Secularism, Morality and Politics

Author: Prof. John Finnis


Prof. John Finnis
University of Oxford

Comment on the Doctrinal Note of the CDF on Some Questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life

The secularism that is a root of a systematised willingness to kill some sorts of weak and dependent people (Evangelium vitae, n. 21), or that takes an intolerant form in denying the legitimacy of using Christian criteria when making political decisions (Doctrinal Note on Participation of Catholics in Political Life n. 6), is not to be confused with a healthy secularity or respect for the secular.

Healthy secular

"Secular", a word minted by Latin Christians, denotes that which is not divine, sacred, or ecclesiastical. In the Vulgate it sometimes signifies, neutrally, the world of time rather than eternity, and the daily life of any society, and sometimes, pejoratively, those matters that distract us from realities and dispositions of lasting worth. In Aquinas too the term often has no negative connotations. So, for example, St Thomas will say that in matters that concern the good of the political community (bonum civile), Christians should generally (not universally) obey the secular authorities rather than the ecclesiastical: in such matters magis obediendum potestati saeculari quam spirituali (II Sent. d. 44 exp. text. ad 4). The Doctrinal Note states the same point in different words: "the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church—but not from that of morality—is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church... (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 76)".

This Christian differentiating of the secular from the sacred is one instance or aspect of wider processes often called "secularisation": processes which involve the extension of human understanding and control over fields of life formerly so inaccessible to human science and technology that it seemed reasonable to try to manage them instead simply by prayer. Christian faith encourages secularisation of this kind, by insisting on both the transcendence of God and the intelligibility of the creation, with its consequent accessibility to science and technology.

Intolerant atheist secularism

The secularism we are considering is something different. That is not to say that it is some entirely new thing. In its essentials it seems to be what English philosophers and theologians, Catholic and non-Catholic, in the Shakespearean age called "atheism" (using that word broadly), and what Plato, without giving it a label, carefully critiqued in The Laws, where he points to a cluster of dispositions shaped around one or other of three propositions: there is no God (in modern terms, atheism stricto sensu); or, no God is concerned with human affairs (we would say, deism); or, any such divine concern with the human is easily appeased by a superficial piety and requires no demanding reform of human conduct ("liberal" religiosity). Is secularism's cultural dominance today greater than it was in Plato's Athens or the Leningrad of the 1970s?

Whatever the answer to that question, we can say that modern secularism denies or ignores the Christian teaching that the spiritual soul, "that by which [the human person] is most especially in God's image", is in each and every case "created immediately by God" (CCC 366; also 363, 365), so that God's creative causality initiates and is in one's life—one's very reality—in a fashion more direct and immediate than his creative causality of everything else in the order of nature. Denying or neglecting the fact and implications of the providential miracle of divine causality of the universe, a secularist worldview cuts itself off, equally or even more, from the particular understanding of the root and rationale of human dignity and equality that is encapsulated in this teaching about the origin of each human person.

Reductive ethics of atheist secularism

Secularism, as unwillingness to contemplate creation exnihilo, notonly draws upon materialist assumptions but also powerfully reinforces materialist denials or neglect of spirit, both as it by divine ordinance informs matter, and as it in human deliberating and acting works in and upon the material world by practical understanding, intending, reasoning, and choosing. It is no accident that the full reality of self-determining free choice is scarcely affirmed outside the ambit of influence of the Old and New Covenants. Nor is it an accident that secularised philosophers and theologians (including some Catholics) have little understanding of the significance of intention inthe description and moral assessment of human acts, and replace that concept with some combination of causality and foresight—with devastating consequences for their ethical theories and analyses.

Rawls' public reason is overlapping general consensus

John Rawls, the esteemed American political philosopher who died on the day the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued its Doctrinal Note (24 November 2002), devised a novel use of the term "political". Decisions, institutions, etc., are properly political (he says) only when made on the basis of "public reason" defined not as truths of theoretical or practical reason, but as propositions accepted in an "overlapping consensus" of "reasonable" people with contradictory opinions about the true nature and point of human affairs. In Rawls' "moral ideal" of "democratic legitimacy", citizens voting on a controverted issue involving fundamental human rights vote illegitimately if they try to promote the moral truth about who has the rights and how far the rights extend. They vote legitimately only if they vote in accordance with their assessment of what opinions about the right are within the overlapping consensus of "reasonable people" (including, quasi-necessarily, people whose within-consensus opinions about the right the voter judges, perhaps correctly, to be false). A vote cast on the basis of deliberation and judgment about the truth of the matter is illegitimate (says Rawls) because it violates the fair "reciprocity" of never imposing on other people any restriction or burden they would not accept.

Secularism that is intolerant of religious beliefs

Rawls' writings include passages suggesting that his entire theory of "political liberalism" had in mind no target or opponent save religious believers voting in accordance with their religious beliefs, i.e. their conscience. To that extent, his political theory can appear to instantiate the Doctrinal Note's "intolerant secularism". But in the theory's relatively recent versions, Rawls says that his "public reason" must not be confused with "secular reason" and, more important, that it includes "Catholic views of the common good and solidarity when they are expressed in terms of political values" (John Rawls, "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited", University of Chicago Law Review 64 [1997] 765 at 775). "That the Catholic Church's nonpublic reason requires its members to follow its doctrine is perfectly consistent with their also honoring public reason" (ibid.,799; Rawls, PoliticalLiberalism [1993, 1996], lvii).

There is thus an overlap between Rawls' developed position and the Doctrinal Note's affirmation (n. 6) that "The fact that some of these [moral truths concerning society, justice, freedom, respect for human life and the other rights of the person] may also be taught by the Church does not lessen the political legitimacy or the rightful 'autonomy' of the contribution of those citizens who are committed to them, irrespective of the role that reasoned inquiry or confirmation by the Christian faith may have played in recognizing such truths". In affirming (ibid.)that voting against "policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements" is not an imposition of "confessional values per se"—because "such ethical requirements are rooted in human nature itself and belong to the natural moral law [and] do not require from those who defend them the profession of the Christian faith" the Doctrinal Note implicitly affirms concepts of public reason and democratic legitimacy which overlap substantially with Rawls'.

Richer Catholic understanding based on truth of human person, common good

But this Catholic understanding of public reason and democratic legitimacy is rationally superior to the Rawlsian (II Sent. d. 44 exp. text. ad 4). It is unreasonable to propose as strongly normative a "moral ideal" of democratic politics on any ground other than that ideal's truth. To be sure, Rawls' attempt to work out the implications of the ideal should not be taken to fall within the imputation of insincerity made in the Doctrinal Note's statement(n. 2) that "the value of tolerance is disingenuously invoked when a largenumber of citizens, Catholics among them, are asked not to base their contribution to society and political life—through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy—on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good". But (John Rawls, "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited", University of Chicago Law Review 64 [1997] 765 at 775) the American philosopher's attempt certainly proves incoherent. Confronting, belatedly, the category of "rationalist believers" who hold that their positions on fundamental rights "are open to and can be fully established by reason", Rawls sets aside his own restrictive norm of legitimacy in deliberation by bidding us treat such a contention as simply mistaken. So the views of such "believers", like others whose unreasonableness Rawls more or less covertly assumes, are not allowed to affect the "overlapping consensus".

Above all (ibid., 799; Rawls, PoliticalLiberalism [1993,1996] lvii), any political doctrine like Rawls' must undermine fundamental rights by subordinating them to a sheer consensus, and thus to a lowest common denominator (or: a too low highest common factor). Denying or neglecting the imaging of God by each human being from conception (and even under gross disablement), the practical secularism of l'homme moyen sensuel and the proud elitism of Nietzschean aesthetico-theoretical secularism will overlap in ignoring the true rights of some human beings. Even when Rawlsians are not themselves secularists, the freedom and equality they exalt are thus subjected by them—not merely by the normal inertia of any political process, but on principle—to unjust limitation. Rawlsians speak of the freedom and equality of "citizens", rather than of "human beings". This is a sign of their subjection of human rights to a political theory that would make of the prejudices of the beati possidentes a criterion for rejecting as illegitimate, even when democratic in method, the reasonable and legitimate political efforts of those who understand human freedom and equality in the image and likeness of the Creator and his Word.

Excerpts fromDoctrinal Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on some questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, n. 6

The right and duty of Catholics and all citizens to seek the truth with sincerity and to promote and defend, by legitimate means, moral truths concerning society, justice, freedom, respect for human life and the other rights of the person, is something quite different. The fact that some of these truths may also be taught by the Church does not lessen the political legitimacy or the rightful "autonomy" of the contribution of those citizens who are committed to them, irrespective of the role that reasoned inquiry or confirmation by the Christian faith may have played in recognizing such truths. Such "autonomy" refers first of all to the attitude of the person who respects the truths that derive from natural knowledge regarding man's life in society, even if such truths may also be taught by a specific religion, because truth is one. It would be a mistake to confuse the proper autonomy exercised by Catholics in political life with the claim of a principle that prescinds from the moral and social teaching of the Church.

By its interventions in this area, the Church's Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends—as is its proper function—to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic's duty to be morally coherent, found within one's conscience, which is one and indivisible.

* * *

In democratic societies, all proposals are freely discussed and examined. Those who, on the basis of respect for individual conscience, would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism. Such a position would seek to deny not only any engagement of Christianity in public or political life, but even the possibility of natural ethics itself. Were this the case, the road would be open to moral anarchy, which would be anything but legitimate pluralism. The oppression of the weak by the strong would be the obvious consequence. The marginalization of Christianity, moreover, would not bode well for the future of society or for consensus among peoples; indeed, it would threaten the very spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 January 2003, page 9

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