Wednesday, May 09, 2007

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.]


Alex Kim said...

So much for the 'civil' union... you've said a lot here, most of it which I agree with, but that last sentence is surely just ASKING for my disagreement. :)

"Ask, and it shall be given unto you." - Matthew 7:7

Alex Kim said...

So in other words - I will be posting as soon as the tide of procrastination overtakes the humble shore of my honors thesis.

Karl Smith said...

Fair enough, but keep in mind I suggested the Church (big "C" to denote the institution) should withdraw from the secular affairs of the state. That is not to say that an individual's religious views have no place in their politics - that's a larger discussion for another day.

So in other words, I hope your response will focus on the Pope's statements and/or the role of the Church as an institution in the secular affairs of the state.

Alex Kim said...

The Pope's comments are egregious, but whatever influence he has certainly has as much a place in the republican process as any leader of a group deep-seeded influence. Or is religious just different? Should Oprah be allowed to endorse Barack Obama?

Should St. Mark's Cathedral and the Episcopal Church cease it's active participation in helping undocumented persons avoid due process?

And should Archbishop Ncube in Zimbabwe similarly "withdraw from the secular affairs" of President Mugabe's virtual dictatorship? He recently encouraged Catholics to revolt on the basis of their faith.

Alex Kim said...

Wow - my worst spelling ever, by the way.

Karl Smith said...

Religion IS different because of the seminal role it plays in the the lives of individuals. Excommunication from one's faith, a central part of one's being for billions on this planet, is substantially different from being kicked out of Oprah's Book Club.

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...)

Your reference to Zimbabwe raises a more substantial critique. There may be times in the course of human affairs where open defiance of the state is legitimate, whether on religious or other grounds. But why is that? Because the state itself, and thus its activities (secular or otherwise), are illegitimate. The precise circumstances in which this is appropriate are absolutely up for debate, but make no mistake, it requires saying that the state itself is illegitimate. At that point, religious (or other) interference with the state's affairs may be justifiable. And if that is the Pope's contention, that any country in which abortion is legal is illegitimate and thus that its citizens and those responsible for its governance, should openly defy it, well, I disagree and believe he sets the bar entirely too low.

I make the argument in the post that separation of church and state is necessary for the legitimacy and functioning of the state, but an equally solid case can be made that it is also necessary for religion.