At the urging of a couple of friends who had recently read it for the first time, I reread (after about thirty years) Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s modern classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. It was far better than I appreciated its being in my younger days (oh, for a nickel every time I realize how dumb I used to be). Published in 1959, this apocalyptic work of science fiction imagines a very long future in which, after the utter collapse of our present civilization, scientific knowledge and literate culture are preserved by a Catholic monastery. 

In Miller’s future history, familiar struggles recur, including those between church and state. When, many centuries from now, a nuclear weapon is detonated over a population center near our monastery, a medical officer in the public service approaches the abbot about conducting radiation triage on the refugees crowding the old abbey’s courtyard. The doctor has orders to inform the high-dose radiation victims about where they may go to a government-run euthanasia facility. The abbot thinks it over:

“Very well. You need only make me one promise, and you may use the courtyard.”

“What promise?”

“Simply that you won’t advise anyone to go to a ‘mercy camp.’ Limit yourself to diagnosis. If you find hopeless radiation cases, tell them what the law forces you to tell them, be as consoling as you wish, but don’t tell them to go kill themselves.”

The doctor hesitated. “I think it would be proper to make such a promise with respect to patients who belong to your Faith.”

Abbot Zerchi lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said finally, “but that’s not enough.”

Why? Others are not bound by your principles. If a man is not of your religion, why should you refuse to allow—” He choked off angrily.

“Do you want an explanation?

“Yes.”

“Because if a man is ignorant of the fact that something is wrong, and acts in ignorance, he incurs no guilt, provided natural reason was not enough to show him that it was wrong. But while ignorance may excuse the man, it does not excuse the act, which is wrong in itself. If I permitted the act simply because the man is ignorant that it is wrong, then I would incur guilt, because I do know it to be wrong. It is really that painfully simple.”

Maybe it’s just my occupational hazard, but I could not read this without thinking of the HHS mandate controversy. The amazingly wrongheaded argument deployed by the Obama administration against Hobby Lobby, Notre Dame, even the Little Sisters of the Poor, is that they are “imposing their religion” on others who do not share their particular faith or moral beliefs. In Miller’s novel, Abbot Zerchi handily refutes this nonsense. Those whose faith teaches them the truth about right and wrong must live that truth in all they do, and in all their own involvement in what others do under their aegis. And they must be in control of the use of their own resources in this respect—their own property, their own finances, and their own labor—or their religious freedom will not mean much at all.

And it is not just in the HHS mandate controversy that we see this. The recent fiasco in Arizona illustrates the point as well. When the state legislature passed a couple of minor clarifying amendments to a fifteen-year-old statute protecting religious freedom, the media-generated panic about “discrimination” by religious business owners was enough to mau-mau the Republican governor into vetoing the bill. In strict legal terms, the status quo left in place in Arizona is little different from the new conditions the vetoed legislation would have brought about. But politically, the episode was truly malodorous, with the stench arising in roughly equal parts from the mendacity of the bill’s opponents, their deluded self-righteousness, and their ignorance of what religious freedom means. One of the leading journalistic antagonists of the Arizona legislation has gone on record in recent weeks in defense of the Little Sisters of the Poor and their right not to be implicated in insurance coverage for contraceptives, yet this same columnist cannot see that a baker, a florist, or a photographer refusing business to a same-sex couple’s “wedding” is claiming exactly the same freedom claimed by the sisters. There is no difference between them other than the observer’s “gut” sympathies, or lack thereof, for the call of conscience in each case.

But the ability to reason these things through, and to see that the same principle governs claims of conscience in seemingly different settings, appears to be on the wane. Instead we are experiencing something the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, discussed with interviewer Peter Seewald several years ago. Benedict had spoken, in his homily that opened the 2005 conclave that resulted in his own election as pope, of the “dictatorship of relativism.” This is, as many have observed, a paradoxical expression. On the one hand, “relativism” sounds like a judgment against judgments. What could be more easygoing and tolerant? Yet to speak of a “dictatorship” is to identify something harsh and judgmental. “Thou shalt make no claims of truth” is the commandment of this new dictatorship—a rationally unsustainable commandment unless it is itself based on a truth claim, which at the instant of its enunciation becomes self-refuting.

And so, as Benedict remarked to Seewald in the book-length interview Light of the World, “the concept of truth has become suspect,” with the result being the “abolition of tolerance,” and the imposition of legal constraints under which “the Christian faith is no longer allowed to express itself visibly.” Benedict’s own treatment of this “abolition of tolerance” is worth quoting at length:

When, for example, in the name of non-discrimination, people try to force the Catholic Church to change her position on homosexuality or the ordination of women, then that means that she is no longer allowed to live out her own identity and that, instead, an abstract, negative religion is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow. That is then seemingly freedom—for the sole reason that it is liberation from the previous situation.

In reality, however, this development increasingly leads to an intolerant claim of a new religion, which pretends to be generally valid because it is reasonable, indeed, because it is reason itself, which knows all and, therefore, defines the frame of reference that is now supposed to apply to everyone.

In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished; this is a real threat we face. The danger is that reason—so-called Western reason—claims that it has now really recognized what is right and thus makes a claim to totality that is inimical to freedom. I believe that we must very emphatically delineate this danger. No one is forced to be a Christian. But no one should be forced to live according to the “new religion” as though it alone were definitive and obligatory for all mankind.

Benedict is talking about something many of us know who have discussed the problem of relativism with a roomful of college freshmen. That is that no human being who ever lived was actually a moral relativist. Everyone, if pushed, will draw a line somewhere and stand behind it to defend the right as he understands it. “Toleration” itself, whether the authentic kind or the false, must rest on a claim, however limited, to right opinion of some truth about morality. The “relativist” differs from the “absolutist” only in being unwilling to defend his claims on the basis of some commonly accessible reasoning about permanent verities of the human condition. Instead he merely asserts them as the dispensations of “progress” or “history,” as in that most irritating expression, “on the right side of history.” A passion for progress in “liberation” substitutes, in what Benedict called the “new religion,” for reasoning about any principles outside ourselves—which is to say, intrinsic to ourselves—to which we are bound.

And thus do we reach the heart of the paradox in the “dictatorship of relativism.” It is hardly at all about the relativism, and almost all about the dictatorship. It is merely that species of dictatorship most plainly marked by irrationality, evading the discipline of actual thought because its pretensions would be thereby unmasked. If the reader will permit me to quote one final commentator on the question—perhaps a surprising one—here is Leo Strauss in his profound meditation On Tyranny:

The manifest and deliberate collectivization or coordination of thought is being prepared in a hidden and frequently quite unconscious way by the spread of the teaching that all human thought is collective independently of any human effort directed to this end, because all human thought is historical.

There is our passionate “right side of history,” gussied up as a profound teaching. Later, in the conclusion of his exchange on the subject of tyranny with its left-wing Hegelian defender Alexandre Kojève, Strauss writes:

On the basis of Kojève’s presuppositions, unqualified attachment to human concerns becomes the source of philosophic understanding: man must be absolutely at home on earth, he must be absolutely a citizen of the earth, if not a citizen of a part of the inhabitable earth. On the basis of the classical presupposition, philosophy requires a radical detachment from human concerns: man must not be absolutely at home on earth, he must be a citizen of the whole.

Ah, but a citizen of the “whole” what?

To change our vocabulary from Strauss’s philosophy to Benedict’s theology, the Christian must consider himself a citizen of the City of God. This city is brought to our attention by the breaking into history of the Lord who came to tell us that our city, the City of Man in the stream of that history, is not where we will finally be at home. Don’t get too comfortable here, he says, don’t buy into such an “unqualified attachment to human concerns.” Sometimes the “radical detachment” from what a tyrannical “history” clamorously tells us means a painful answering of the call of conscience, a call to utter an obstinate “no” like the refusal of Abbot Zerchi to countenance the counseling of euthanasia.

Sometimes that is the “no” that leads to martyrdom. Sometimes it is much, much easier, just saying “no” to the request to bake a cake—or to arrange for abortifacients in health coverage. Our new dictators will not tolerate such a mild-mannered “no.” The question now is, how many more “yesses” will they demand?

Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Articles by Matthew J. Franck

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