During the eight and a half years I lived in Rome, I witnessed a visible culture shift in the values of the local society. My first year or two there, it was common place on any given weekend to see families picnicking in Villa Doria Pamphili Park, or out shopping together on a Saturday afternoon. But as the years passed, it was too evident that the family life of the city seemed to be getting lost, and I wondered, “where did the families go?”
It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens, that a society finds itself looking around wondering, “how did we get here?”, despite warnings from those around them that were voicing the alarm that went unheard.
Today, we hear a lot being discussed about the degradation of our American values, and many are asking this very question, “how did we get here?” and “Was it something that happened overnight, or did we too have voices pointing to the signs, that we simply chose to ignore?”
The central part of the answer to these questions is addressed by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in his discourse on the defense of human dignity at the University of Pennsylvania last November. His discourse was built around four points.
Man’s Special Dignity.
…the whole idea of “moral witness” comes from the assumption that good and evil are real, and that certain basic truths about humanity don’t change. These truths are knowable and worth defending. One of these truths is the notion of man’s special dignity as a creature of reason and will. Man is part of nature, but also distinct from it…. But the greatest difference between humans and other animals is the grave. Only man buries his dead. Only man knows his own mortality. And knowing that he will die, only man can ask where he came from, what his life means, and what comes after it…When Christians and other people of good will talk about “the dignity of the human person” and “the sanctity of human life,” they’re putting into words what we all instinctively know—and have known for a very long time. Something elevated and sacred in men and women demands our special respect…We live in a society that speaks persuasively about protecting the environment and rescuing species on the brink of extinction. But then it tolerates the killing of unborn children and the abuse of human fetal tissue as lab material.
Beware of Technology without Moral Compass.
Science and technology have expanded human horizons and improved human life in vital ways over the last century. They’ve also, at times, done the opposite…Knowledge without the virtues of wisdom, prudence, and, above all, humility to guide it is not just unhelpful. It’s dangerous. Goethe’s poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—which some of us probably know from the Mickey Mouse cartoon based on it—sticks in our memories for a reason. We’re never as smart as we think we are, and we have a bad track record when it comes to preventing the worst uses of our own best discoveries.
Science involves the study of the material world. But human beings are more than the sum of their material processes. Trying to explain the human person with thinking that excludes the reality of the spiritual, the dignity of the religious, and the possibility of God simply cripples both the scientist and the subject being studied—man himself.
In other words, scientists too often have a divided heart: a sincere desire to serve man’s knowledge, and a sincere disdain for what they see as the moral and religious delusions of real men and women. If this doesn’t make us just a little bit uneasy, it should. Both faith and science claim to teach with a special kind of authority. One of the differences is this. Most religious believers accept, at least in theory, that they’ll be judged by the God of justice for their actions. For science, God is absent from the courtroom.
God is not mentioned in the Constitution, but not because He’s unwelcome.
In effect, God suffused the whole constitutional enterprise. Nearly all the Founders were religious believers, and some were quite devout. Their writings are heavily influenced by biblical language, morality, and thought.
America could afford to be secular in the best sense, precisely because its people were so religious. The Founders saw religious faith as something separate from government but vital to the nation’s survival. In his Farewell Address, Washington famously stressed that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” for political prosperity. He added that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” For John Adams, John Jay, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Carroll, George Washington, and most of the other Founders—including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—religion created virtuous citizens. And only virtuous citizens could sustain a country as delicately balanced in its institutions, moral instincts, and laws as the United States.
Here’s my purpose in mentioning this. The American Founders presumed the existence of natural law and natural rights. These rights are inalienable and guaranteed by a Creator; by “nature’s God,” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Such ideas may be out of fashion in much of legal theory today. But these same ideas are very much alive in the way we actually reason and behave in our daily lives…
The irony is that modern liberal democracy needs religion more than religion needs modern liberal democracy. American public life needs a framework friendly to religious belief because it can’t support its moral claims about freedom and rights with secular arguments alone. In fact, to the degree that it encourages a culture of unbelief, liberal democracy undermines its own grounding. It causes its own decline by destroying the public square’s moral coherence.
Dignity of the Human Person goes beyond Religion.
The pro-life movement needs to be understood and respected for what it is: part of a much larger, consistent, and morally worthy vision of the dignity of the human person. You don’t need to be Christian or even religious to be “pro-life.” Common sense alone is enough to make a reasonable person uneasy about what actually happens in an abortion. The natural reaction, the sane and healthy response, is repugnance…
Rejection of abortion and infanticide was one of the key factors that set the early Christians apart from the pagan world. From the Didache in the First Century through the Early Fathers of the Church, down to our own day, Catholics—and until well into the twentieth century all other Christians—have always seen abortion as gravely evil…
Working against abortion doesn’t license us to ignore the needs of the homeless or the poor, the elderly or the immigrant. It doesn’t absolve us from supporting women who find themselves pregnant or abandoned. All human life, no matter how wounded, flawed, young or old, is sacred because it comes from God. The dignity of a human life and its right to exist are guaranteed by God. Catholic teaching on abortion and sexuality is part of the same integral vision of the human person that fuels Catholic teaching on economic justice, racism, war, and peace.
These issues don’t all have the same content. They don’t all have the same weight. All of them are important, but some are more foundational than others. Without a right to life, all other rights are contingent….Society is not just a collection of sovereign individuals with appetites moderated by the state. It’s a community of interdependent persons and communities of persons; persons who have human obligations to one another, along with their human rights. One of those obligations is to not intentionally kill the innocent. The two pillars of Catholic social teaching are respect for the sanctity of the individual and service to the common good. Abortion violates both.
In the American tradition, people have a right to bring their beliefs to bear on every social, economic, and political problem facing their community. For Christians, that’s not just a privilege. It’s not just a right. It’s a demand of the Gospel…Believers can’t be silent in public life and be faithful to Jesus Christ at the same time. Actively witnessing to our convictions and advancing what we believe about key moral issues in public life is not “coercion.” It’s honesty. It’s an act of truth-telling. It’s vital to the health of every democracy. And again, it’s also a duty—not only of our religious faith, but also of our citizenship.
The University of Pennsylvania’s motto is Leges sine moribus vanae. It means “Laws without morals are useless.” All law has moral content. It’s an expression of what we “ought” to do. Therefore law teaches as well as regulates. Law always involves the imposition of somebody’s judgments about morality on everyone else. That’s the nature of law. But I think the meaning of Penn’s motto goes deeper than just trying to translate beliefs into legislation. Good laws can help make a nation more human; more just; more noble. But ultimately even good laws are useless if they govern a people who, by their choices, make themselves venal and callous, foolish and self-absorbed.
It’s important for our own integrity and the integrity of our country to fight for our pro-life convictions in the public square. Anything less is a kind of cowardice. But it’s even more important to live what it means to be genuinely human and “pro-life” by our actions—fidelity to God; love for spouse and children; loyalty to friends; generosity to the poor; honesty and mercy in dealing with others; trust in the goodness of people; discipline and humility in demanding the most from ourselves.
These things sound like pieties, and that’s all they are—until we try to live them. Then their cost and their difficulty remind us that we create a culture of life to the extent that we give our lives to others. The deepest kind of revolution never comes from violence. Even politics, important as it is, is a poor tool for changing human hearts. Nations change when people change. And people change through the witness of other people—people like each of you reading this. You make the future. You build it stone by stone with the choices you make. So choose life. Defend its dignity and witness its meaning and hope to others. And if you do, you’ll discover in your own life what it means to be fully human.
Please read Archbishop Chaput’s discourse in its entirety here.
The points made by Archbishop Chaput are applicable looking at the fabric of our society as a whole. How has our society changed over the years? Are we living with a moral compass to guide our decisions as individuals and as a nation? Or, are we as a culture beginning to abandon natural law that governs the human heart, despite religious affiliation or lack of one?
The key for the future of our country lies in what our Founders knew, and I believe we are fast approaching a pivotal point of no return. Chaput said, “America could afford to be secular in the best sense, precisely because its people were so religious. The Founders saw religious faith as something separate from government but vital to the nation’s survival. … And only virtuous citizens could sustain a country as delicately balanced in its institutions, moral instincts, and laws as the United States.”
The point of no return will arrive when secularism is no longer reigned in by virtue and an interior disposition of the individual to want to do good for self and for other. Do you see it creeping in?
I pray we will take to heart the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, and reclaim the delicate balance that has made this republic stand for the last 236-plus years, that the culture we create may sustain future generations.
May God be with us all.