Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Coercion vs. Tolerance: The Real Crisis in Public Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 16, 2012

We’ve been fighting legal abortion with little or no success for a very long generation now, and we’ve rightly regarded it as a horrific scourge, a massive breakdown of the public order. Perhaps this is why we have been slow to recognize and oppose the sea change that is taking place in American politics right now—the enormous, incalculable shift in government from permitting evil to enforcing it.

To some degree, of course, this shift is not entirely new. It has not materialized, as it were, out of the blue. One can trace its genesis in several ways, two of which I will mention here. In the first place, we have long permitted public control over education. For most children in the United States, it devolves upon government to determine what they will learn. It is remarkable that an allegedly freedom-loving people has permitted this to be the norm from a relatively early date. In any case, looking back now, we can clearly see how the culture wars were lost in schools with the rise of government-mandated sex education programs and the enforcement of political correctness regarding various moral perversions, including the gay lifestyle, which is now culminating in same-sex marriage.

In the second place, we need to recall that abortion in the United States since 1973 has not merely been permitted, in the sense that for prudential reasons government has decided against prosecuting abortionists or women who seek abortions. Rather, our Supreme Court proclaimed that abortion is a right, falling under the right of privacy it discovered in the “penumbra” of the Constitution—a penumbra being a gray area illuminated only partially by Constitutional concepts explicitly expressed elsewhere. (Interestingly, in the history of “penumbral” law, the Supreme Court earlier found similar grounds to establish family rights which are not specifically stated in the Constitution. The outcome of penumbral reasoning is not always bad, but it does demonstrate the difficulties we face when we fall into the trap of believing that a Constitution is the source of our rights.) In any case, the point here is that when something immoral is defined as a right, then that immoral act is not just tolerated; rather, the law guarantees its moral legitimacy.

In such a situation, coercion is always just around the corner. If abortion is a right, then it becomes a violation of human rights to restrict it or even to speak against it. If abortion is a right, then any obstacle to getting an abortion serves as a grave impediment to the realization of a person’s full dignity. Sound Catholics would agree that we have a moral obligation to make sure that nobody is denied his rights (properly understood). So when something immoral is defined as a right, it follows that the State has decided we have a moral obligation to ensure that nothing prevents a person from exercising that right. In other words, we can be coerced into facilitating abortion for those who want it, even to the point of paying for it. On this reading, we should account ourselves lucky that we do not need to operate the machinery or hold the knife.

So, again, we can fairly easily trace a gradual shift from toleration of certain evils, where policing and punishing them is virtually impossible or might do more harm than good, to the coercion of citizens to engage in these same evils. Nonetheless, the current shift in American politics represents a major stage in this development. One would like to think it is such a major stage as to make the problem obvious. Here we have the emblematic issue of the culture wars, an issue on which Americans are deeply and evenly divided, moreover an issue of life and death. And what is happening is that the Democratic Party is insisting that citizens on all sides must accept not just the fact that abortion will go unrestricted by government but that all citizens will help to pay for whatever abortions other citizens may wish to have. (There is also forced participation in contraception and sterilization; forced particpation in gay marriage is clearly on the political horizon, courtesy of the same Party.)

For many people, of course, only the problem posed by the next thing is bad enough to get worked up about. They subscribe to the sort of convenient morality which immediately accepts all current policies as either fully justified or at least so settled that nothing can be done—so we might as well attend to their pet concerns instead. According to this gospel of convenience, we must remain unruffled, wise, realistic, fashionable…and supine. In contrast, I assert that it ought now to be crystal clear that the American government under Barack Obama has crossed an important line, the line between tolerating violations of the natural law for prudential reasons and coercing the citizenry into violating the natural law.

Once again, let me emphasize that the natural law is not a specifically Catholic thing. Astonishingly, each time I have mentioned the natural law, some have insisted that it is unfair to expect others to conform to Catholic doctrine! Truly, the mind boggles, for the whole point of the natural law is that it is universal and, well, natural. The critic’s very appeal to lack of fairness is in fact an appeal to the natural law. All rational moral argument appeals to the natural law, even when it erroneously uses one part of the natural law against another. Confusion, passion and self-interest may at times cause us to make mistakes in interpreting and applying the natural law, but the inescapable fact remains that the natural law is the only way we have of knowing when the positive law is immoral. Without it, there can be no concept of “right” apart from the concept of “power”.

The fact that the American government has now clearly crossed this line from permitting to coercing evil changes the political game immensely, even if we can trace the unfortunate antecedents of that crossing. Coercing citizens to do evil is much worse than permitting evil, so much worse that it takes precedence over all other political concerns. This issue is not something that can be weighed against other policies which we may consider more or less prudent, because it crosses a fundamental line which government must never cross, and which invalidates any law which crosses it (and any government which persists in crossing it).

At the level of politics, the bare fact of abortion in our culture is a tiny blemish compared with deliberate governmental coercion of citizens to participate in intrinsically immoral behavior. It is very sad that we have slipped to this new low. But this must now be the primary focus of our political energies: The repudiation of every policy, and if necessary of every government, which deliberately forces people to perform specific actions that are morally wrong.

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: Louise01 - Oct. 31, 2012 7:25 PM ET USA

    The Catholic Church doesn't help when it fails to support the local respect life parish groups and advances to just bury them into existing Justice and Peace groups funded by the corrupt CCHD. e.g. Archbishop Gomez's recent Witness to the New World of Faith. Abortion is not politically correct even to all parishioners and they are glad when abortion becomes equivalent to habitat to humanity projects!

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Oct. 17, 2012 12:35 AM ET USA

    "...I assert that it ought now to be crystal clear that the American government under Barack Obama has crossed an important line, the line between tolerating violations of the natural law for prudential reasons and coercing the citizenry into violating the natural law." What a scary and sobering thought. Every Catholic, every citizen, should think about those words before casting their vote- and then pray for this Country whose destiny is in jeopardy. We will surely get the government we deserve

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 16, 2012 7:42 PM ET USA

    It is what it is, and the conclusion is ominous. But sadly it might not resonate enough. Recent polls among American Catholics do nothing to offer reassurance. As indicated in the article there are problems even among readers of this website with a proper understanding of the Natural Law. Even in the Church there has been a problem with education and with orientation. These problems produce natural consequences. Inevitably we must endure the fruits of an untoward optimism in our world.