Morality and Its Interconnections

The connection of morality with law, religion, and politics is obvious – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it used to be. Laws ought to be moral and inculcate morality. Religion, at the very least, should bolster morality. Politicians in executive positions should enforce laws that are moral, and may on occasion have to refuse to enforce a law that is clearly immoral.

But these other areas – legality, religion, etc. – are distinct from morality, and often do not coincide with it. Morality is concerned with right and wrong, and optimally is inspired by considerations of natural law. Civil laws are concerned with maintaining social order and justice, and may turn a blind eye to moral infractions outside the reach of the law. Religion optimally will lead us to go beyond the bare minimums of duty, to foster social and individual perfection and harmony. And moral politicians, practicing the “art of the possible,” often dealing with complex situations, will necessarily encounter limits in terms of their personal powers and the moral attitudes of the constituents they deal with.

Numerous examples of such distinctions and overlapping have turned up in recent U.S. history. When Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) struck down state laws restricting contraception, even a Supreme Court Justice who considered contraception immoral could join with the majority on the basis of the impossibility of controlling private and intimate practices, and/or of enforcing the existing laws.

When Lawrence v. Texas (2004) came out against sodomy laws, similar considerations would have been relevant – the limited length of the “arm of the law” in relation to the private practices of consenting adults. St. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Augustine that civil laws could tolerate prostitution in some circumstances in order to avoid the havoc that might result if authorities clamped down. More recently some lawmakers in Oregon and Washington may have had moral objections against the use of marijuana, as paving the way for drug addiction, but decided to decriminalize it purely as a matter of maintaining social order and focusing police efforts on other areas.

As we well know, distinguishing these prudential cases is one thing (and many read permission as approval). But fundamental questions raised by abortion, gay marriage, and the objectionable procedures included in the HHS mandate are quite another:

  • Gallup polls in recent years indicate that over 70 percent of respondents of both sexes hold that abortion should be prohibited or “legal only under certain circumstances.” The circumstances most often mentioned are: rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother. In other words, there is a large majority of support for outlawing elective abortion. Thus, if a Catholic legislator on the state or federal level who considers all abortion immoral, and would perhaps prefer a “personhood” amendment to the Constitution, were faced with a strong possibility of passing a law against abortion, but with the three above-mentioned exceptions – would not he or she feel justified in supporting that law? The “three exceptions” involve conflicts of rights – in the case of rape and incest, the reproductive rights of women (not the “reproductive right” to abortion in liberal-new-speak). And in the case of threats to the physical life of the mother, Catholic bioethicists allow that certain procedures may be used that indirectly cause abortion. The hypothetical legislator might also be justified in supporting a law restricting abortion to the first trimester, as exists in most European countries – if this seemed to be the only such law that could be passed and enforced.

       An April protest in France against same-sex “marriage”

  • But the moral obligation of such a legislator is also quite clear: voting in favor of unrestricted elective abortion is never morally permissible. Too few understand that.

As I indicated in a previous column, there is a strong and usually unsuspected difference among Catholic, Protestant, and secular understandings of marriage. If marriage is just a civil contract, subject to regulation by the state, with a considerable stretch of the imagination for most of us, we can imagine the contract taking place between members of the same sex, i.e., civil unions categorized by Protestant or secular authorities as “marriages.” Because of changing perceptions, many people, Catholics (unfortunately) included, have somehow come to the conclusion, with no scientific evidence, that homosexuals are “born that way.” We are encountering a newly created “civil right” placed on par with racial and sexual equality. In view of such a broad-based (but scientifically baseless) change in perception, can a Catholic politician, even with moral objections to sodomy, tolerate laws permitting “civil unions”?

The obvious question here would be whether the Church would be pressured to officiate in sacramental marriages of homosexuals – which would be blasphemous. A politician’s decision may, in the last analysis, have to be based on this issue of religious freedom.

Beyond this hypothetical case, we arrive at a serious and very real religious-freedom issue with the HHS mandate. “Jesuit casuistry” might be required on this question. On the individual level, if a Catholic purchasing health insurance has no option to exclude funding of contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion in his insurance payments, and is required by law to have health insurance – this seems analogous to the frequent situation of the taxpayer who is indirectly being asked to contribute to governmental expenditures that he considers immoral or criminal. In other words, conformity to this unjust law is probably tolerable on the individual level.

But in the case of Catholic legislators, voting in favor of such legislation without a fight would be inexcusable; and for Catholic politicians to support and insist on such laws – aside from the obvious incompatibility with the Constitutional right to freedom of religion – is bizarre.

In the ethical chaos of our present democratic system, we daily run through moral minefields. We need to keep a steady eye on moral principle – carefully explaining when prudential judgments apply and why. But the heavy lifting, as always, lies in efforts to ratchet up public morality again to make that minefield less daunting.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.