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The Deadly Myth of the “Consenting Adult”

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John Zmirak - published on 05/29/13

Do we really have no responsibility to our fellow man so long as he has "consented"?

The election of Pope Francis in 2013 briefly awakened the old, sterile debates about which economic system the Vatican might favor – the bloated socialist, state-directed systems prevalent in Europe, or the “neo-liberal,” market-driven system that prevailed throughout most of American history. Those who have used Pope Francis’s love for the poor to trash the market economy are doing something very common in media coverage of the Church: they are entirely missing the point.

Pope Francis’s statements on the tragic reality of extreme poverty in the developing world, and moral poverty in rich countries, were never intended as tea leaves for pundits to read in search of guidance for public policy. Yes, there are political implications to many Church teachings, but that is not why the Church teaches. You can deduce from the Christian call for chastity certain conclusions about how to regulate public media, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that every time the pope reasserts Church teaching on human sexuality that he is pushing for censorship laws. Your first reaction to a sermon ought not to be calling your congressman, but searching your heart.

Although the Church became entangled with government early on – namely, with the conversion of Constantine – it has never seen its primary duty as giving directives to kings, or telling citizens how to vote. That is, at best, a tertiary role the Church is sometimes forced to serve when the conscience of a polity has become so degraded that natural reason cannot do its job, so faith has to step in and plug the gaps. Classic examples include St. Ambrose’s rebuke of Theodosius for the massacre of unruly citizens; the Church in 16th-century Spain insisting that Indians in the New World were fully human and should not be enslaved; German bishops condemning Nazi euthanasia; and Pope John Paul II denouncing both Communist tyranny and the Western “culture of death.”

But these acts of political prophecy on the part of bishops and popes stand out because they are not the norm. It is the duty of laymen – statesmen and citizens – to inform their consciences with sound moral principles in order to form public policy. Religious believers and leaders must make sure that those principles are sound, and call out the culture when they are either perverted or ignored. That is what abolitionist Christians did in the 19th century, and civil rights leaders in the 20th. Such a movement in Poland brought down the Soviet bloc, ended the Cold War, and may have saved our species from a global nuclear war. So maybe – just maybe – people of faith deserve a hearing.

Indeed, the very name of the workers’ movement (Solidarity) that knocked down the first domino in Communist Europe was borrowed from Catholic social teaching’s term for the force that knits society together, that goads us to treat each other justly even when the government isn’t looking, that lubricates the highly efficient engine of the market economy with the oil of human kindness. Too often, especially in Europe (as Samuel Gregg documents), the word “solidarity” is cheapened into a synonym for socialism. It’s trotted out as a slogan every time the goldbricking workers of one country crave a subsidy from the thrifty taxpayers of another. But words like “justice,” “love,” and “freedom” are often perverted, too – that doesn’t mean we drown the baby in the bathwater.

The central principle of solidarity in practice is simple and timeless – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This ethical maxim, which Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, exists in some form in every culture on earth – as C. S. Lewis documented in The

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