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Prudence being the most senior of the cardinal virtues, it is perhaps the most widely applied virtue. Almost every human action, if it is ordered to doing what is right, relies on this virtue. Without question, this would include the quest for freedom.
No discussion of freedom can ignore the issues of natural law and natural rights, subjects that have long been central to Catholic scholarship; they provide a good platform to discuss related matters. Freedom means more than individual rights, and on this score the contributions of the Catholic Church are impressive. While a discussion of "rightful freedom" might fall on deaf ears these days, it is important to understand the value of rightful freedom in making prudential judgments. Similarly, the idea of severing freedom from morality, while much in vogue, is something that the Catholic Church has long opposed, and for good reason: the most vulnerable among us pay the biggest price when the two attributes are treated as discrete entities. The subject of slavery, of course, deserves extended treatment, as does the Church's reaction to it.
Human rights, while critical to the makings of the good society, are, by themselves, inadequate. More is needed--the society must recognize the importance of human dignity. When human life is treated as a commodity, as a throwaway item, certain consequences follow, none of which is noble. The intentional killing of innocent human beings, whether at the beginning or the end of life, affects more than the victim; it affects the conscience and soul of society.
Natural Rights and Natural Law
Fareed Zakaria notes that "Greece was not the birthplace of liberty as we know it. Liberty in the modern world is first and foremost the freedom of the individual from arbitrary authority, which has meant, for most of history, from brute power of the state." Zakaria puts his finger on how this first evolved: "The Catholic Church was the first major institution in history that was independent of temporal authority and willing to challenge it. By doing this it cracked the edifice of state power, and in nooks and crannies individual liberty began to grow." For this reason, he concludes that "the rise of the Christian Church is, in my view, the first important source of liberty in the West--and hence the world."1
Even a cursory look at Eastern civilizations yields not even a glimpse of how the concept of freedom would ultimately take root in society, so completely foreign has this idea been. In fact, it wasn't until the nineteenth century, as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson points out, that the Chinese and Japanese even had a word to describe freedom.2 Where in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for example, is there a record of the development of freedom? No, to learn of this we must look to the Christian West.
Not only are freedom and Christianity compatible, then; it is difficult to understand the former without the latter. The results of the joining of freedom with Christianity are without equal. "Individually liberating, socially energizing, and culturally generative," Patterson writes, "freedom is undeniably the source of Western intellectual mastery, the engine of its extraordinary creativity, and the open secret of the triumph of Western culture, in one form or another, over the other cultures of mankind."3 The Jamaican scholar is neither exaggerating nor being a braggart; he is simply telling the truth. Christianity is the one religion that places freedom at it doctrinal core. It is this kind of exceptionalism that makes Roman Catholicism so endearing.
Michael Gerson, an Evangelical and former presidential speech writer, takes a sober look at the achievements of the Roman Catholic Church and comes away impressed. "An institution accused of superstition is now the world's most steadfast defender of rationality and human rights," he says. He pointedly asks, "It has not always lived up to its own standards, but where would those standards come from without it?"4 The standards of rationality and human rights that he speaks of found expression in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of conscience and religion, for example, did not spring from secular thought. Nor did the idea that human beings are equal in the eyes of God and should be seen as equal in law. Nor did the idea that every human possesses equal dignity and worth. These ideas are all traceable to Christianity.
The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins by recognizing "the inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family."5 Such ideas were recorded in papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum in 1891 and Quadragesimo Anno in 1931: these Church documents addressed the "inherent dignity" and "worth of the human family" long before there was a push for an international bill of rights. And seven years before the UN document was approved, Pope Pius XII used a radio address to push for such a universal statement. In the early 1960s Pope John XXIII was so impressed with the principles laid out in the document that he hailed it as "an act of the highest importance." No wonder that when Pope John Paul II went before the international body in 1979, he called the post--war document "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time." It is for reasons like these that former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has written that "the Church has emerged as, intellectually and institutionally, the single most influential champion of the whole, interconnected, body of principles in the Universal Declaration."6
As important as the UN document is, it lacks something critical: an unshakable foundation. Catholic theologian Thomas D. Williams writes, "Unless human rights have an objective foundation, they are little more than a verbal fiction."7 What he is getting at was understood by Pope John Paul II, who, although admiring of the UN Declaration, nonetheless complained that it "does not present the anthropological and ethical foundations of the human rights which it proclaims" (his italics).8 In other words, it was not grounded in something as concrete and overarching as natural rights and natural law.
Anyone can assert that he has rights, but no one is obliged to respect them, unless, of course, there is something binding. That something binding cannot, however, be merely in the form of a contract. Contracts are revocable. For rights to have meaning, they must have a firm basis. This is not a problem in Catholic thought, but it most certainly is a real jam for unbelievers, as well as for the faithful of many religions. It is a staple of Catholic thought that human rights inhere in every human being as a gift from God. They are not awarded to us; they are natural to us. Made in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, humans the world over--in every society throughout all of history--possess natural rights. Governments may proclaim certain individual rights, but in Catholic thought governments can never be the origin of such rights. Our rights are inalienable and irrevocable. If this sounds familiar, it should; it is the heart and soul of the Declaration of Independence.
There is a confluence between Catholic thought on the subject of liberty and the thinking of the men who founded America. While it is true that some of the Founders were Deists--men like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine who doubted the inerrancy of Scripture and the divinity of Jesus--all of those who forged the new social order, whether they were religious or not, understood the need for religion in a free society. As Thomas S. Kidd has shown, those responsible for the American Revolution shared five religious principles: There was a Creator who made all men equal, endowed with the same rights; God sometimes made nations His providential instrument; the tendency to sin demanded strong social institutions; virtue had to be strongly inculcated in the populace; and religious liberty was a must.9 Because they understood human nature and believed in God, the Founders were able to develop an understanding of liberty that was as timeless as it was fruitful. That is why their thinking, and the thinking of the Church Fathers on this subject, is so similar.
Natural rights have staying power because they are grounded in natural law. Natural law holds that all human beings are capable of understanding, through the faculty of reason, right from wrong. It further maintains that there are norms of behavior that are eternal and applicable to all human conditions, no matter how "advanced" or "primitive" the people are. Universal in nature, natural law is inscribed in the hearts and minds of men and women everywhere, and it is not subject to veto by government. To be sure, governments can legitimize wrongdoing--they can approve of the most horrendous and despicable acts of oppression--but they cannot erase what every human being knows in his heart of hearts is true.
The belief in natural law is hardly unique to Catholicism, although no belief system, religious or nonreligious, has a richer history of promulgating it. The Greeks knew natural law, and no one promoted it better than Aristotle, who is often known as the "father" of natural law. Although he never used the term natural law, he spoke of a "universal law" that meant the same thing. Indeed, he explicitly said that "Universal law is the law of nature." The Romans were also devotees of natural law, and in fact they incorporated elements of natural law into their own code of law. Cicero defined natural law as "true law," maintaining that it is "right reason in agreement with nature."10 It is also "universal, consistent, [and] everlasting." Without the natural law the common good could not be realized, and it was the common good, he held, that was the object of government. Natural law was later embodied in the common law throughout the West, and was spelled out in the writings of Sir William Blackstone, the architect of common law.
Saint Thomas Aquinas gave natural law a Christian cast. He did not insist that the moral law be confined to believers; on the contrary, he said it was available to everyone through reason alone. But he thought that natural law was incomplete without a Christian understanding. He called the two great commandments--love of God and love of neighbor--the "first and common precepts of the natural law." He took this view from Jesus, of course, who cited the Old Testament texts to underscore the primacy of these commandments. Aquinas taught that the Ten Commandments, taken as a whole, were the embodiment of the natural law, but he also knew that while the first principles of the natural law were the same for everyone, there would be differences of opinion about the conclusions drawn from these principles. That's where prudence comes in.
Even something as clear as the Ten Commandments cannot be set on automatic pilot; that is, we still need to deliberate and conscientiously evaluate how to apply the principles that are embodied in them, and then relate them to specific situations. Aquinas knew this to be true, and it explains why he so highly valued the cardinal virtue of prudence; there is no substitute for right reason. In other words, adherence to natural law does not resolve all problems, although without it there can be no real prospects for liberty.
If the American experiment in liberty has been a success, and it must be so regarded when we compare our experience to that of other nations, then it is owing in no small part to our tradition of natural rights and natural law. When Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal," and that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," he was speaking the language of natural law and natural rights. When Washington proclaimed, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports,"11 he was giving voice to these ideas. When Chief Justice John Jay, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, argued that the legislature did not have the power to enforce laws that were "against all reason and justice," he was also expressing a belief in natural law.12 But soon after these great Americans made their seminal contributions to freedom, the very idea of natural rights and natural law came under sharp attack.
Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century English jurist, called natural rights "simple nonsense." More than that, he dubbed them "nonsense on stilts."13 So what did he have to offer instead? Utilitarianism. He believed that serving the greatest good for the greatest number of people was a better index of morality than any fanciful notion of natural rights and natural law. This may sound good to those who are the winners, that is, those who are in the majority. But what exactly can we say about a society that can justify punishing those in the minority as long as in so doing it enhances the happiness of the majority? Once we cut the brakes that conscience affords, there is nothing left to stop the triumph of tyranny. If all we are left with is a calculation of which alternative promises the best outcome for the greatest number of people, it is a sure bet that some will lose their rights.
The idea that the only rights that exist are the ones that are posited, or given to us, by government is known as positivism. It is a legal theory that is widely held today, and its proponents cannot stomach natural law. In their own ways, intellectuals such as Freud, Darwin, and Marx were attracted to it, and it remains a popular idea among nonbelievers everywhere. Although it is morally flawed, it does sport a certain consistency: if there is no God, there are no commandments; if there is no body of ideas about right and wrong, then we are free to decide what qualifies as right and wrong; if there are no truths that are eternal and universal, then all we need to do is see what government posits, or decrees. Liberated from God and all the constraints that such a belief entails, the proponents of positivism think they are in the driver's seat, ready to write into law whatever they see fit. History is not on their side, as even they had to admit when it came time to prosecute the Nazis at Nuremberg.
When the Nazis were put on trial for crimes against humanity, they justified their actions by citing their obedience to the law. They were not lying: they were in fact telling the truth--they did exactly what they were told to do. Yet still they were convicted. From a positivistic perspective, their convictions were unjust: if there is no morality except that which exists in law as posited by government, then the Nazis who gassed Jews can hardly be held culpable for following orders. But from a natural law perspective, the Nazis were as guilty as sin. They knew in their hearts that killing innocent persons was morally wrong. Indeed, it was on the basis of natural law, that they were convicted. The German courts knew that justice could not be served by adhering to positivism; in the end, what they did was prudent. "The positive legislative act," one court said, "is intrinsically limited. It loses all obligatory power if it violates the generally recognized principles of international law or the natural law, or if the contradiction between the positive law and justice reaches such an intolerable degree that the law . . . must give way to justice."14 Thus the Catholic natural law tradition was vindicated. So was prudence.