Last week I spent three days meeting with the priests and bishop of the diocese of Springfield, Illinois. The theme of the meetings was "Catholics in the Public Square." The planners of the meetings had decided to devote Monday evening and Tuesday morning to "right to life" issues, Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning and evening to race relations issues, and Thursday morning to immigration issues. The afternoons were free.
The opening address on Monday night was given by George Weigel, a writer best known for his two biographies of Pope John Paul II, and closely associated with the journal First Things. He based his address on John Courtney Murray's 1960 book, We Hold These Truths. He observed that Murray's thought was central to the declaration on religious freedom of the Second Vatican Council. He drew from Murray's book four themes, supporting Pope Benedict's claim that our world is threatened by moral relativism.
What surprised me was that he made no mention of the one thing that stays in my mind from my own reading and study of the book 50 years ago: the concept of "articles of peace." Murray maintained that the genius of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is that it is a pair of "articles of peace." The framers of the Amendment realized that the citizens of this new nation might never agree on ideas, but that the law could provide a framework in which they would at least not be at war with one another. This is what religious liberty means. I may not agree at all with what you say, but I will not use force to get you to agree with my thinking.
That line of thought, of course, is central to Murray's contribution to the Council. It is not a statement of moral relativism. It is a statement that, given the conflicted nature of most political life today, the best policy is for the state not to try to enforce or support a particular set of religious beliefs. Murray's statement is itself an example of what traditional theologians would call natural law.
Without the text of Weigel's address in hand, it is difficult for me to evaluate the address in detail, but it seems to me that part of his approach was an attack on "postmodern" thinking. Pope Benedict seems to have that thinking in mind when he talks about moral relativism.
The term "postmodern" has a certain public relations aura--one who uses it can claim an advantage over someone who is merely "modern." My understanding of the term comes from a selection of postmodern authors I have read for my course in sociological theory. I see the term as having two claims, one intellectual and one emotional. The intellectual claim is that all human knowledge is mediated by the cultural context of language. This is not a new idea to sociology--it was expressed already in the 1960s by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's book The Social Construction of Reality. The emotional claim is based on a critique of oppressive trends in so much of modern history. That claim says that any statement that something is true conceals a hidden desire for domination on the part of the speaker. The critique sounds very much like a denial of all truth, and as such can certainly be criticized as moral relativism. I don't see it as moral relativism. I see it as a clumsy way of saying "people who use truth-claims as a means of oppression are morally guilty." To grab the attention of readers, the overly-dramatic sentence is added, "Therefore truth should not and does not exist." The writer goes overboard.
Weigel, I presume, was using a statement that we are moving toward moral relativism as the foundation of his position on how society should deal with abortion. He would say that people who argue against a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion are guilty of moral relativism.
I have been critical of the term "natural law," because in social science it is considered a copout. "Nature" is the opposite of "nurture," and one should not pre-judge whether something is "natural" or is the result of learning. However, the term "natural" can be just another term for what Emile Durkheim called "social fact." There are some things in society that will hit you in the face regardless of what you think about them. If you try to go out of your house without clothes on, things will happen to you. This is an example of a social fact.
The real issue is not whether or not there is such a thing as natural law. The issue is: "how do you know something is 'natural?'"
Weigel stressed Murray's use of the term "self-evident." "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The social scientist asks, "how do you know a truth is self-evident?"
Let me use abortion as an example. Is it self-evident that abortion is against natural law?
Weigel cited the Hippocratic Oath as evidence that abortion has always been seen as evil. "Always having been seen as evil" is perhaps the most compelling argument that something is against natural law. Notice that this is at bottom an argument based on public opinion. Another argument used against abortion is that it not only kills the infant but harms the mother. But an argument that something is harmful seems to me to be an argument based on utilitarian criteria.
Tell me if I am philosophically naive. It seems to me that all statements that something is against natural law are grounded either in a claim that people have always considered it bad or that bad things happen when you do it. There may be other understandings, based on things like Plato's cave, but those understandings are for the philosophically sophisticated. Natural law should not require a degree in philosophy before one understands it.
Weigel could have developed the point that most people are not actively pro-abortion. His statement about the Hippocratic Oath implies such a point. He could find poll data to support that assertion. He did not develop the point, I assume, because then he would have to account for the fact that most people also think that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances.
Most people see abortion as an evil. The political issue is, what should society do about it? The pro-choice position is not, as some pro-life activists argue, a euphemism for pro-abortion. It is a sincere claim that it is better to let the choice of whether or not to have an abortion up to the woman rather than to the state.
Is it natural law that the state should make abortion illegal? That is far less "self-evident" than the statement that abortion itself is evil. When 80% of the population, including 80% of the Catholic population, say that a woman should be able to have a legal abortion under certain circumstances, it certainly does not seem self-evident that allowing legal abortion is against natural law.
Public opinion should not determine morality. It should not, but it does.
Some pro-life proponents appeal to slavery and abolitionism as a parallel to the abortion debate today. Pro-life defenders are the modern abolitionists. But this argument cuts both ways. If slavery were against natural law, how is it that Archbishop England of Charleston, South Carolina could write a series of letters to the U.S. Secretary of State in 1840 stating that "no Catholic Church authority has ever condemned slavery"? Archbishop England was wrong, but no U.S. bishop, North or South, challenged his statement at the time. Public opinion at his time determined the morality of slavery.
Is racism against natural law? If it is, how is it that the Church has been so slow to condemn it?
A second address dealing with right-to-life issues featured Vicki Thorn, the woman who began "Project Rachel," a program to support women and men who have been involved in procuring abortions. Part of her address focused on physiological effects of each pregnancy that a woman and her partner experience, even though the effects are so subtle that neither partner may be aware of them. As a result, the experience of abortion has lasting effects on both the woman and the man involved, and continues in the children born to either.
Her address raised again for me a question that bothered me in the early 1990s. How is it that "secular" science and the claims of women such as this woman are in such disagreement? Just a few weeks ago I read that another set of scientific studies had definitively proved that abortion has no negative effects on women who have abortions.
The disagreement between the claim that abortion is not harmful and the witness of people involved in Project Rachel is very troubling. It should trouble anyone concerned about the truth claims of scientific statements. It calls into question the entire scientific enterprise. The social science community needs to get to the bottom of it.
The strength of social science research is that it listens to the voices of representative samples of people. The weakness of such research is that questions on a survey are often not able to probe some of the deeper complexities of the way people experience their lives. Furthermore, studies that follow people over long periods of time are expensive and rare, and yet, in dealing with an issue like the effects of abortion, such studies are necessary. There is still a lot of work to be done before we can definitively say what happens to the men, women, and children affected by abortion decisions.