“Court Rules Against Little Sisters of the Poor.” This is a headline that I never expected to read here in the United States, where the very first liberty enumerated in the Bill of Rights, ushering in the fabled U.S. Constitution, is freedom of religion. Is not our country the premier place wherein the primacy of conscience has been indelibly acknowledged as the very first right of every citizen, and, as the anchor of other God-given rights such as speech and assembly?
America did not initiate freedom of religion. On the contrary, freedom of religion created America. The right to embrace and practise religion is God-given; “inalienable” is an apt descriptive. Nor does our Constitution allow judges to define fundamentally what religion entails, as some claim. If the Little Sisters of the Poor deem that the restrictions placed upon them by virtue of Obamacare regulations – in this instance, the burden of “signing off” coverage of abortion and/or contraception in a manner that they insist renders them complicit in repugnant areas of ethics – their consciences simply must be respected by the State. Haven’t countless men and women already given their lives or health to safeguard innate religious rights?
Secular authority is, of course, incompetent to define (or to describe) authentic religion. But the State keeps trying to do so, even to the point of trampling on religion. The Roman orator Cicero’s understanding of religion is as good as any pagan philosopher could articulate; namely, that religion pertains to the human being’s obligations toward the God who creates and sustains all reality. Hence, religion is much more than worship or adoration; much more than ritual. Not at all; religion entails the performance of certain duties, the sum of which constitutes a moral code. One cannot be said to be genuinely religious unless one is committed to ethical action as well as belief.
A truly religious person, therefore, is a moral or ethical person. A moral person is one who has embraced and practises perennial values whose categories originally were classified through analyzing the natural moral law, by the pagan genius Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Pope John Paul II put all of this together in his masterly encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993). Therein he focused on the relationship between religion and morality when the young man asked Jesus about sheer goodness as the key to eternal life. (Mt 19:17; Lk 18:19; Mt 10:18) Jesus’ immediate response teaches the questioner and us (over the centuries) that the inquiry is – in John Paul’s words – “really a religious question.” (Sec 9:3) Moreover, Jesus’ answer also indicates that a truly good life is a life in and for God; hence, morality is a religious issue, since it takes us back, ultimately, to the First Commandment; specifically, adoration of God, in whom all human acts find rectitude.
Hence, without the Gospel, as St. John Paul the Great repeatedly emphasized, “man remains a dramatic question with no adequate answer.” (See, for example, Memory and Identity [Sec. 18]).
The problem today, of course, is that mankind has largely turned away from Christ and the Gospel. Besides persistent efforts to deny Christ, we live in a climate of an “alternate civilization to that built upon Christ and the Gospel.” And it is a civilization which is at least positivistic and agnostic, since – as John Paul insisted – “it is built upon the principle of thinking and acting as if God did not exist.” (Ibid., Sec. 9) Yet to live outside of the reality of God means to “live outside the context of values derived from God.” (Ibid.)
In turning away from Christ and the Gospel, moreover, man has substituted what is useful or personally pragmatic at the moment. This way of assessing what is ethical and what is not was solidified by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued strongly for the obligatory character of moral choices. But, as John Paul points out, he “distanced himself from the only true criteria for those choices.” He did this by wrongly stressing man’s subjective, personal motives for ethical action.
Dostoevsky, probably Russia’s finest philosopher as well as one of the world’s greatest writers, really pulled the rug upon which Kant was standing when he correctly observed that if there is no God, then everything is ethically permissible.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.