Statue of Becket in
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. [Act] as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but [use it] as bondslaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.
Called to responsible citizenship in the Empire and obedient to its laws, Christians were guided in their moral choices by a superior law—the Law of Christ and his Gospel. In a culture that saw no problem with adultery, fornication, homosexuality, pederasty, and any number of other sexual variations they strove to honor marriage and family life by their own committed example. In a society that knew and used abortifacient drugs and various forms of contraception they recognized that the killing of the unborn was evil and did not practice it. Nor did they endorse contraception. (at the time, their understanding of contraception saw it as a form of destroying human life as they believed that the entirety of the human person was contained in the male semen and to block the semen from the womb, where they thought the seed matured into a fetus, was to cause the death of that human person.) They lived in a society where unwanted children were left exposed to die. They, of course, did not practice infanticide. They lived in a world where the head of the household had life and death power over not only his slaves but his children—yet they did not take lives. There were other “liberties” granted under law in which they did not engage. Nor did they did serve in the military or undertake duties in which they might have to take a human life. They did not go to the theatre. In a culture that was fairly “wide open” they lived life by the narrow path that Jesus had prescribed.In 312 things changed drastically for the Christian population. The newly victorious Emperor, Constantine, not only legalized their religion but gave them a religious preeminence over the other cults common in that society. Constantine did not close the pagan temples or the theatres with their gladiator shows and sometimes somewhat pornographic entertainments. Christians still refrained from going to the theatres or worshipping at the temples. Eventually Christians became not only the established religion but for all practical purposes the sole religion of the Empire. In the fifth century the temples and theatres were closed. Laws were written to proscribe sexual practices that were contrary to the Judeo-Christian revelation. Those laws were not always enforced but the mentality gradually shifted that the State should base its legal system on the religious moral code. This was not only a Christian moral principle. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Islamic states also determined their civil and criminal law according to the revelation proper to their religion. In Christian Europe, Judaism and Christianity more or less shared a moral code, especially in regard to sexuality, marriage, and family life. The one difference that comes to mind was the permission in Judaism for divorce and the law codes of the developing European societies did not attempt to restrict that privilege among the Jewish community. In fact, a blind eye was often turned towards divorce and concubinage and sometimes homosexuality in the Christian community as well. In fact, while laws governing moral behavior were often “on the books” they were just as often not enforced. Nevertheless the standard remained that the law should reflect Christian moral principles.
With the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth century cracks appeared in the relationship of Church and Law. Some Protestant States began to look differently on some issues, most notably divorce, than Catholic tradition. (Ironically, at least at first, England was not one of those States.) In fact, among some of the radical reformers such as the Anabaptists of Münster, traditional marriage gave way to a sexual libertarianism. Of course, even here, the laws permitting this were written in accord with the religious doctrines governing the state.
More to the core of the issue, the religious diversity created by the Reformations of the sixteenth (and seventeenth) century were responsible for the creation of a secular mentality. The conflicting religious claims of the various Churches and sects led the philosophes of the Enlightenment to look for a morality grounded not in religious doctrine but in human reason. This was the outlook of the majority of the founders of our Republic—Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison and others. Even Catholic thinkers at the time did not disagree as Catholic doctrine, always more positivist than Lutheran and Calvinist, held that the moral Truth of revelation was attainable through human reason—the so-called Natural Law.
While the Catholic Church in America supported the idea that Church and State should be separate, Rome did not. And even though Catholic thinkers said that Natural Law was apparent by reason as well as by revelation, the Church insisted that the State should draft its laws to preserve and protect the Church and its teaching. In countries where the Catholic Church was established by law or accorded a special constitutional place—Italy, Ireland, Spain, among others—divorce was illegal, contraception unavailable, abortion a criminal offense.
This relationship of Church and State became shaky in the twentieth century and after Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II assured that the sovereignty of each conscience should be respected cracks appeared in those legal systems that had formally incorporated Catholic teaching in the legal codes.
This brings us to our current dilemma. There are many in the Catholic community, including many Catholic bishops, who want the laws that govern our society to be written to incorporate Catholic moral principles. Yet it is clear to many others of us that the laws in democratic society must reflect not the teachings of one specific religious group but the moral consensus of the entire society. This does not mean that we have to abdicate our moral principles in favor of a least-common-denominator morality much less yield to an amoral social code. We have every right to persuade others in our society that our moral principles have a validity that transcend our doctrinal stance. The key word here is persuade. We have no right to impose our moral code but we have every right to offer persuasive evidence to help our fellow citizens to form their own moral conscience without our imposing our beliefs on them.
A particular urgency in this matter concerns our need to protect the unborn. Every day hundreds of unborn children are deprived of the lives for which they were created. It is tempting to try to force a unilateral solution to this tragedy by attempting to use politics to impose laws that protect the unborn. The problem is that a significant number of our fellow citizens either do not accept the premise that the unborn are human lives or they prefer to close their eyes and ignore the moral quandary of conflicting interests between the unborn and the women who carry them.
I remember reading Cider House Rules by John Irving. I probably read it twenty years ago. It is an exceptionally well-written novel. Inj the context of the story between the director of an orphanage, Dr. Wilbur Larch and his young protégé, Homer Wells, Irving manages to give clear and unbiased statement to both sides of the abortion issue. While the pro-life case is well presented, it does lose out in the story to the pro-choice argument. This is not surprising as Irving had been commissioned to write a novel to win the audience to the pro-choice view. Indeed he is to be commended in stating the pro-life views as fairly as he did. At the time I read the book, I could not but help think that it was tragic that American Catholics had not employed a novelist of Irving’s stature to make the emotional and intellectual appeal to win public opinion to the cause of the unborn. But this is the failed strategy. We have tried to force laws on people rather than win their intellects and their hearts to our cause. Jesus never gave his Church a commission to change laws. The Apostles never undertook a political agenda in the Roman Empire. Our commission is to preach a Gospel that changes hearts. We will, no doubt, make enemies if we change hearts for the good but not nearly as many enemies as we are making now by trying to force a political solution that does not have the support of the vast majority of the population. Moreover, while we will make some foes if we are successful in evangelizing with a Gospel of Life we will have the moral high ground and be faithful to our mission. Our attempts to coerce rather than to convert are not only doomed to failure; they betray the mission we have been given as a Church.