Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Smoldering Republic (or "The Case against Secularism")

Karl started it!

We've been having an interesting back-and-forth since Pope Benedict remarked that he approved of local bishops denying communion to public officials and lawmakers around the world who supported legalized abortion.

Don't worry - we both definitely agree that this is just the latest awful thing that the Sith Pope has done. Karl thinks this is an irresponsible interference in state affairs by the church (since the Church is attempting to wield its religious influence on legislators in order to change laws), which from his constitutional perspective is a violation of the maxim of Separation of Church and State.

The idea of excommunication is also theologically suspect - ideally, Christians should like to think that the Instituted Sacraments (communion and baptism) belong not to the Church (the human institution), but instead to God. Otherwise why are we coming to church to receive them? [These are called the Instituted Sacraments because they are the only ones performed by Jesus himself, and so they're considered the only ones necessary "for salvation" - whatever that means.] If this is true, certainly it falls outside of human authority to denying any other human that which is God's to begin with. And even more so, it's probably downright sinful to use possessions of God as political leverage!

But Karl goes a bit further:
There is also a difference between actions of a church affecting the entirety of a nation and those actions affecting isolated individuals. If there is a problem with a church harboring undocumented persons, it is substantially different problem than if the church were demanding its standards be imposed on the lives of all persons in the nation (e.g. excluding immigrants).

Might a religion express a view on the rightness or wrongness of an activity? Of course it may, and should, do so. And based on that, might an individual person of faith advocate such a position? Absolutely. But the religion should not compel its members to compel others to act in accord with the religion's teachings, particularly where that violates the member's duties to the state. (I'm vaguely reminded of rendering things to Caesar and to God here...)
I find it a confusing work of legalistic parsing to say that an individual should advocate their religion-based political views without "[compelling] others to act in accord with the religion's teachings]". That's not very good advocacy, now is it? If we're going to allow self-avowed religious people into government, then we're also allowing the judgments and opinions they carry, many of which may be based on their religious beliefs alone, to inform the ways they make and interpret our law and policy.

Karl's problem seems to be with religious leaders who essentially command that adherents behave a certain way, especially when those "adherents" are public officials and that "certain way" contradicts Constitutional principles and duties. But from there he says that the Church should "withdraw from the secular affairs of the state."

I think Karl is giving far too much credit to the Pope and people like him by saying
his remarks (and that's all they were) would "force Catholic legislators to choose between a duty to uphold the Constitution and their very faith." I find that most religious people I talk to understand, amongst themselves, something that many secularists refuse to understand in their propensity for overgeneralization of the religious: faith is so important to individuals precisely because it is so individual. The Bible, the Pope, the bishop, the pastor, the imam, the rabbi, the monk, the nun - sure, these are authorities in religious life, but an individual's faith is a lot more than just what a pastor tells him. A great deal of internal confirmation and struggle and questioning goes into everyone's faith formation - it is important to remember this when we feel to urge to blame "sheep-like Christians" for all the nation's problems.

Catholic legislators have been, are, and will be doing something that religious people through millennia have done: figure out how to live in between what they feel to be right and what they are being told is right. For some, this isn't a conflict at all, and I think it's safe to assume that those people, if they're legislators, were elected to represent exactly those views. For others, they'll be doing the most human part of religion, the part that makes it worth it, the part that brings change and renewal. In fact, it is this process of challenging religious authority that has brought about much of the social change that secular liberals claim as their own morals today.

When Karl supports the Church's complete retreat from public life over what the Pope says, he's giving credence to a frightfully small view of what it's actually like to allow religious values to play out in one's life. It's as if he's validating the idea that Catholics will basically do whatever the Pope says. Or that Evangelicals do whatever the Bible "says". That view, of course, makes for a much bigger target for enlightened academics like ourselves, but it's complete fiction.

Social progress begins with agonized individuals. Always. This is the reality of what it means to be human. Christianity is successful because it gives a way to understand this reality and then continue living and working for justice anyway. Because after torture and death, there is resurrection and life.

Religious leaders have done great harm and great help - but both have only been enabled by the extent to which religious people have reflected upon whether what their authorities say agree with what they themselves feel is right, and good, and a joyful thing.

We should invite this smoldering soul-searching among our religious and our civic leaders, rather than demanding a sterile system where input equals output and nothing ever surprises us. When an individual, upon further meditation, finds that her idea of justice is not what the existing religious and civic authorities are thinking of, that person can be called a citizen and a Christian.

A Cause for Alarm (or "The Case for Secularism")

The Pope made explicit today that Catholic politicians who vote in support of abortion rights, even while personally believing abortion to be immoral, are subject to excommunication and should be denied communion. This presents concerns for Catholic politicians, constitutional order, constituents, secularism, and, most startlingly, the Courts.

In the United States, legislators take an oath take uphold the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court, in carrying out its duty to "say what the law is," (Marbury v. Madison) has found that the Constitution protects a woman's right to an abortion. Might a legislator, then, while believing that abortion is immoral, still vote for a bill defining abortion rights as part of a duty to uphold the Constitution? The effect of the Pope's pronouncement, then, is to force Catholic legislators to choose between a duty to uphold the Constitution and their very faith. The "ideal" outcome for the Church, it would seem, is that Catholic legislators vote consistently with the precepts of the Catholic faith, at least with respect to abortion. But the era when the church could mandate to sovereigns how a country is to be run has come and gone; I, for one, have no desire to return to the Dark Ages.

Setting the constitutional issue aside for a moment, is it not the purpose of representatives in our republic to represent the views of their constituents? If Catholic politicians are to heed the demands of the Church, then three results are possible:

(1) In predominantly anti-abortion districts, there is no conflict;
(2) In pro-choice districts, Catholic representatives fail to represent the interests of their constituents; or
(3) In pro-choice districts, voters will choose to avoid election Catholic representatives.

The final two outcomes, which would be assured to occur in at least some instances, I hope we can all agree are intolerable. The only way to avoid this would be for Catholic politicians to disobey the law of the Church and risk excommunication. I find that to be equally unacceptable. Thus, in the political realm, the Pope's pronouncement creates an impasse with no entirely acceptable result possible. Thus, this makes for an excellent case study in the desirability of the separation of church and state.

But, as a more immediate concern, what of the courts? If a legislator voting in support of abortion rights on constitutional grounds may be excommunicated, then so, it seems, may a jurist doing precisely the same thing, including a Supreme Court justice. And what effect might this have on a justice's ruling? If presented with a case in which a particular ruling could result excommunication from the justice's church, it seems sheer fantasy that the justice's decision-making will be unaffected. This appears to be a classic conflict of interest. And this situation is far from unlikely - indeed, such a case has already occurred. It is interesting, though not necessarily telling, that the five justices voting to uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act were the five Roman Catholic justices. So what is the solution? Certainly, it is not to inquire into a potential justice's religion - that is unconstitutional and for good reason. Is it for justices to recuse themselves on cases involving abortion or other teachings? That would result in FIVE justices recusing themselves, justices whom, while I often disagree with them, play an important role on the court and can bring a legitimate judicial philosophy to the table. No, the solution is for justices to remain consistent with oaths to uphold the Constitution, but the only way for the public to be confident they are doing so is to remove significant barriers; that is, for the Church to withdraw from the secular affairs of the state.

[Edit: A bit of elaboration on the final sentence appears prudent. When I state the Church should withdraw from the secular affairs of the state, I mean that a religious institution should not attempt to control the making or interpreting of secular laws. This is not to say that a religious institution should refrain from engaging in discourse of the issues underlying the laws, nor am I saying lawmakers should not be informed, at least to some extent, by their moral and/or religious convictions in the process of lawmaking. Put simply, a religious institution should not endeavor to control the lawmaking process, though it is certainly welcome to contribute to discourse of the issues before the lawmaking process.]