Fr. Timothy Combs, O.P.
As Americans, we believe the State must maintain a certain neutrality regarding denominational creeds, and rightly so. The absence of an official state church—in keeping with the Constitution’s establishment clause—is a hallmark of civic life in the U.S. However wise this may be (when rightly understood), this principle is often twisted and exploited as part of the effort to diminish the influence of Christianity in public life. Since our society is a pluralistic one, we often hear that religious beliefs ought to be kept private; in particular, it is claimed, such beliefs have no business influencing matters of public policy. While it is obvious that these secular notions are as devoid of sense as they are tragically un-American, it is vital that we, as Catholic men, be able to explain and defend the rightful role which our faith plays in public life.
Regardless of the vehemence with which our cause is opposed by atheists and secularists, the greatest blows are often dealt by politicians who consider themselves Catholics. These traitorous men and women profess beliefs in the sanctity of human life, and of marriage, and yet refuse to translate those beliefs into public action. With vapid reasoning and appalling perfidy, they offer the pretext of ‘not imposing their views upon others,’ all the while intending to impose any number of godless views upon the entire nation. One thinks of St. Paul’s observation that, “if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Rom 6:16). There is no such thing as a neutral stance somewhere between authentic morality and evil. The refusal to defend the former is already to embrace the latter.
There are obviously many people in the US and the rest of the world who, being neither Jewish nor Christian, do not recognize the divine origin of the Ten Commandments. Are they therefore entitled to steal, lie & kill? No sane person will answer ‘yes,’ but why not? Someone will answer simply that stealing is against the law. This, however, begs the question: Is the law which prohibits theft a good law? Is it just? If the laws passed by Congress were the sole measure of good and evil–a view to which a frightening number of otherwise intelligent people subscribe (when it is convenient for them to do so)–by what standard would legislators assess the wisdom of a proposed law? If rape were legalized in any society for any reason, it would clearly be no less reprehensible. This is because there exists a higher law—accessible to every thinking person—on which human laws fundamentally depend for their validity.
During a visit to his home country in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to the members of the German parliament. In it, he pointedly reminded them that their history with Nazism had confirmed St. Augustine’s warning–that without justice the State would be nothing but a band of robbers. “We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right – a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss. To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician.”
If there is a higher standard to which politicians are accountable (i.e., justice), and if they rightly seek to govern the people according to this standard, this standard must be universally accessible to human reason. After all, Christians are far from the only people who recognize that things like lying, theft, and murder are inherently wrong. Federal law prohibits homicide by persons of any, or no, creed and no one mistakes this law for a bigoted imposition of religious doctrine. Rather, we see it for what it is – a logical application of common sense.
The principle to which I’ve been alluding is known in philosophical terms as ‘natural law.’ Although you will find clear reference to this universal moral law in the Old & New Testaments (e.g., Ex 1:17 & Rom 2:14-15), the concept is hardly unique to Judeo-Christian culture. Centuries before the time of Christ, philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero meditated deeply on the existence and the content of the ‘law of nature.’ It is found in Sophocles’ Antigone when the protagonist buries her brother in defiance of King Creon’s decree, offering as her justification the fact that no “mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.” More recently, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, defends his opposition to legally enforced racism by citing the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas to the effect that “if in any point [a human law] deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law” (ST 1-2.95.2). It is for this same reason that in the Nuremberg Trials of 1946 , when the military and political leaders of the Nazis excused their crimes against humanity as the mere following of orders, they were resolutely hanged.
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. …To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). The capacity to perceive and explore this law comes standard-issue with human nature itself. By virtue of this capacity, we are able to both recognize that rape is evil and expect others to do likewise.. This, along with many other moral truths, flows from the very order of reality—an order we do not create but which we discover. We may attempt to break these laws, but it is only we who are broken as a result.
In the Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers provided for the world a richly principled defense for their momentous decision to sever ties with the British Crown. In doing so, they famously cited “self-evident truths” regarding their claim to the “unalienable rights” entitled them by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” From the beginning, the principles on which this great nation was founded were so imbued with the recognition of natural law as to be purely unintelligible without it.
Of course, God is the Author of natural law, because God is the Author of nature; atheists may recognize precepts of the natural law (i.e., they can behave morally), but in doing so they unwittingly testify to the existence of the Divine Law-Giver. Hence, when Holy Mother Church assures us that things like abortion, euthanasia, fornication, sodomy, artificial contraception and the like are intrinsic evils, she is only clarifying for us what is already taught by the law of nature. Since, were it not for this universal law, there would be no higher standard by which to adjudicate civic affairs than the capricious will of the majority (a.k.a. ‘mob rule’), any attempt to eliminate the role of faith from public discourse is tantamount to silencing the voices of reason and justice.
As men of God, we cannot accept the secularists’ truncated and compartmentalized view of reality, according to which public life exists in a bubble devoid of moral and religious truth.
There is but one universe, and the One God created every dimension thereof. It is due to His sustaining power that it is held in being from one moment to the next, and it is due to His wise design that it is regulated with order and harmony. If what is left of our society’s order and harmony is not to devolve any further into chaos, we must insistently remind our fellows that there simply is no standard of reason or justice outside “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”