Thursday, August 7, 2008

Today's pick to click ...

... is by First Things' Ryan T. Anderson, who uses an election-related issue as a handle for what is really a cogent piece advising social conservatives on how to make arguments in the public square.

I have had steadily growing doubts about some contemporary Catholic natural-law theorists' claims that culture-of-life issues can be successfully defended without making any reference to divine law.

My problem with bending over backwards to create "atheist-proof" arguments is that they are less likely to make converts among antireligionists and more likely to risk a compromised (or at least convoluted) stance. A more sensible goal in seeking to change hearts is to make reasoned arguments directed toward the far wider segment of the populace who, while they may not be strongly religious, are at least willing to concede some benefits in a worldview that includes faith. There are more people on the fringes of faith than there are staunch nonbelievers.

What I like about Anderson's approach is his use of Martin Luther King Jr. for a model. Such theorists sometimes seem to forget that even though King based his arguments on the force of reason, his reasoning received extra recognition in the public square because of the respect the public accorded his faith, not in spite of it.

Granted, unlike many other church leaders, King received additional respect for his willingness to endure hardship and sacrifice for people who went far beyond his own flock. But that too shows the power of making a public witness to faith, in that the public recognizes when a person of faith goes the extra mile. The public impression made by such sacrifice enhances the power of the public witness, and, I believe, vice versa.

What is really at stake today is, as Pope Benedict said at World Youth Day Mass, a clash of worldviews:

The task of witness is not easy. There are many today who claim that God should be left on the sidelines, and that religion and faith, while fine for individuals, should either be excluded from the public forum altogether or included only in the pursuit of limited pragmatic goals. This secularist vision seeks to explain human life and shape society with little or no reference to the Creator. It presents itself as neutral, impartial and inclusive of everyone. But in reality, like every ideology, secularism imposes a world-view. If God is irrelevant to public life, then society will be shaped in a godless image, and debate and policy concerning the public good will be driven more by consequences than by principles grounded in truth.
It is, I would say, disingenuous for a Catholic natural-law theorist to imply that his view of the human person is not based on a worldview. What he or she should do, and what I believe Anderson does in his essay (though not in so many words), is to point out that those in opposition, too, have worldviews. The ultimate question for reasonable minds in the public square is, assuming individuals and private institutions have the right to their personal religious belief or nonbelief, which worldview produces a society most protective of both individual liberty and human dignity—or, as the U.S. Constitution soundly prioritizes, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The Pope has it right. I would like to see more Catholic natural-law theorists do as did Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, making reasoned arguments boldly while acknowledging that one does not have to believe in God to acknowledge the inherent dignity of the human person—but it sure helps.

[Amended 8/7/08, 2:14 p.m.: Added third paragraph.]