you concede at the beginning--by saying it is a mere legal construct--that it is not anything at all. If it's nothing, then it has no properties and thus cannot not be X.

BTW, when the Supreme Court refers to a prior opinion--let's say that's 100 years old-and it says that "we said X in opinion Y" or something to that effect, is the Court lying, since nobody on the current court was on it 100 years ago. So, is there really a Supreme Court, or is it a mere legal construct? If so, then why obey it. It's nothing.

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