"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Where there can be no compromise

The Pope said something very interesting yesterday if not altogether new. He is said to have said, at a private audience with the European Popular Party (EPP), that

...from the perspective of the Catholic Church, certain fundamental principles of European civilization are not negotiable, involving "the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person." The Church, he said, cannot compromise in the defense of human life and of the natural family founded on marriage.

The moral principles at stake in those matters, the Pope continued, "are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity." The principles of natural law, he said, apply "to all people, irrespective of any religious affiliation they may have."

The European Union must uphold the natural law, and defend its Christian heritage, the Pope said. Failing to do so, he said, "would be a sign of immaturity, if not weakness."

What's interesting about that is the appeal is to natural law rather than divine revelation. If valid, it undercuts the claim of secularists that the Church's moral input is sectarian and therefore unwelcome in a secular state.

Of course, secularists who bother exercising more than their knee reflexes argue that the appeal is not valid. They believe the principles in question are not "inscribed in the human heart" but are just one set of opinions among many, whose plausibility to some is sustained mostly by the residual authority of the Church. But that is to mistake a transient social condition for a philosophical necessity.

The American Declaration of Independence appeals to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" as the basis of the new nation. Such laws were understood to justify not only independence but also the form of government envisioned for the new nation. While fully understandable only within the context of Christian civilization, that appeal to what sociologists of religion call "ethical monotheism" was not sectarian. It was signed on to by deists as well as by the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority; and Jews have never had a problem with it. Muslims do, of course, but that is another story which proves nothing philosophically. So the Pope is on firm historical and philosophical ground here.

In fact, he is on firmer ground than the secularists. Once some sort of appeal to an objective set of norms based on the transcendent is eschewed as the moral basis of the state, then the only alternative is the will of those best able to get their way. In a democracy, that will mean the will of the majority more often than in non-democratic states. Now the will of the majority is not always right or even prudent. But one cannot question the will of the majority if what's right is only the will of the majority. Militant secularism, understood as entailing the rejection of any objective, binding source of morality beyond human decision, cannot even sustain the legitimacy of democracy. The only alternative on offer is natural law. Enter the Pope, Antonin Scalia, and I hope John Roberts.
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