Some Old News from America

In this time when we are welcoming new readers in several foreign tongues, I hope our English-language readers will be indulgent if we take this moment to offer something from the arguments on the American scene that may not be as familiar to our friends abroad. I draw something here from remarks offered Saturday in Boston, in a meeting sponsored by Thomas More College on “Catholic Statesmanship”—H.A.

We are now marking the fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy’s election, which means also the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s earnest effort to assure the Baptists and everyone else, including Catholics, that a Catholic President, or a Catholic political man, would be no different from any other generic American in office. In the subtle moral surgery performed by John Kennedy, his promise and claim would be fulfilled: the Catholic political man in America would indeed become no different from any other politician; and the chief move, in accomplishing that end, was to purge himself of any modes of reflection, or moral understanding that was distinctly Catholic.

The familiar move was to associate Catholicism with matters of the most personal, private belief, which would claim no validity apart from the beliefs of the man who affirmed them. As John Courtney Murray would later point out, this kind of move implicitly engineered the libeling and denigration of Catholicism. “Beliefs” are but imperfect claims of knowledge, and they are set off against the things we truly understand that we know as truths, objective truths. The move to cast Catholic doctrine or religious teaching generally as matters merely of “belief” was a move to identify religion with the domain of the irrational – as though the Church had no truths to impart to the world. It would become a mantra among Catholic politicians – the Kennedys, Bidens, Cuomos, Kerrys – that they would not impose their “personal beliefs” through the laws. And the question that moved them to these avowals was of course the contentious matter of abortion.

But with that move, two generations of Catholic politicians have not only taught the public a false understanding of morality; they have misinstructed American Catholics by schooling them in a false understanding of Catholicism. The teaching of the Church on abortion has never been grounded in “beliefs,” or in anything merely “personal.” The teaching has been imparted communally, based on reasons that are accessible to all creatures of reason. As Thomas Aquinas explained, the divine law we know through revelation, but the natural law we know through that reason that is natural to human beings.

Lincoln: “Take care.”

In my own teaching I’ve found no clearer model of natural law reasoning than that fragment Abraham Lincoln wrote for himself when he imagined himself in a conversation with an owner of slaves, asking why he was justified in making a slave of a black man: Was it intelligence – that the black man was less intelligent than the white? “By this rule,” said Lincoln, “you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.” Was it color – “the light having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.”

The upshot was that there was nothing one could cite to disqualify the black man that would not apply to many whites as well. Some of us simply used the same mode of reasoning applied to abortion: Why was that offspring in the womb anything less than human? It didn’t speak yet? Neither did deaf mutes? It had no arms or legs? Other people lost arms or legs without losing anything necessary to their standing as human beings to receive the protections of the law. And the upshot: there was nothing one could cite to remove the child in the womb from the protections of the law that would not apply to many people walking about well outside the womb.

But I’d point out further that nowhere in this chain of reasoning is there an appeal to faith or revelation. The teaching of the Church has been a weave of moral reasoning joined with the facts of embryology. In other words, one doesn’t have to be Catholic in order to understand the argument on abortion – and that has been precisely the teaching of the Church: The argument depends simply on that discipline of moral reasoning that forms the ground of the law natural for human beings.

And for many of us, the claim for the Church has been deepened by the fact that the Church has become the main sanctuary for natural law reasoning, at a time when the currents of moral relativism have been corroding all other institutions around us. Not too long ago I heard a priest in his eighties, who has led vigils of prayer outside of abortion clinics – and induced many of them to close. He remarked in a line so simple and telling that, on this matter, “the Church will never give in.” It struck me that I believe that absolutely. I believe it unshakably. But isn’t that faith in the Church itself bound up with that “faith” we profess; and does it not in fact work to firm up our faith in everything else the Church teaches.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.