The Truth is on Trial

[On October 4, I was honored to receive the Great Defender of Life Award from the Human Life Foundation. The following is the text of my acceptance address.]

As we’ve all seen in recent weeks, one of the greatest challenges of our time is that the truth is on trial. We’ve heard that we live in a post-truth and post-moral society. But nothing could be more dangerous than to fall for the pernicious lie that there is no such thing as objective, eternal moral truth.

We see this all around us. Academia has long peddled the idea that “everything is relative”, and that we can define our own “truth”. In the public square we see the truth subordinated to political ends or distorted by “spin” and ideology. I don’t have to cite specific examples. Just pick up the newspaper.

We can see this in the sufferings of the Catholic Church that I love and serve. We see it especially when we listen to the victims of abuse, as I do. We see what happens when people betray the truth, ignore it, hide it or hide from it. For the longest time we didn’t realize — and in some places we still don’t realize — that the only way to address the problem is with the truth, by living according to it and accepting the consequences. If you want to see the case study of what happens when we fail to uphold the truth, look at the Church.

The denial of truth is certainly not a new phenomenon. But in the communication age, it is spreading like a virus and is having a corrosive effect on society on all levels — from our public institutions down to our own individual lives.

Truth is on trial, and the vulnerable are at risk. In reality, we are all at risk.

My particular focus is on the degradation of the law. Up in the Bronx, at the majestic County Courthouse, you can see inscribed above the north portico: “The administration of justice presents the noblest field for the exercise of human capacity.” That certainly presupposes that there is such a thing as justice, and that there is nobility in serving it.

Does anyone believe this anymore? I do, but I certainly wasn’t taught that in law school, and it’s hard to see it anywhere in our politics or government. It has been replaced by legal positivism — the idea that there is no objective morality, that the law is nothing but an expression of power, special interest, and domination, and that there is no law but man’s law.

You can see the danger. If there is no law but man-made law, then nothing is safe and, as my first-year Contracts professor told us — “It’s all up for grabs”. Pope Benedict warned us about this, “A purely positivistic culture… would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences.”

How far we have come from the day, when in the midst of the slavery debate, the great statesman William Seward said “there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes.”

Instead we have a Supreme Court that echoes the infamous Dred Scott decision by holding that unborn human beings have no rights that born people are bound to respect. A Court that says that absolute personal autonomy is the highest value, and that everyone can somehow define the meaning of the universe for himself. A Supreme Court Justice who cynically instructed his law clerks that the most important thing to know about the Court is five — the bare majority needed for a decision.  A series of nominees who are forced by the confirmation process to talk about decisions that were wrong the day they were decided – Roe and Casey in particular – and call them “settled law” that have to be respected as “precedent”.  Not much has changed since Frederick Douglass said of the Dred Scott Supreme Court, “[they] can do many things, but [they] cannot change the essential nature of things — making evil good, and good, evil”. But they certainly are still trying, and will continue to try.

We see this in every issue we face in the pro-life movement, where the powerful first devalue, then dehumanize, and then dispose of the weak. For the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time on the issue of assisted suicide. People with disabilities and elderly people are being told their lives have no value because they lack some kind of quality or capability or because they are too costly to maintain. They are being told that they are better off dead. Insurance companies won’t pay for treatment but they will pay for suicide drugs. Doctors become killers, laws put people in danger rather than protecting them, the advocates hide behind phony terms like “medical aid in dying”, they claim that it’s not really “suicide” and they call it “compassionate”. This is what the denial of the truth brings us to.

Yes, the truth is on trial. We are on trial. The stakes are very high. But we have an answer because our movement is at its heart a truth-teller.

One of the fundamental truths we hold is that there is a law that governs us all — the natural law.

It is a universal objective moral order that God wrote in our hearts and in our very nature, but it is discernible by reason also. The truth of this law does not depend on power, identity, feelings, culture, or the whims of courts or legislatures. It is real, eternal, binding on us all and essential for our safety and happiness. All human laws must conform to it, or at least not contradict it, or they are not binding on us, and we must try to correct them. James Wilson, Founding Fathers and one of the first Supreme Court Justices, said “it should always be remembered, that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same divine source: it is the law of God… Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine”. All the Founders of our nation believed this. Abraham Lincoln believed it. Can you imagine any Supreme Court nominee saying this now?

This higher law stands against any abuse of power, whether by individuals or governments. Under this law, abortion and euthanasia would be unthinkable – nobody can take into their own hands the absolute, unaccountable power over life and death.

The natural law and its objective moral truth are the cure for the pessimism and nihilism of the legal positivists.  It gives us the foundation to uphold what is right and good and most human — polices that embody justice, charity, and the common good, and laws that protect the most vulnerable, and defend religious freedom and human rights.  How much better life would be, if these fundamental truths were embodied in our law. How much more happiness there would be in our world.

This is why our movement is so important. We are the advocates for the weak and vulnerable who are most at risk when the powerful act as if there is no truth, no eternal law, and “it’s all up for grabs”. In the end, we know that we will be judged — as individuals and as a nation — not according to man’s “settled law”, or the Supreme Court’s precedents, but by God’s eternal law.

And we prove these truths by how we love — from the mother vulnerable to abortion, to the single parent struggling to survive, to the disabled person living in loneliness. Including loving those who oppose us. Love is the most powerful argument for the truth.

Our society has lost sight of these truths. But we are here to remind them.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • Every human being has been endowed by God with dignity and rights that cannot be taken away by anyone.
  • The first and foremost of these rights is the right to live.
  • Every unique individual human being has inestimable value that is not dependent on productivity or ability or usefulness or convenience.
  • It is a fundamental injustice to hurt or kill an innocent person no matter their age or condition.
  • The government has a solemn duty to protect and defend everyone.
  • It is a disgraceful dereliction of duty for the government to stand by and do nothing while innocent lives are taken, or, even worse, to encourage it or pay for it.
  • We are all united in one human family — what hurts one hurts us all.
  • Because either everybody’s life matters or nobody’s life matters.

Our challenge is the same it has always been, in every movement to eliminate injustice and oppression — from abolitionism to the civil rights movement to our pro-life movement. Abraham Lincoln once said, “[T]he real issue… is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.  They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle.”

This is our struggle, our trial, in our time – to defend every human life.

We do this because have an unshakable confidence. We are not be discouraged by the powerful forces that oppose us. We will speak the truth with love. We will uphold the law that God has written into every human heart. We will lift up the weak and vulnerable. We will dare to do our duty to them.

And we know that by the grace of God and our hard work, our cause — our glorious cause — will triumph in the end.

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