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The Clash of Law: Parsing the Modern War against Catholics, Catholicism and the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 25, 2014

Opposition to Catholicism in the modern West is brought to a head almost universally through the pressure of today’s legal systems. Typically our neighbors do not, all on their own, dislike Catholics enough to harass or bully them. We do not, as Catholics, fear walking down the street, or passing through an anti-Catholic neighborhood, or being refused service by various businesses, or having our children bullied at school, or being profiled and singled out for police harassment. No, what bother us are the increasing restrictions on the exercise of our Christian duties by bureaucratic laws and regulations, administered by people who otherwise do not care much about our religious identity one way or another.

This is the result of a utopian vision of the future implemented at the highest levels of the social order. It is not the cruel and unthinking persecution of those who have simply been raised, in their local enclaves and neighborhoods, to hate Catholics. It is rather a relatively high brow and carefully orchestrated process of civic improvement. As such, the anti-Catholic prejudice today wears a mantle of utter reasonableness and courtesy. Whatever is done is portrayed as necessary for the noblest of reasons, to serve an exalted vision of human good. As we will see shortly, this is a deception which even its proponents probably do not understand.

Consider how varied are the pressure points which have been attacked in exactly this way. There is the progressive public pressure for Catholic social service agencies to conform to the values of our secular elites. There is the growing impossibility of running Catholic organizations as a part of student life on college campuses. There are the battles over freedom of conscience in an ever-widening array of professions, beginning with doctors, nurses and pharmacists and extending now to anyone who might provide business services to same-sex couples. There are escalating battles over religious liberty. There is the HHS Mandate in the United States and similar rules in other Western nations which force even private individuals to actively participate in mandated actions which they find deeply immoral.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, there is the unending pressure against Catholic life imposed by the theocratic laws of Islamic states, called Shari’a law. This alternative form of coercion is in the process of entering the West through Europe, where the presence of high percentages of Islamic immigrants raises the question of alternative legal systems for different communities and regions. Almost nowhere can we any longer find a legal system which is not essentially hostile to Catholicism, with its own transcendent source of moral knowledge.

A Striking Parallel

Interestingly, in his Regensburg Address in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI drew a close parallel between the habits of thought which underlie Islamic law and those that lie at the basis of contemporary European (or Western) law. Benedict saw that neither Islam nor the contemporary West (any longer) assigns to reason the role of identifying natural moral principles which can allow people of different beliefs and cultural backgrounds to share a common good and a common polity. Islam believes Shari’a Law covers all of life and is rooted purely in the will of God, completely unbound by any rational characteristic of consistency or fairness. Similarly, the old natural law tradition of the West—in which rational consistency and fairness were perhaps the most easily-grasped components—has given way to the sovereignty of the human will to remake reality according to whatever happens to be desired by those who have political, social and cultural power.

One of the greatest Christian gifts to the world has been the distinction between two fonts of law which arise without any possible contradiction from the same profoundly rational Divine source. On the one hand, there is the natural law, which is accessible to human reason and which opens to the human community a common ground of morality as the basis for human flourishing in the social order. On the other hand, there is the law derived from Revelation, equally rational but containing mysteries which are accessible only by faith. While in no way conflicting with the natural law—and in fact presupposing it in the created order—this Revelation enables the believer to rise to greater perfection through grace, in a direct relationship with God Himself, expressed in voluntary service to others.

The effect of this dual but mutually-consistent conception of law was to open up a vast space in the world for men and women of different beliefs and backgrounds to form harmonious societies without violating any claim which conscience could reasonably advance. This space existed in only a very rudimentary and occasional form in the ancient world, where the State tended to be worshipped as the ultimate source of truth. The creation and sustenance of this space—though certainly marred by the imperfect efforts of human beings to build fruitful societies—was a signal mark of Christian civilization. Unfortunately, it is a mark which both secular modernity and Islam refuse to recognize, because their legal systems are not rational but voluntaristic—that is, devised and imposed by sheer force of will.

Navigation Difficulties

This does not mean that rationalizations are not used to justify what is willed (allegedly by Allah in Islam, allegedly by “the State” in the modern West). But there is clearly no serious effort to carve out space for legitimate (and limiting) principles of the common good accessible to human reason. In both cases, there is only enforced utopia. It is very difficult for Catholics to navigate in such a legal landscape. In fact such a landscape has no space for an understanding of reality which originates beyond the regulatory power of the mufti or the bureaucrat.

Understanding the nature of this problem and how it is manifested in most contemporary conflicts with Catholicism is increasingly important and even necessary. It so happens that I found the 2012 Proceedings of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars extraordinarily helpful in this regard. The printed text includes an extremely useful collection of convention presentations on just these neuralgic points of conflict, sometimes including pointers for effective response, and all easily digested in about 160 pages. Unfortunately—and this rather tends to take the wind out of a potential reviewer’s sails—there does not seem to be any way as yet for non-members to get a copy of the book.

Fortunately, reading through the material has at least enabled me grasp the central issue more clearly, and to stress three important principles which might be used to guide our thinking and our response to the characteristic anti-Catholic pressures of our time. First, the practical points of serious clash and conflict are now primarily creations of law. Second, when it comes to law, the primary problem is not an attack on Faith but an attack on reason—the presumption that law derives its authority from the specific will of those in power, and is not limited by clear and consistent natural or supernatural principles. Third, and precisely because rational consistency is lacking, it will take great creativity to navigate this increasingly repressive legal landscape.

In closing, I should emphasize one even deeper truth: The will darkens the intellect by ordering it to cease its independent explorations in order to serve what the will desires. This is not something that we can expect to counteract naturally; it is in fact the mechanism which human nature uses to refuse cooperation with grace. Yet paradoxically the pandemic loss of the recognition of reason, and even of nature itself, must be remedied by grace. And so, in the midst of growing suffering and sacrifice for Catholics, it is not only arguments and creativity that we need, but prayer.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 26, 2014 3:09 PM ET USA

    The key element missing from many modern laws and regulations is justice. It should be justice that is constantly sought after, not "the rule of law." Remember that the Israelites were described by St. Paul as slaves to the straight jacket of the law. Catholics are now finding themselves falling into just such a servitude to unjust laws. Democracy is not the ideal form of government; thus the republic. But the republic is not ideal either; thus the Catholic monarchy governed by just principles.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 25, 2014 9:45 PM ET USA

    The view-point of the Founding Fathers of this country, perhaps because they were primarily protestant,is conveniently ignored. That is, that the "power of government" & hence the power of Law, proceeds from the consent of the governed. Traditional Catholicism, along with Islam & Progressive Socialism don't support such a view. All three of those world-views presuppose a "centralized authority" that always "knows better." But the caveat is that such a system can only work with a moral citizenry.

  • Posted by: Defender - Mar. 25, 2014 7:51 PM ET USA

    I would also contend that, to a large, non-Catholic audience, CINOs and clergy who love the limelight are the ones usually thought to typify Catholicism. Our pope and clergy need to change this perception and start abiding by Canon 915 - these CINO politicians are, for the most part, already lost to some other changeable and vague Protestant religion. Senior clergy, ever reticent, need to be aboard. We shouldn't be afraid of a smaller Church, it will make us stronger for the fight that's coming.