The Power of Polite Fictions

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” asserts our Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  While these truths may have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson and his fellow traitors, Americans have been arguing about what they mean for going on a quarter millennium.  We have certainly failed at times to live up to these ideals.  Jefferson, who railed against slavery as a “hideous blot” and “moral depravity,” owned over six hundred slaves.  But if you always live up to your ideals you don’t have ideals, you have affirmations.  These truths have shaped us in their breach as much as their observance.

The Founding Fathers took many cues from John Locke’s Second Treatise of GovernmentBut while Locke stated in that work that all men were created equal, he clarified:

[A]ge or virtue may give men a just precedency: excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level: birth may subject some, and alliance or benefits others, to pay an observance to those to whom nature, gratitude, or other respects, may have made it due: and yet all this consists with the equality, which all men are in, in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another; which was the equality I there spoke of, as proper to the business in hand, being that equal right, that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.

Neither culture nor language are static. Our definition of “natural freedom” has changed, as have the bounds of “will or authority” and “jurisdiction or dominion.” We have expanded our list of those granted the rights to vote and to marry. And we have deprecated the idea that any of these rights are endowed to us by a Creator. Yet though America has raised Equality to a status once reserved for Justice, we have come to question the men who planted the idea of Equality in America. We use the compass our Founding Fathers gave us to measure how far they strayed.

In time the Declaration of Independence will cease to be a living document and take its place alongside the Code of Hammurabi and Corpus Iuris Civilis as a dusty reminder of ancient history. That time may be sooner than we would like. The American Experiment has hit its sell-by date and every day the United States disunifies a little bit more. The ashes of empire have always fertilized the new states which grow out of the wreckage: the Colosseum gave Rome 1,200 years worth of marble. And so I look to my ancestral traditions — traditions which, like the Declaration, shaped us both in breach and observance — for the foundation stones on which we might rebuild our homeland.

Most Rev. John Carroll, D.D., S.J. (1735-1815), first United States archbishop, founder of Georgetown University
Image Courtesy of NYPL Digital Images Collection

Only one Catholic (Charles Carroll of Maryland, cousin of America’s first Archbishop) signed the Declaration of Independence. Anti-Papist laws made Catholics persona non grata in most of pre-Revolutionary America. Maryland (founded by Catholic Cecil Calvert) had a 1649 Act of Toleration which provided freedom of worship for all Trinitarian Christians and later served as a model for our First Amendment. Still Catholics remained a small and widely distrusted minority. The 1790 census of the United States found fewer than 65,000 Catholics (about 1.6% of the population) amongst nearly four million freshly-minted Americans.

But while they were not Catholics, the other signers were overwhelmingly Christian. Half the Declaration’s signers were trained in Divinity school, and even the least pious amongst them held a deep respect for Christianity. In an 1803 letter to Benjamin Rush Thomas Jefferson said:

To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.  I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.

Six weeks before his 1790 death Benjamin Franklin wrote a statement of his religious beliefs.

I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this … As for Jesus of Nazareth … I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw … but I have … some Doubts to his Divinity; though it is a Question I do not dogmatism upon, having never studied it, and think it is needless to busy myself with it now, where I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

For the Founding Fathers Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness were given to us by our Creator as our human birthright. Their views on that Creator and the creeds which they held varied. They were unanimous as to that Creator’s existence and benevolence. Like Robespierre, the Founding Fathers recognized the value of Christian philosophy and Christian religion. And they grounded those unalienable rights — rights which can neither be surrendered nor taken away — in the Grace of an Almighty and Ever-Living God. Take away that Grace and that God and you’re left wondering who endowed us with these rights and what makes them unalienable.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted incenses a statue of Our Lady of La Vang during the dedication of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish
April 18, 2010/CATHOLIC SUN file photo

The Founding Fathers spoke of an inalienable right to Life. Catholics go a step further. “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims. “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” The Catholic position on abortion is admittedly controversial. But since we hold that “all men are created equal” despite abundant evidence to the contrary, let us for a moment engage in the polite fiction of treating all human life as sacred.

You will note that the Church’s position is absolute. As the Catechism puts it “The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.” Catholics love loopholes as much as any other religious group. The Church has sealed any loopholes where the Fifth Commandment is concerned.

For most of history wars needed no justifications. When they besieged Melis the Athenians proclaimed “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.” When the citizens of Messina complained of Pompey’s occupation he dismissed them with “Stop quoting laws to us, we carry swords.” St. Augustine of Hippo laid the groundwork for a “Just War” theory which remains profoundly influential today.

For St. Augustine any Jus Ad Bellum (just war) must meet four criteria.

  1. Just Authority – is the decision to go to war based on a legitimate political and legal process? 
  2. Just Cause – has a wrong been committed to which war is the appropriate response?
  3. Right Intention – is the response proportional to the cause? i.e. is the war action limited to righting the wrong, and no further.
  4. Last Resort – has every other means of righting the wrong been attempted sincerely so that no other option but war remains?

During a war, civilian casualties are inevitable. Pestilence, Famine and Death ride alongside War. To that end Catholic Catechism 2307-8 also states:

Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

It is difficult to say whether or not these doctrines made the world a more peaceful place. It is impossible to deny that they opened a space where we could recognize the horrors of war and work towards more peaceful solutions. The innocents murdered in Christ’s name were not killed because Christianity is bad. They were killed because we were bad Christians.

Nuestro Señora de Guadalupe, protector de los no nacidos

The discovery of the ovum (1827) and a subsequent clearer understanding of the sperm cell’s role in conception led the Church to remove all distinctions between the “ensouled” and “unensouled” fetus from Canon Law in 1869. Abortion even before the quickening were always seen as a grievous sin and a crime against nature. From 1869 onward the Catholic Church has considered every abortion a murder. In 1975 (two years after Roe v. Wade) Roy White of the National Right to Life Committee told a reporter “The only reason we have a pro-life movement in this country is because of the Catholic people and the Catholic Church.” Today Catholics remain at the forefront of anti-abortion efforts around the world.

This has attracted no small amount of criticism. “Criminalising abortion is a form of discrimination, which further fuels stigma” Amnesty International complains. The 2.5 million members of NARAL Pro-Choice America promise to be there “[w]hen it comes time to push back against the daily lies and fear peddled by anti-choice zealots who want to drag our country backward in time.” And Molly Monk at The Outline notes:

Catholics only make up 22 percent of the U.S. population, but one in six of our hospital beds are in a Catholic facility, a number that has increased 22 percent since 2001. Catholic hospitals follow a set of directives about healthcare from the U.S. Conference of Bishops. These directives forbid their hospitals from providing contraception, sterilization, many infertility treatments, and abortion care, even when a woman is not Catholic and her life and health are in danger.

Most pro-Choice arguments are rooted in the doctrine of Human Rights. The individual’s right to free choice and to bodily autonomy is pre-eminent: the fetus is parasitizing an unwilling host. The idea of a human soul is mocked or at best dismissed as a matter of personal opinion. These arguments are certainly logical. If you take souls out of the picture the fetus really is just a clump of cells inside a womb. Or is it? To quote the United States Catholic Council of Bishops:

Given the scientific fact that a human life begins at conception, the only moral norm needed to understand the Church’s opposition to abortion is the principle that each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person.  This is the foundation for the Church’s social doctrine, including its teachings on war, the use of capital punishment, euthanasia, health care, poverty and immigration.  Conversely, to claim that some live human beings do not deserve respect or should not be treated as “persons” (based on changeable factors such as age, condition, location, or lack of mental or physical abilities) is to deny the very idea of inherent human rights.  Such a claim undermines respect for the lives of many vulnerable people before and after birth.

Ideals are hard. Ideals force you to make difficult choices. But ideals are also the thing which holds a society together. We have spent centuries declaring that man should be free. We might do well to return to something else our Founding Fathers took for granted, the idea that human life is sacred. Because once you take away that immortal soul we’re just clumps of cells fortunate enough to escape the womb. And we’ve already established that clumps of cells can be eliminated should they prove excessively inconvenient.

Statue of Fr. Antonio de Montesinos, Santo Domingo, DR. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On the Sunday before Christmas in the year of our Lord 1511, Fr. Antonio de Montesinos delivered a blistering sermon to the wealthy colonists of Hispaniola.

 [Y]ou are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land? Why do you keep them so oppressed and weary, not giving them enough to eat, not taking care of them in their illness? For with the excessive work you demand of them they fall ill and die, or rather you kill them with your desire to extract and acquire gold every day. And what care do you take that they should be instructed in religion? Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourself?

Complaints from Hispaniola Governor Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus, led to Fr. Montesinos and other Dominican friars being recalled to Spain. There the friars convinced King Ferdinand II to enact the 1512 Laws of Burgos. The Burgos Laws obligated colonists to feed, house and educate the natives in literacy and in the tenets of the Faith; forbade the use of children and visibly pregnant women in the gold mines; and ordered “no person or persons shall dare to beat any Indians with sticks, or whip him, or call him dog, or address him by any name other than his proper name alone.” The Laws of Burgos had little chance to improve the lives of Hispaniola’s Taino population, as 90% of them died in a 1518-19 smallpox epidemic. But they served as a model for relations between native populations and Spanish colonists throughout the Age of Discovery, and are the first legal document dealing with human rights.

Critics have said that Christian missionaries served as the vanguard of European imperialism. They have argued that our efforts to bring Christianity to the world led to the destruction of many indigenous cultures. They have complained that we have treated foreign religions as idolatry and sorcery rather than recognizing them as efforts toward the Truth we all know in our hearts. And all those charges are true. The Church is a flawed human institution run by flawed human men: our first Pope notoriously denied Christ three times. We have justified evil, we have tolerated evil and we have actively promoted evil. To those charges I can offer no defense. But I can ask some questions.

What if the Colonial Era had been led by people who cared only for profits and who thought “souls” and “Faith” childish fantasies? Do you suppose godless Conquistadors would have been less rapacious in their plunder? Would they have been more careful to preserve those cultures or shown more respect for those traditions?

Can you imagine living under the rule of such people?

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