Rick Santorum and St. Thomas Aquinas are right. The Catholic bishops have been wrong up to now. They have a fundamental choice to make. So do all Catholics
Santorum and St. Thomas Versus the Catholic Bishops
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In a recent interview with Hugh Hewitt, Rick Santorum, a practicing Catholic, levelled some very harsh words at the Conference of Catholic Bishops. While siding with the bishops’ recent opposition to President Obama’s imposition of abortion upon Catholic hospitals, Santorum nevertheless stated bluntly that the Church “had it coming.” Not only was Santorum right in saying so, but his words ought to initiate a more open public debate among Catholics regarding their leaders’ consistent support of the political Left. The fundamental issue here is not abortion, but rather Christianity’s position on the proper role of government.
Asked to comment on Obamacare’s requirement that Catholic hospitals must perform abortions, in violation of Church teaching, Santorum said the following:
“I’ve talked about it in every speech I’ve given today…. I said that I took issue with the Catholic Bishops Conference, because… you may remember, they embraced Obamacare….
“They embraced it and… here’s what I said to them. Be careful when you have government saying that they can give you rights, that you have a right to health care, and government’s going to give you something, because once you are now dependant on government… not only can they take that right away, they can tell you how to exercise that right, and you can either like it or not. And that’s the problem. That’s what the Catholic Bishops Conference didn’t get, that there’s no free lunch here, folks. If you’re going to give people secular power, then they’re going to use it in a secular fashion. And that’s why, you know, I hate to say it, but you know, you had it coming. And it’s time to wake up and realize that government isn’t the answer to the social ills. It’s people of faith, and it’s families, and it’s communities, and it’s charities that need to do this as it has [been] in America so successfully for so long.”
By precisely delineating the leftist argument for government-controlled healthcare—the claim that “you have a right to health care”—Santorum strikes directly at the core of two issues, namely, (1) the political fight between American constitutionalists and the political establishment, and (2) the battle between conscience and political power within the Catholic Church’s own establishment. In both issues, Santorum has the most credible and distinguished minds on his side: On issue (1), he has the Founding Fathers of the United States; on issue (2), he has the founder of modern Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas.
(1) On the constitutional question, the so-called “right to health care” is one of those “positive rights” Obama, and all modern leftists, have been trying to squeeze into America’s political lexicon since FDR. To state the conservative case for the millionth time, a right, if it is anything at all, is a claim against others. For example, your right to life is your claim against anyone else’s desire to end or curtail your life without reasonable cause. That is why modern secularist attempts to detach rights from a theory of human nature can only lead to practical nihilism and moral relativism: If my right—my claim—has no grounding deeper than my own desires, then there is no reason, other than an arbitrary quasi-contractual agreement, why anyone is obliged to acknowledge that right, or respect it.
The rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are what contemporary academicians call “negative rights,” meaning that the only obligation they impose upon others—including, and especially, upon government—is the obligation not to restrict or otherwise violate the rights claims in question.
“Positive rights,” by contrast, impose obligations upon others, beyond mere restraint. If you truly had a right to healthcare, a service provided by humans, then this rights claim would create a specific positive obligation for other human beings, namely the obligation to provide this service for you. However ingeniously the concept of positive rights is decorated by its thousands of dedicated theorists, the basic premise is simple and brutal: a positive right is a claim to the servitude of other human beings—that is, a legal claim against their time, labor, and/or property.
Thus, Santorum’s point—the proper constitutional point—is that by supporting and advocating Obamacare, the Catholic bishops have implicitly accepted the basis of positive rights, which is the legitimacy of a political claim to the servitude of others. Having accepted it, they cannot simultaneously complain about the secular power’s means of enforcing these supposed rights, when those means happen to run up against matters of religious conscience. In the quagmire of positive rights, there is no room for conscience—or at least for any conscience that does not coincide with the political judgments of the secular rights-enforcers of the given moment. There is room only for coercion.
(2) On the second point, the specific matter of the Catholic Church’s modern espousal of political leftism as its practical vehicle, Santorum’s argument is even stronger, and perhaps even more important in its implications, not only for Catholics, but for religious people in general.
For several decades, the presumption of the Catholic hierarchy, from the Vatican on down, has been that since socialism seems, on its face, to have similar goals to Christianity—caring for the less fortunate, charity, devoting oneself to a goal higher than self—it is the natural political affiliation of the Church. There are a variety of major problems with this presumption of a Christian/socialist affinity, of course: Christianity is doctrinally committed to individual salvation, socialism to collective achievement, at the expense of the individual where necessary; Christianity is doctrinally committed to a higher purpose beyond the material world, socialism fundamentally materialistic in its focus on earthly “equality”; Christianity has a doctrinal reverence for the past (including the extremely distant past), while socialism has grown out of materialist historicism’s disdain for the men and ideas of the past; and so on.
Greatest philosopher of Christianity—and indeed one of the greatest of all philosophers—St. Thomas Aquinas
And yet, if we leave these problems aside for the moment, and accept the Catholic Church’s long alliance with leftism on the Church’s own terms—the moral goals it allegedly shares in common with socialism—I think we can isolate the real crux of the Church’s errant reasoning on political matters. In doing so, we can appeal for clarity and rationality to the Church’s most admirable authority on doctrinal matters, the greatest philosopher of Christianity—and indeed one of the greatest of all philosophers—St. Thomas Aquinas.
Recall Santorum’s final admonition to the Catholic bishops, regarding how their moral purposes ought best to be achieved: “And it’s time to wake up and realize that government isn’t the answer to the social ills. It’s people of faith, and it’s families, and it’s communities, and it’s charities that need to do this….” Those of us inclined to agree with him will simply nod “yes” to all of that. Those not so inclined, however, might naturally ask why—why should people of faith, families, communities, and charities undertake the work that might more thoroughly and systematically be achieved by direct government action? Isn’t leaving such goals to private citizens a second-best solution?
The question is an understandable one, given the long history of Catholicism’s leftward tendencies. It is, however, based on a faulty premise, namely that the Church’s moral goals can be achieved through direct legal imposition.
It is here that St. Thomas is most instructive. On the question of whether human laws ought to be instituted at all, and specifically whether they are an acceptable substitute for private moral teachings and admonitions, Aquinas offers the following:
“[M]an has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training…. Now it is difficult to see how man could suffice for himself in the matter of this training: since the perfection of virtue consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, who are more capable of being trained. Consequently a man needs to receive this training from another, whereby to arrive at the perfection of virtue. And as to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue, by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. “
Thus far, then, Aquinas is arguing that virtue is properly attained through non-governmental means, i.e. without coercion. It is best acquired through “paternal training.” He now turns to the question of people whose natural dispositions are not moral.
“But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws. Therefore in order that man might have peace and virtue, it was necessary for laws to be framed.”
Notice that the law (i.e. government) Aquinas is advocating here is designed, not primarily to bring about direct moral ends, but rather as a protection against immoral men. Specifically, its primary function is to force immoral men to “desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace.”
In other words, the primary purpose of law is to prevent men from doing direct harm to others. Though writing long before the birth of Lockean natural rights theory, St. Thomas is describing law as an application of force for the express purpose of defending men against the violations of other men. And, alongside this view, he is acknowledging that virtue and vice—apart from those instances of vice that bring harm to others—are, to use Santorum’s words, properly left to “people of faith, families, communities.”
Here we come to the heart of the matter for the Catholic Church. The question of whether or not they ought to support progressivism in politics is inextricably linked to the deeply religious question, “What is the purpose of human laws?” Is it primarily, as the American Founders believed, to protect people from one another, in order that they might pursue virtue according to their own lights and capacities? Or is it primarily to bring about specific societal goals of a material and economic nature, on the grounds that such goals constitute the proper “moral outcomes” for human society?
On this question, St. Thomas is unequivocal. Addressing the specific issue of whether it is the purpose of laws to “repress all vice,” i.e. to institutionalize virtue, he says this:
“Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous [alone] abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.”
Laws do not prohibit all vice, because that would be to restrict unduly the free will of the majority of men, who are imperfect. In other words, virtue in general is a private, which is to say non-legal, matter. The purpose of human law is to restrict the kind of vicious behavior (“murder, theft and such like”) which directly harms other people, thereby, if left unchecked, causing the breakdown of human society. That is, the law ought to restrict only those behaviors which the majority of men, though imperfect, can and will abstain from of their own free will. Stated differently, the law ought not to touch the actions of the majority of men. Laws ought to be of a limited and “negative” character.
Therefore, there is no place in modern Catholic political theory for so-called “positive rights,” such as the right to healthcare, a job, a guaranteed income, a home, and so on. Positive rights extend the law’s coercive power far beyond the small minority of “depraved” individuals for whom force and fear are the only possible restraints and correctives; such man-made “rights” impose coercive power, in principle, on every man, woman and child within a society. As such, they violate St. Thomas’ sound principle of leaving the imparting of virtue, for the vast majority of humans, as a matter of familial authority. Hence, socialism, even taken on very naive terms (i.e. assuming its goals are the noble ones the Catholic bishops have falsely assumed), is completely opposed to the most profound Catholic teaching on the role and limits of human law.
Leftist progressivism seeks to impose specific behaviors on all citizens
This is much more than a matter of Catholic doctrine. It has the deepest implications for all religions, and for moral philosophy in general. Leftist progressivism seeks to impose specific behaviors on all citizens, in order to bring about “desirable” social outcomes, of a material nature. But what is the goal of religious and moral teaching? Is it to achieve materialistic social outcomes, or individual moral outcomes?
By limiting human law to the restriction of those violations against others “without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained,” St. Thomas reinforces the proper Christian theological focus on the salvation of individual souls, which is only possible (short of divine intervention) when men are able to exercise free will in the practice of the virtues which perfect the soul.
Charity, for example, is only charity (i.e. a Christian virtue) if it is a freely chosen course of action
In short, there is no virtue in doing that which one is compelled to do. Charity, for example, is only charity (i.e. a Christian virtue) if it is a freely chosen course of action. Government-imposed “charity,” in addition to violating constitutional rights, also short-circuits the moral growth of individual citizens. This helps to explain why the progress of socialism, throughout the civilized world, has consistently been accompanied by moral breakdown and social disintegration.
The question is this: Would the Catholic bishops prefer that souls achieve more perfect virtue through the virtuous exercise of their free will, while society as a whole struggled along in its inevitable imperfection? Or would they prefer some superficial notion of social “perfection” achieved at the expense of human virtue? In other words, is their primary goal the salvation of souls achieved through the encouragement of moral choices? Or is it material equality, achieved by force, individual souls be damned (literally)?
Rick Santorum and St. Thomas Aquinas are right. The Catholic bishops have been wrong up to now. They have a fundamental choice to make. So do all Catholics.