In his important book, Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver explores the challenges facing Catholics as citizens in modern America. Every Catholic should read this book, and wrestle with the issues he raises. We are, I believe, approaching a watershed moment in American history, where we Catholics — and we as a Church — must confront some hard questions about the legal regime under which we live.
To that end, I would like to reflect on a quotation from Cardinal Avery Dulles that Archbishop Chaput cites:
“the greatest danger facing the Church in our country today is that of an excessive and indiscreet accommodation.”
There is a strong movement afoot, typically couched in terms of finding “common ground”, that calls upon us Catholics to seek ways of dealing with our government on public issues, despite our differences over abortion, same-sex “marriage”, and other intrinsic moral evils. In many ways, we are being asked to set these issue aside, and to “dialogue” about other matters.
“Dialogue” and “civility” are important, and we are morally bound to respect our rulers and to do our civic duty. But this is a very dangerous road to proceed along, for it leads to the “excessive and indiscreet accommodation” warned against by Cardinal Dulles.
All too often, this “common ground” approach is an inducement to have us shake our heads sadly and say, “alas about this injustice about abortion and so forth, but let’s move on to talk about immigration, or some other more interesting thing”. All too often, Catholics in the public square, especially those who are putting forward this “common ground” approach, fail to emphasize enough — or even state at all — that the laws permitting abortion (and same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and other intrinsically evil things) are not laws at all. They are contrary to the natural moral law, they are not valid, we cannot accept or acquiesce in them, we must never cooperate in them or aid in their enforcement.
This “common ground” approach is an attempt to seduce us to consent implicitly to an illegitimate legal regime, in which an entire class of human beings is excluded from basic justice, in which the reality of marriage is being replaced by a sham, and in which the religious liberties of the Church and of individuals is being gradually diminished. What “common ground” can we have with injustice, with iniquity, with cruelty? How can we accommodate ourselves to that?
You may remember, several years ago, the magazine First Things hosted a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?”. It was an effort to raise some difficult questions about our legal and political system, in which momentous decisions about life and justice were being made by non-democratic means, in violation of the natural moral law. This is a discussion that really needs to be re-visited in these days.
To put things bluntly, the question raised by that symposium, and implicitly by Archbishop Chaput, is this: to what extent are we permitted in conscience to continue to give our consent to a government that has enacted profoundly unjust and wicked laws, especially when it has done so in an illegitimate way (i.e., through judicial fiat rather than through the democratic process)? When faced with that situation, what is to be done?
In his great encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote:
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection… In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”… Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. (73-74)
The proper response here is not accommodation to a legal regime that offends against the moral law, but resistance by all lawful means. This includes refusing to support candidates or public officials who are supporters of the status quo, and refusing to be apologists for them. It means that the defense of fundamental moral norms has to be the primary, and uncompromising, priority for the Church and for individual Catholics. These issues are not bargaining chips to be traded away, or extras to be added once we get government funding for our institutions. They have to be on the table all the time.
This is an essential part of having an authentic Catholic identity. We are not called by Christ to accommodate ourselves to the culture in which we happen to live. Rather, we are called to transform our culture in light of the Gospel of Christ.