The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Church and State, Legality and Morality

A few days ago I heard a TV News pundit complain about Pope Francis' comment that freedom of speech was not without its limitations. This talking head, who calls himself a libertarian, was aghast that Pope Francis would say such a thing and even went on to suggest that the Pope was, in effect, blaming the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

Of course the Pope was saying no such thing. He was merely echoing Church teaching that we are not "free" to do what is evil. Indeed the Church teaches that choosing evil is an abuse of freedom and that true freedom must serve that which is just and good. By choosing evil, a person rejects freedom and accepts the slavery of sin [CCC 1733]. The Pope is merely saying that there are moral limits to all freedom, including freedom of speech. The staff of Charlie Hebdo abused their freedom of speech by printing slurs against all religions, not just Islam. This, however, in no way mitigates the guilt of those terrorists who chose a far greater evil when they committed mass murder. The Pope was not excusing the terrorists; he was merely answering a question about the limits to freedom of speech. I think sometimes, when he speaks off-the-cuff, a poor choice of words can lead to misunderstandings, but since I'm just a deacon and he's the Pope I'll forgo any criticism beyond this one comment.

Getting back to our libertarian TV pundit, it would seem he and the Islamist terrorist have at least one thing in common: unlike the Pope, they both think and act at the extremes. The Islamist terrorist despises any thought of freedom of speech, and through acts of terror strives to intimidate all others, forcing them to think and say only that which conforms to his jihadist strain of Islam. To him freedom of speech is anathema. The libertarian plants himself at the opposite extreme and believes freedom of speech includes the license to say (and in most instances do) anything whatsoever. Interestingly, both view the issue from a legalistic perspective: one from the standpoint of a strict interpretation of sharia law and the other from an unrestrained interpretation of the First Amendment to our Constitution. 

The Pope, however, views freedom from a moral, rather than a legal, perspective. And that which is legal is not necessarily moral...and vice versa. Abortion, infanticide -- And what is late-term abortion other than infanticide? -- physician assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, and a whole range of other immoral behaviors are quite legal in many states and nations. But the fact that they are legal under man's law does not make them moral under God's law. And for us Christians, morality trumps legality.

The state, therefore, will often legalize and even encourage immoral behavior and punish moral behavior. When we turn to the New Testament we find these issues well defined. First of all, we are instructed to obey lawful authority, perhaps most clearly by St. Paul in Romans, chapter 13:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" [Rom 13:1-6].

This is reaffirmed by St. Peter in his First Letter:

"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor" [1 Pet 2:13-17].
Note, however, that Peter instructs us not to use our "freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God." And so our current Pope is in tune with our first Pope. Freedom has its limits. We must honor and obey lawful authority but only insofar as it does not command that which is evil.

It is Jesus Himself who articulates the principle most succinctly when he tells the Pharisees and Herodians to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" [Mk 12:17]. Here Jesus is declaring that there are boundaries that define our obedience to human authority. When man trespasses on that which is God's -- e.g., when he permits the taking of innocent life through abortion or infanticide -- he must no longer be obeyed. Once again St. Peter comes to our aid to ensure we understand the ramifications of resisting the state when it demands obedience to that which is immoral:

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God" [1 Pet 4:12-16].
Meriam Ibrahim receives Pope Francis' blessing after her release from a Somali prison

Given how Christians are being persecuted throughout the world today, we should pay particular attention to these words of our first Pope who gave His life for the Faith. Just as we should listen to Pope Francis who has repeatedly stated that the ongoing persecution of Christians will serve to unite us in ways that other ecumenical efforts have not:
“Today the blood of Jesus, poured out by many Christian martyrs in various parts of the world, calls us and compels us towards the goal of unity. For persecutors, we Christians are all one!”
Pray for persecuted Christians.

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