It’s too bad he insisted on hard secularism, because the very Catholic tradition he sidelined had the resources he needed to respond to this Protestant critics.
The Natural Law alone, and not revelations public or private, ought to be the standard by which we judge policy and law. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, within the bounds of Natural Law, we must also consider how prudent it is in a given circumstance to attempt to legislate. It would not be wise to punish every sin against the Natural Law when doing so would injure other vital goods. Here’s an example: We can know the existence of God by reason alone; hence, to raise one’s children as atheists flies in the face of the Natural Law. But no decent person would want the State to deprive atheists of their children, for that would violate an even more deeply rooted good: the integrity of the family. And so on. Our consideration of how to advocate for the Natural Law must be informed by our cultural context, and the dangers of overweening government power. This tradition of American Catholic thinking was carried on by worthies such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and later the Rev. Robert Sirico and Robert George. (I was privileged to edit the best recent restatement and refinement of this position, Tea Party Catholic, by Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute.)
But Kennedy said something quite different from John Courtney Murray, and adopted a vision of church-state separation that was, in fact, quite un-American, drawn not from almost two centuries of Yankee jurisprudence based on the Common Law and Natural Law, but rather from the radical anti-clericalism and secularism that emerged in Enlightenment France, which led to the outright persecution of the Church in France in 1793 and again in 1905. The position which Kennedy adopted amounted to this: “I am a Catholic in the same sense that I am Irish, and it has as little to do with how I think or will legislate. It’s just a personal quirk, which I keep in a lockbox, along with those copies of Playboy.” Because of Kennedy’s charm, charisma, and virtual martyr status among American Catholics, this extreme secularist stance became a respectable, even mainstream position, giving political cover to two generations of pro-choice American Catholic politicians, from Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro in the 1980s to Joseph Biden and Nancy Pelosi today.
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