The Holy Father has spoken with uncommon clarity about what is right and wrong with our nation. What’s right is the moral vision of America’s founding fathers. What’s wrong is the culture that dominates American intellectual and, to a great extent, social life, which he has labeled a “culture of death,” a war of the powerful against the weak in which persons whose lives have become a burden to others—the unborn, the ill and handicapped, the elderly—are treated as enemies to be resisted or eliminated in the cause of “efficiency.”
John Paul II believes this culture of death conflicts with the political and social institutions established by the founders. In his mission to build a “culture of life,” which he defines as “respect for nature and protection of God’s work of creation,” the pope sees America as a key ally. “The United States possesses a safeguard, a great bulwark, against [moral skepticism]. I speak of your founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These documents are grounded in and embody unchanging principles of the natural law whose permanent truth and validity can be known by reason, for it is the law written by God in human hearts. At the center of the moral vision … is the recognition of the rights of the human person, and especially respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life in all conditions and at all stages of development.” Indeed, Catholicism teaches and communicates “the very virtues on which American democracy rests.”
In 1993 the pope said: “When the founding fathers of this great nation enshrined certain inalienable rights in the Constitution … they did so because they recognized the existence of a ‘law’—a series of rights and duties—engraved by the Creator on each person’s heart and conscience.” In Newark, New Jersey’s Sacred Heart Cathedral last year, he prayed: “[L]et us thank God for the extraordinary human epic that is the United States of America.”
America’s commitment to moral excellence marked our social existence from the earliest days. George Washington, in both his Inaugural and his Farewell Addresses, defended religion as a social good. Morality and religion, of course, are not identical. Morality refers to the conduct of men toward others and toward themselves: Reason requires men to behave morally. But the greatest force motivating most men to form habits of moral virtue is religion, knowledge of their Creator, his blessings, and expectations. Lacking the power of divine command, the natural law, although known by reason, fails to persuade most human beings to discipline themselves against their passions, preferences, and narrow self-interests. Free government has no authority to prefer one religious sect over another, Washington emphasized, but that is because government must encourage religion in general.
One of the strictest proponents of church-state separation, James Madison, father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, believed that America’s fate depends on the Bible’s moral principles. “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it,” he wrote. “We have staked the future of all of our political institutions … upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
The chief author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who coined the “wall of separation between Church and State,” saw an intimate connection between religion and freedom: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure,” he asked, “when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”
Abraham Lincoln interpreted the Declaration of Independence as “the father of all moral principles” in the American people. The “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal” imparts moral meaning to our nation’s freedoms. Truths that are self-evident bind everyone by virtue of the human species’ capacity to reason. Anyone who can reason about human nature, according to Lincoln’s reading, can conclude that all men are equal in dignity and rights. This is a moral truth which carries the same logical force (if not the same simple clarity) as the mathematical truth that 2 + 2 = 4. To deny either is to think unreasonably, which no man has a right to do, especially where doing so affects the common good.
By nature the principle of all just government is that the higher or better should govern the lower or worse: Wisdom should rule passion. The various species in creation are naturally ranked in an order by which man, because of his reason, rules the unreasoning animals without their consent, while because of his self-interested passions and the limits on human reason, man is ruled without his consent by the highest, most powerful, and wisest Being, God the Creator. This formula might be expressed: God : man :: man : animals. But among humans, since all are to some degree a mixture of universal reason and self-interested passion, no difference gives any man the natural right to rule others. Rightful government of men by men exists only by consent of the governed. This is the founders’ teaching on human dignity and political freedom.
The idea of “nature” as our founders used it is now unfamiliar, but it is not difficult to grasp. Fundamentally it can be reduced to “the way things are truly, or always,” the unchanging structure of things. Nature answers the “what is” question: what is something truly, or what is its “way” of being? To ask “What is man?” is to ask what identifies something as a human person and not as anything else; it is to ask what is the way men are, an especially difficult question since men exhibit as many different ways of living as there are societies with different customs. But behind all these differences is a human nature as such, and thus a way human beings essentially are, regardless of their particular customs or societies.
The founders agreed with Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, John Locke, and others in the great tradition of ancient, modern, and Christian philosophy that the nature, or defining characteristic, of man is his power to reason: Man’s way is to be the animal that reasons about things. Reasoning reveals man’s ways, i.e., the fixed principles or laws in human nature itself. Human nature is fundamentally unchangeable. For Aristotle and the founders, certain principles (e.g., all men pursue happiness; all men are equal in natural rights) are universally true. Thus Jefferson wrote that the Declaration’s classic expression of these principles amounted to a summary of the tradition of political thought from antiquity to modernity: “All its authority rests … on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”
Once Christianity meditated on Aristotle’s philosophy of nature through Thomas Aquinas and its implications were understood, the Catholic Church became the greatest institutional defender of the natural law.
The culture of death is the bastard child of the Enlightenment. After the sixteenth-century, modern philosophy might be summarized as the slow dissolution of the concept of nature (and “nature’s God”). And since the Church vigorously defended the law of nature, the Enlightenment declared war on it as well.
The Enlightenment was begun by an intellectual elite who advanced themselves as a benevolent vanguard of humane philosophers. Not by accident did the intellectuals who launched this conspiracy (the word of a chief Enlightened warrior, d’Alembert, in his great Encyclopedie) christen it the “Enlightenment” (“Aufklarung,” “Eclaircissement“). They broke radically with the “ignorance” of the medieval era when philosophy and institutions were legitimate only under the aegis of Christendom. For these philosophes and their intellectual progeny, every religion based on divine inspiration is eo ipso superstitious. These irrational faiths, with their priests, needed to be “tamed”—others said “exterminated”—if men were to grow in knowledge and happiness.
The Enlightenment’s ambitions for transforming civilization were impressive. A new political science would engender republican government for men to rule themselves as free persons. Religious and other wars would be replaced by “perpetual peace.” Scientific technology would make human life comfortable by meeting every physical need. Modern capitalism would lavish material prosperity on industrious workers and thrifty savers. Erotic passion would be released from the suffocation of loveless marriages. The arts would express the noblest sentiments of the artist-creator’s soul. Government might even be eliminated, replaced by the management of economic production. Psychology promised to banish guilt-driven emotional disorders and establish mental health.
Happiness on Earth
In order to achieve these fantastic benefits, men’s most serious interests had to be redirected away from unresolvable religious disputes about the supernatural world, toward the improvement of life in this world. And the institution that obstructed that redirection was the Church, ordained by Christ to care for men’s immortal souls. From the Enlightenment’s perspective, the Church must be exposed as the great barrier to happiness—not because she wasn’t performing her salvific mission but because she stubbornly refused to surrender it.
A Who’s Who of philosophers have warred happily on the Church ever since:
• Machiavelli, the proto-Enlightenment thinker, lamented one Italian nobleman’s failure to assassinate with one blow Pope Julius II “and all the cardinals in all their splendor” while he had “an excellent opportunity to do what would have caused everyone to admire his courage and would have gained for him immortal fame.”
• Descartes condemned the “great friends of God” whose zeal “dictates to them the greatest crimes that can be committed by men, such as betraying cities, killing princes and exterminating whole peoples for the sole reason that they do not follow their opinions.”
• Montesquieu criticized the Catholic Church for encouraging celibacy, thus devaluing family life, retarding population growth, and preventing economic prosperity.
• Rousseau denounced Christianity for “preach[ing] nothing but servitude and dependence … True Christians are made to be slaves,” he said.
• Marx denounced all religion as “the opiate of the people.”
• Nietzsche described “the Christian concept of God … as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live!” He argued that “the practice of the Church is hostile to life,” pronounced the death of God, and prophesied the final papacy by the year 2000.
An army of university-trained intellectuals marched in the ranks of this “criminal syndicate” (as Willmoore Kendall once described them). It is too easy to dismiss their utopianism, but today we can hardly imagine the world they fought to overthrow, the old Europe of boorish aristocrats with their cruel arrogance, of corrupt priests, and of feudal serfs in their abject slavishness. As beneficiaries of their determined struggle for civil liberty and freedom from grinding necessity, we must not scorn their hope of realizing the noble ideal of human dignity after a millennium of popular ignorance and oppression, which enveloped Europe following the Roman Empire’s collapse.
Although Enlightenment rationalism first advanced a nature stripped of metaphysics, modern philosophy jettisoned it in the zeal to liberate humanity from the limits imposed by living “according to nature.” By the end of the eighteenth century, as the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, history was replacing nature in European thought. This new understanding was not the old, commonsense view that human experience provides insight contributing to knowledge about the actions of men over time: As a historical being man is not essentially unchangeable but rather is malleable, that is, perfectible under “progressive” social institutions and corruptible under “reactionary” conditions.
Historicist philosophy was shown to be self-contradictory and relativistic, and it was soon nullified by Nietzsche. The result was not only that both nature and history were discarded as standards for human conduct, but reason and truth themselves disappeared. What remained was a cosmic vacuum, an abyss of nihilism in which nothing could be pronounced real: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” Nietzsche wrote. He concluded that rationalism’s fruit would be a radicalized human freedom from every limitation imposed by supernatural ideas of God or metaphysics; mankind would learn to say “Yes and amen!” to life.
The Enlightened philosophers did not see, or would not admit, that when men’s interests are focused on their life in time, abandoning the transcendent ends of life, then not only will their eternal salvation be at risk but their way of life on earth here and now degenerates. A psychology of “present-mindedness” or temporality that crowds out “future-minded” concern for eternity has the paradoxical effect of weakening civilized life in the present.
Based upon the rejection of the eternal order, the Enlightenment’s grand effort to elevate human dignity could not succeed without high cost. The dream shattered against the rocks of this century’s wars, holocausts, and genocide, which disclosed the truth about radical freedom when separated from the nature of man.
Modern philosophies stripped nature of meaning, but for the founders as for the pope, nature and its laws are the basis of moral reasoning. Ordinary observation shows men act for purposes. Natural law in the great tradition constitutes the most satisfying effort of the human mind to articulate the high purposes for which men act to live well, requiring the capacity to distinguish between good and evil behavior and to choose good and avoid evil. Without objective criteria to form that distinction, pleasure becomes the only reality and leads not to freedom but to death.
The profound problem of freedom, raised by the Holy Father to a new level of public awareness, largely turns on the status of nature and its laws. The pope is determined to invoke that law to free those who live in a suicidal culture. The teaching office of the Chair of Peter with its basis in the Gospel lends him profound insight into the moral crisis of our age. In opposition to the Enlightenment’s nihilism, the pope strives mightily to restore nature as the touchstone for moral order in our time.
“The modern age has made great progress in understanding both the material world and human psychology,” John Paul writes in his Letter to Families, “but with regard to his deepest, metaphysical dimension contemporary man remains to a great extent a being unknown to himself.” Quoting the Second Vatican Council, he says emphatically: “Christ reveals man to himself.”
One hundred sixty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville said that “Jesus Christ had to come down to earth to make all members of the human race understand that they were naturally similar and equal.” Tocqueville was thinking of the Golden Rule. “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” The Gospel’s anthropology sustains the natural law of equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence.
In a trilogy of encyclicals that rank among the most intellectually satisfying religious statements ever written, the Holy Father has resurrected natural law and demonstrated its practical applications to our culture. In Veritatis Splendor (1993) he examines and rejects current moral doctrines such as proportionalism, consequentialism, and relativism which attempt to do without reference to nature. In a passage expressing the founders’ moral position in contemporary language, he writes that “the natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties, it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind. This universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person.”
John Paul argues that the dissolution of natural moral norms annihilates truth itself: “These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil. Human freedom would thus be able to ‘create values’ and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom.” The result is a formal self-creation without content: “Indeed, when all is said and done man would not even have a nature; he would be his own personal life-project. Man would be nothing more than his own freedom!”
The decay of natural law leaves democracies particularly vulnerable. The pope warns that the egalitarian tendencies of democracy subjectivize the truths on which it depends. In Veritatis Splendor he speaks of “the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible.”
In Centesimus Annus (1991) he argues that “[a]uthentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.” Totalitarianism is implicit in democratic denials of objective truth: “Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life … [I]f there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.”
In Evangelium Vitae (1995), he elaborates the practical effects of democratic relativism in the legalization of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and other unnatural sexual practices, drug use, etc. The separation of freedom from truth restores the Hobbesian state of nature: “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.”
If men recognize the obligations neither of natural nor of divine law, nothing can restrain them except positive commands. Lincoln once wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” If nature prohibits nothing, moral wrong does not exist and—we return to Nietzschean nihilism—literally everything is permitted, even to those whose pleasure or will might embrace genocide, racism, “homophobia,” or any other form of hatred, fraud, or violence.
By abolishing or drastically liberalizing the laws against abortion, divorce, contraception, sodomy, and euthanasia, America not only legalizes nihilism, we also weaken our self-restraint, which is inseparable from the survival of freedom. So concerned is the pope about legal enforcement of the culture of death that the Holy See has openly condemned President Clinton for vetoing the partial-birth abortion ban, saying: “This presidential decision … amounts to an incredibly brutal act of aggression against innocent human life and the inalienable human rights of the unborn. The fact that this presidential decision legalizes this inhuman procedure, morally and ethically imperils the future of a society which condones it.”
In Baltimore last year, Pope John Paul cited the Gettysburg Address: “One hundred thirty years ago President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ could ‘long endure.” In Lincoln’s speeches “Father Abraham” applied the words of Jesus, St. Paul, Moses, and the history of old Israel to Americans, “the almost chosen people.” Perhaps he was never bolder than when he invoked the foundations of Christianity to aid the founders’ vision: “Upon [general intelligence, sound morality, and a reverence for the Constitution and laws] let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.'”
The greatness of Christianity lies in the assurance of faith that the eternal truth about God and man will triumph in time over every evil. America’s founding also rests on eternal truth, the “rock” of nature, but with no guarantee that our people will remain faithful. An America wallowing in petty, selfish hedonism cannot endure.