Sunday, 24 June 2012

Democracy and the legitimation of sin: a reply to Brian Lewis, Frank Brennan et al

This week in Parliament saw something of a win on the defence of marriage front, in that legislation to allow the marriage of same sex couples was not introduced as planned, on the basis that it faced inevitable defeat.

It also saw Queensland Premier Campbell Newman upholding his election commitment to repeal civil partnership legislation, as urged by a statement by Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

And a push for a conscience vote at the NSW National Party Conference was also defeated (just).

Celebrate our victories!

We should take a moment to savour these victories.

But let's be realistic: the advocates of same-sex marriage believe that the ultimate outcome is inevitable, and I suspect they are right. The reality is that, despite the strength of the arguments for the traditional stance on this subject (and thanks to the reader who drew my attention to the useful article I've linked to here), the relentless diet of soft (Glee, Modern Family) and hard (Get Up and friends) propaganda is swaying hearts and minds.

Still, this pause in the debate gives us a chance to rethink strategy and tactics.

For the good of society

A good starting point would be to take the chance we have now been afforded to do some serious catechizing within the Church, so we can present a more unified front to the world.

So let's start by examining one of the key claims of the opposition within, that it a pluralistic, democratic society, Catholics are obliged to tolerate, even support, positions they personally disagree with so as to respect the views of the majority.

It is a position that is regularly promoted over at Jesuit central, Eureka Street.

But, let me point out, it doesn't actually hold up to the test of conformity to magisterial teaching.

The duty to oppose the legitimation of immorality

Take Brian Lewis's latest exposition of the subject over at v2 Catholic.  Dr Lewis claims that there are two possible positions in the Church that a Catholic politician, for example, can take.

The first is the orthodox one:

"Since civil law, it says, derives from the natural law by expressing it in practical applications or further determining  it in concrete situations, politicians must be guided by the natural moral law and may not support legislation that is against it. State laws ought to direct citizens to do what natural law dictates, not permit conduct that contradicts it."

Dr Lewis cites several Vatican documents in support of this view.  In the context of the current Australian debate, a key one we should all (and especially, it would seem some of our bishops, such as their Lordships of Townsville and Port Pirie for example) read is the CDF Document on recognition of homosexual unions

That document forbids, for example, support for civil unions on the grounds that it would provide approval for an immoral act:

"There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved”."

The document goes on to look at the range of options available where the legal system of a State gives some recognition to homosexual acts:

"Faced with the fact of homosexual unions, civil authorities adopt different positions. At times they simply tolerate the phenomenon; at other times they advocate legal recognition of such unions, under the pretext of avoiding, with regard to certain rights, discrimination against persons who live with someone of the same sex. In other cases, they favour giving homosexual unions legal equivalence to marriage properly so-called, along with the legal possibility of adopting children.

Where the government's policy is de facto tolerance and there is no explicit legal recognition of homosexual unions, it is necessary to distinguish carefully the various aspects of the problem. Moral conscience requires that, in every occasion, Christians give witness to the whole moral truth, which is contradicted both by approval of homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. Therefore, discreet and prudent actions can be effective; these might involve: unmasking the way in which such tolerance might be exploited or used in the service of ideology; stating clearly the immoral nature of these unions; reminding the government of the need to contain the phenomenon within certain limits so as to safeguard public morality and, above all, to avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defences and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon. Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection."

A free society?!

In his blog piece, however, Dr Lewis claims that there is a second position permissible within the Church, based on Vatican II's Declaration of Religious Freedom.  This is of course the reason why so many traditionalists struggle with that document.

But does it really say what he claims?  In a breathtakingly audacious example of the hermeneutic of discontinuity, Dr Lewis claims that the will of the majority of the people should triumph over absolute truth:

"The second approach sees the role of the politician in exercising civil authority in the context of a democratic state under a constitution, in which the will of the people is the rule of law and in which freedom of conscience is as far as possible upheld. Politicians are elected to represent a wide cross-section of people of many religions, moral convictions or none of either and they are bound to respect the will of the majority of their constituents. The politicians role is complicated by the fact that most politicians belong to a political party, whose policies may conflict with their own beliefs and their personal moral conscience. The point to be made is that the responsibility of the politician is not to seek to impose his or her own religious views or personal convictions on the community but to ensure that any restriction of their constituents' freedom is required by the demands of public order...."

Politicians are not called upon to vote upon the morality of abortion, embryonic stem cell experimentation, nuclear armament or euthanasia. It seems fair to suggest, in the light of the second approach, that the responsibility of the politician in conscience is to determine whether legislation sanctioning such issues is required to protect the rights of the persons involved and will not infringe upon the rights of other members of society."

Before looking at the underlying theology here, let's talk about the poverty of the political science.

The idea that politicians are bound to vote in a way that reflects the views of the majority of their constituents on any particular subject certainly doesn't seem to bear any resemblance to the realities of the modern Australian political system!  In  reality, MPs in our system are mostly bound to vote in ways that reflect their particular party's platform, and the influence of constituents on any particular issue (even it would seem, where the MP is an Independent!) is very much at the margin.

More fundamentally though, just where in the Declaration on Religious Freedom does it suggest that Catholic politicians should vote in favour of abortion, as Dr Lewis proposes, because, for example there is no consensus in our society that a human embryo has a right to life?

What the Church actually teaches

Without actually citing sources, Dr Lewis claims to find support for his position in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. 

But in fact the Compendium takes exactly the opposite view, pointing out that democracy is merely a system, and one that like any other, is subject to the test of conformity with the common good:

"...The Church's social doctrine sees ethical relativism, which maintains that there are no objective or universal criteria for establishing the foundations of a correct hierarchy of values, as one of the greatest threats to modern-day democracies....Democracy is fundamentally “a ‘system' and as such is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral' value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behaviour, must be subject: in other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs”." (407)

The views of the majority, the Compendium points out, are no justification for support of immoral acts:

"Citizens are not obligated in conscience to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel. Unjust laws pose dramatic problems of conscience for morally upright people: when they are called to cooperate in morally evil acts they must refuse...It is a grave duty of conscience not to cooperate, not even formally, in practices which, although permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to the Law of God. Such cooperation in fact can never be justified, not by invoking respect for the freedom of others nor by appealing to the fact that it is foreseen and required by civil law. No one can escape the moral responsibility for actions taken, and all will be judged by God himself based on this responsibility (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12)."

Truth is an absolute

The reality is that the Declaration justifies tolerance of other religions only up to a point.

It would not justify, for example, the tolerance of a religion that advocated killing all first born children!

And even the most secularist of souls seem to squirm, if the conversations at Friday night drinks in my workplace are anything to go by, at the free reign apparently being given to sharia law notions of divorce in this country.

The real problem is that progressives have lost sight of the fundamental philosophical foundation of Christianity, which is that truth is an absolute, not a relative concept.

We can acknowledge that others may be genuinely searching for the truth.  We can respect their journeys, hopefully aid them. 

But we can never compromise on the concept that there is only one truth, and that the Church has been entrusted by God with safeguarding certain aspects of that truth (viz what pertains to faith and morality).

This is a subject on which someone drew my attention to a nice article by George Weigel written recently, seeking to explain the extraordinarily distorted reporting on recent US stories about the attempt to reign in religious women, and the condemnation of a book by a US woman religious theologian.

Weigel argues that the progressives see everything through the lens of power; the Vatican by contrast, is acting to safeguard truth.  That is obviously something of a vast over-simplification: any bureaucracy, ecclesial or not, inevitably brings in human motivations as well.  Still, his article does remind us of the proper perspective from which we must view the world.

To be Catholic one must act always for the common good, even though an overwhelming majority oppose you.

To be Catholic we must take the view, to steal a line from a secularist source, take the view that the 'good' of the few or the one does not outweigh the good of the many.  That is why Catholics can never condone abortion, civil partnerships, gay 'marriage' or any other form of grave immorality.


David S said...

Obscene and discriminatory, this article lists all the reasons why it is ok to keep (in your view) your catholic selves as superior from us others.
Marriage is a civil institution and your religious people have been given the honor of being able to solemnise what is a legislative process.
You don't hold the monopoly on performing marriages though so you do it your way and leave others in society to do it their way.
The legislation should be inclusive to all. Marriage equality!
Why on earth don't you discriminate against those with infertility if they are not physically capable of being open to fruitfullness?

Mary said...

@David S: Go to the link provided in the post to the paper "What is Marriage?". It discusses the difference between an infertile marriage between a man and a woman and sexual acts that are inherently closed off to reproduction; i.e. contraceptive man/woman, man/man or woman/woman relations.

Gerard Flood said...

Seeing that Professor Singer squibbed debate* with Professor George [co-author "What is Marriage", at link], then Professor George's defence of marriage is unlikely to be challenged on rational grounds in the near future.

Sadly, Singer is fashionable, but reason is not.

*Ref: "I was wrong about Peter Singer" at

HolyCatholicApostoli said...

David S.
May I recommend my article:
"Do Not Redefine Marriage"