“Settled Doctrine”

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 V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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