Liberalism & Natural Law: A Response
My previous post on “gay marriage” has drawn a little attention. First Mark Shea posted parts of it on his blog, and now another commentator has weighed in, this time from what I would consider a more traditionalist perspective that merits a response. It is a welcome break, I must say, from addressing critiques from the left in support of “gay marriage.” It also gives me an opportunity to make a number of additional important points and hopefully delve a lot deeper into some significant issues. So I’ll begin by thanking the author of the critique, Innocent Smith, or IS for that.
Now to the critique itself. The central idea here is that I, along with many other contemporary Catholics, have issued a liberal response to a liberal challenge. We have, IS says, “conceded the philosophical grounds of [our] position to liberals.” One of the ways we have done this is by accepting the “private/public” distinction of John Locke, which holds that the secular state is responsible for our material welfare, while the Church is responsible for our souls – as opposed to what I imagine would be a holistic approach in which each are responsible for both (I don’t think the clear alternative is presented by IS). The Church, he claims, rejects this distinction. Continuing on, IS writes that we ought to be basing our arguments against things such as the contraception mandate or “gay marriage” squarely on the Church’s teachings against it; instead, we are making appeals to religious liberty.
Focusing on my arguments in particular, he writes that “[t]here is apparently nothing which this blogger is not willing to grant his opponent, so long as it is kept private”, and that “[t]he homosexual is to be tolerated so long as he is not seen or heard from.” Finally:
“[T]his blogger does not wish to simply “live and let live,” but has a distinctive view of sex and marriage that he simply assumes ought to form the basis for public policy. And this, it turns out, is what is the matter with the libertarian rhetoric that comprises the first two-thirds of the post. There is no neutral ground in the gay marriage debate: one side will inevitably impose its view on the other. In that sense, this blogger is right: what the pro-gay marriage side seeks is to have its viewpoint publicly enshrined. What needs to be pointed out, however, is that so does the anti-gay marriage side.”
Where to begin?
First, I’ll address the broader points about “liberalism”, then move on to the specific critique of my post. Like many other “isms”, including socialism, capitalism, etc., there are many different ways of understanding this word, many different contexts in which it means many different things. I reject the notion that the contest between the majority of Catholics who share views roughly similar to mine and the radical left-wing activist movement is a contest between “liberals.”
I am willing to say that I do adopt some liberal positions, and that our opponents also adopt some liberal positions. This has more to do with the unavoidable and unalterable fact that we live in a liberal society than with conscious, deliberate preferences for liberalism over possible alternatives, though I won’t deny that there is some preference as well. Ultimately we are all liberals to some extent, especially if we’re posting our private opinions on public forums without any kind of ecclesiastical permission or oversight.
That being said, however, I do not identify as a “liberal” (maybe a “libertarian” of sorts), and there is very little that is “liberal” about the totalitarian ambitions of the left. Collectivist thought-control, which is what I believe the ultimate aim of “gay marriage” legislation is, is pretty much the opposite of liberalism. At the very least, I would say that like socialism and communism, these activists reject liberalism as inadequate and incompetent, perhaps a necessary stage on the road to their preferred society but one that has to be “transcended”, or discarded like old scaffolding.
There are good reasons to communicate in the language of liberalism, regardless of how we feel about the last 200 years or so. Personally, I think the Middle Ages were awesome and I have no ideological opposition to the social order that prevailed at the height of Christendom. But how is that preference the least bit relevant? My aim in writing political commentary is not to display my political fantasies to the world, for that’s what the public expression of a preference for the “pre-liberal” social order would amount to. My aims are to a) rally the troops, b) persuade the fence-sitters, and c) check our enemies.
In order to do so, I must be firmly grounded in the unalterable (at least by individual effort) constants of the world we all inhabit. One of those constants is the progression, so to speak, of social evil. As the evil spreads, our choices become more limited and also more clear. We can choose to preserve what we can to use as best as we are able, in this case, our liberty to assemble and speak in accordance with our faith. This requires making arguments that appeal to secular preferences. Or we can choose to take what we might imagine to be a quasi-heroic stand and fight for an order that doesn’t exist and won’t be restored anytime in the foreseeable future. For pragmatic and moral reasons, I choose the former.
In doing so, I am merely following the counsel of Pope Leo XIII, who wrote in Libertas:
God Himself in His providence, though infinitely good and powerful, permits evil to exist in the world, partly that greater good may not be impeded, and partly that greater evil may not ensue. In the government of States it is not forbidden to imitate the Ruler of the world; and, as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence.(10) But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake
It is for “the sake of the common good”, and specifically the good of the Church, that I take up the arguments I do. Yes, I do believe that to a certain extent, we must tolerate the evil of open homosexual lifestyles (I don’t know where IS got the notion that I thought gays needed to stay in the closet when I stated repeatedly that I was accepting their open identification). We must tolerate it because we utterly and totally lack the power to prevent it. We lack the social power, the political power, and in the wake of the massive scandals that have rocked the modern Church, even the moral power among significant constituencies. What is in our power is the ability to retain our rights and privileges as American citizens, at least for the time being. This seems like the more relevant battleground.
There is another dimension this as well, however. I am a firm believer in the inherent rationality of the natural law. While it would be optimal to have a government that recognized and legislated in accordance with the natural law, I do not believe that the triumph of natural law over perversion and disorder absolutely requires such a government. It may logically lead to one in the future, and I hope that day comes, but the validity of the natural law can – as IS himself acknowledges – be known and understood through reason alone.
We are engaged in a contest with people who share the fundamental assumption of Marxism, whether they are fully paid-up Marxists or not – that man is locked in a struggle with nature, with the natural law itself, for supremacy. Trotsky put it best: the aim of socialism/communism is the total domination of nature by man. The means by which this is accomplished is technology. Communism is a techno-utopia in which the achievements of science make possible all that which nature once forbade. While the “classical” Marxists were mostly preoccupied with the possibilities opened up by technology applied to the economy, the premise can be carried over to everything, including the basic human relations that comprise society itself.
By way of comparison, the “liberal” view of free competition, not only in the economy, but in the “marketplace of ideas” doesn’t seem so bad. If the natural law is rational, if it is good, if it is what leads to the best possible society, then it must prevail in an open competition. The eagerness of our enemies to harness the coercive power of the state to shape reality in accordance with their wishes is a strong indicator that on some level, they know this as well. So it is not only for pragmatic reasons, but also more substantial reasons, that I do not feel the need to make “the Bible says so” arguments, or for the more sophisticated Catholic, “the Magisterium has declared” arguments. The Magisterium itself incorporates rational, secular arguments into its moral pronouncements. There is no contradiction between reason and revelation, between rationality and dogma. They express and compliment each other. In expressing our beliefs in a secular and rational way, we’re simply communicating religious truth in a different mode. One would only mistake this for “kicking religion out of sight”, to paraphrase IS, if they shared the modern liberal assumption that religious views are, if not totally irrational, at least arbitrary and subjective. That’s not my view.
Onto some more specific points:
” [t]here is apparently nothing which this blogger is not willing to grant his opponent, so long as it is kept private”
I don’t know what is meant by “grant” here. I don’t grant that their behavior is moral, that it is approved by God. What I grant is that individuals in our society have private property rights that they could make full use of to obtain in practice what they claim they desire. There is no need for them to demand special legislation for “gay marriage” unless they have an ulterior motive. I’ll admit that I used the phrase “we don’t care” quite a bit; I also explained that I do care that they live in open defiance of God. I can admit that in hindsight saying “we don’t care” could give the wrong impression even with my explanation. I make it a habit not to “care” in a certain sense (maybe “worry” would be better) about things I can’t change, but I also “care” in another sense that so many people engage in such horribly disordered behavior.
“[t]he homosexual is to be tolerated so long as he is not seen or heard from”
I didn’t say or imply any such thing. Hopefully my comments above already clarified this.
“[T]his blogger does not wish to simply “live and let live,” but has a distinctive view of sex and marriage that he simply assumes ought to form the basis for public policy. And this, it turns out, is what is the matter with the libertarian rhetoric that comprises the first two-thirds of the post. There is no neutral ground in the gay marriage debate: one side will inevitably impose its view on the other. In that sense, this blogger is right: what the pro-gay marriage side seeks is to have its viewpoint publicly enshrined. What needs to be pointed out, however, is that so does the anti-gay marriage side.””
I think we can both a) respect private property rights (which would allow individuals who identify as “gay” to do all of the things they falsely claim we don’t want to allow them to do) and b) determine which social arrangements are worthy of extra privileges. Saying that traditional marriage is superior to all other arrangements takes nothing away from those who wish to enter into them, except perhaps some of their pride.
In any case, I am not so much looking for “neutral ground” as I am attempting to expose the great lie at the heart of the radical gay agenda, that gays are denied all of these rights. There is nothing they want to do that they can’t do. They just want to be able to do it with society’s approval in addition to legal sanction. As a student of Leo XIII, I’m willing not only to acknowledge but to accept the former, while firmly rejecting and resisting the latter. One can do so without contradiction because acknowledgement and tolerance are not the same as acceptance and approval.