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On Backing Up the Truth with Power

On Backing Up the Truth with Power

Emmanuel Leutze

John Zmirak - published on 01/14/14

Between a true vision of the good and State coercion--where’s the dividing line?

At what point in an argument is it right for me to pick a fight?  That’s the question that underlies the great debate between illiberal paternalists (left and right) and followers of the American classical liberal tradition.  In fact, most of the disputes in politics can be boiled down to this issue.  Which social, moral, and economic goods ought to be defended by police force and backed up by the threat of prison?

The debate over whether the State should use coercion to promote the Catholic faith and discourage other religions is one of a thousand such disputes — albeit one that Vatican II tried to settle in favor of freedom.  Those Catholics who reject Vatican II’s embrace of religious liberty should be aware that the Society of St. Pius X remains out of communion with the Church over this single issue.  The negotiations between that group and Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly broke down when the SSPX refused to budge on religious liberty and insisted that the position of Vatican II was not compatible with previous Church tradition.  If you agree with them, and think that a Church council, the subsequent Catechism, and dozens of statements by several popes represent a heresy, you really ought to follow your ideas’ consequences and align with the SSPX.  In a future article, I will address the question of how the teaching of Vatican II may be squared with — or may simply trump — previous papal statements on religious freedom.

But all of politics and social life is pervaded by this question: when should you call in the cops and try to threaten your neighbor with prison because his actions don’t conform to your vision of the good?  On any given issue (drug use, abortion, wage levels, pollution — fill in the blank), there are three possible judgments a person could make:

1. This is morally indifferent; the natural law doesn’t teach that one course of action or another is required.  You’re free to act as prudence tells you.

2. There is a right course of action here, and as a matter of justice and the common good, the State must be willing to enforce that course of action and punish those who act otherwise.  

3. There is a right course of action here, and a wrong one.  But getting the State involved would be imprudent because it would violate other goods that are too important.

Examples of issues that fit the first category are easy to think of.  Should a given couple get married now, or wait a year until they have built up more savings?  Should you direct your charity toward contemplative nuns or crisis pregnancy shelters?  Should Billy go to graduate school, or join the army?  And so on.  Large swathes of life fall into this category, which we might label “neutral.”  Obviously, no one but a totalitarian would wish to politicize decisions such as these.

Problems arise when we try to distinguish what belongs in category 2 from what really belongs in category 3.  The great divide between illiberal, paternalistic governments (feudal, theocratic, or socialist) and free governments rests on how we routinely settle this question.  Do we assume as a matter of course that the State ought to promote the good by using its coercive power to seize our property and march us at gunpoint to prison?  Or do we see the use of coercive power as a necessary evil, and try to minimize it as much as possible?  

While the State might still exist even absent the Fall of man, it is only because of the Fall that it requires the use of violence, both to prevent and correct injustices and to wage war in self-defense.  Catholic just war teaching insists that the use of violence by the State is a last resort, when every other means to resolve a conflict has failed.  Of course, many rulers — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — routinely violated this teaching over the centuries, waging wars they insisted were “just” for trivial or arbitrary reasons, and in ways that failed to respect the rights of unarmed civilians.

Likewise, Catholic teaching on subsidiarity demands that social problems be resolved, whenever possible, by free individuals working together as families, charities, churches, or other units of “civil society.”  Only when it is obviously clear that a vital good, or a norm of justice, cannot be maintained without the use of government force are we even permitted to call in the cops.  And wherever possible, the person we call should be the sheriff — not the FBI or the United Nations.  In other words, subsidiarity dictates that any problem addressed by the State should be resolved at the local level, by the relevant town or county.  Only issues that cannot be fixed this way should be referred to the next highest level of power, the state or province.  If a problem eludes the power and expertise of New York or Manitoba, only then should it be referred to the federal government.  Issues which reach beyond even what national governments can resolve must be addressed by the United Nations or through treaties.

Of course, many rulers have equally trampled all over the principle of subsidiarity — from Charles V’s revocation of local communities’ rights in Habsburg Spain to the Obama administration’s attempt to micromanage the health care of every American.  We shouldn’t fall into the anti-Catholic trap of equating liberty with Protestantism or secularism; there were plenty of illiberal Protestant monarchs who persecuted Catholics, and the atrocities of secular states from Revolutionary France to Stalin’s Russia clearly exceed the darkest crimes of the worst theocracies or feudal states in history.  But these facts don’t change the underlying principle, that recourse to violent coercion ought to be the last resort — both in foreign policy and domestic.  We cannot responsibly be anarchists or pacifists, but neither may we as Catholics be warmongers or socialists.

With this core principle in mind, of a preferential option for non-violence and non-coercion, we should look with prudent care at every social and political issue, from economic inequality to health care, from drug laws to foreign policy.  We must avoid the intellectual traps that lie on every side of the truth.  Too many modern Westerners use liberty as a pretext for sliding into relativism, letting their healthy aversion to calling the cops and throwing their neighbors in jail corrupt their sense of what’s good and true.  Just because the State is not permitted to enforce religious orthodoxy doesn’t mean it’s of no importance.  (In fact, religious truth and obeying your conscience are so vital that the Church does not sanction State intervention in such matters.)  The State may not imprison people for adultery as the U.S. military still does, but that fact does not ratify as good every “sexual choice” of each “consenting adult.”

Some rightly indignant religious conservatives fall not into relativism but illiberalism, concluding that anything good ought to fervently promoted with all the blunt force of the State.  But even these people concede that there are limits to how far the State can prudently go in enforcing the natural law.  For instance, God’s existence can be known by reason alone — hence atheism flies in the face of the natural law.  So an atheist raising his children in unbelief could be said to be flouting that law.  Does that mean the State should intervene and take them away?  Of course not, because the good of family life is too vital to be disturbed in this way.  Acts of sodomy violate natural law — would we favor hidden cameras in every citizen’s home so that violators can be arrested and imprisoned?  No, we do not.  Does that refusal to violate privacy and grant enormous power to legislators and bureaucrats imply that we are sexual libertines?  No, it does not.

Liberty is a vital good, especially given the fact of human fallenness.  The men who draft and enforce a law are every bit as rife with original sin as any citizen.  Power may not in every case corrupt, but it is always a near occasion of sin, which ought to be treated warily.  This is the lesson the American founders took to heart, and which too many Americans now are lazy enough to forget.

John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.

PoliticsReligious Freedom
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