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n anticipation of tonight’s Erasmus lecture by Archbishop Chaput, and for those who aren’t familiar with his writings, here is a short essay by him at Public Discourse two months ago that lays out a particular pressure suffered by faithful at the current time. It is the role of law in their religious observance, or rather, the conflict between the two.

Natural law supports God’s design, Chaput maintains, and when “human laws” follow it, we have a civic field that maintains the “moral order” of creation. This is where law becomes “positive,” not a restriction of liberty but an orientation toward the truth (which makes us more free than we are without those restraints).

Liberalism’s founding premise runs against that principle, of course. Its “just-leave-others-alone” dogma casts law in negative terms, as a protection of others from your impositions. It ostensibly holds that law can be divorced from morality once this do-no-harm stricture is in place.

Here is Chaput’s comment on that position:

We often hear the claim that we shouldn’t press for laws that impose our morality on others. But no one really believes that kind of argument because it makes no sense. In practice, all law involves imposing certain moral claims on other people. Persons who support permissive abortion or same-sex unions, for example, are very comfortable in coercing the public through the courts and lawmaking process. As Christians we should be equally comfortable—and even more zealous—in defending the human person and advancing human dignity through legislative and judicial means.

That said, the American Jesuit thinker John Courtney Murray rightly warned that if we try to give everything that’s morally good the force of the law, people will sooner or later start to think that whatever is legal is also moral. In other words, laws can’t solve all our moral problems. Rather, Murray concludes, laws should seek ‘to establish and maintain only that minimum of actualized morality that is necessary for the healthy functioning of the social order.’ Beyond this, a nation must look to other, non-legal institutions in civil society to maintain its moral standards.

Chaput places the extraordinary changes in American law in recent years precisely in a non-legal sphere, a “new, unfriendly cultural consensus.” The root values of that consensus stem from a belief about human nature, man and/in the universe: “an unhealthy overemphasis on the power of the human will.”

That’s not a legal principle; it’s a religious/ethical/philosophical one. What is needed, then, are forceful counter-arguments and -ideas, alternative images, stories and characters that reveal it’s falsity. Chaput (citing Alasdair MacIntyre) advises Christians to “create parishes, seminaries, clubs, colleges, and families that are real schools of sanctification.” This is how Christians can influence culture, which will break the current cultural consensus and give us a positive law once more that reflects better the heavenly city to which we aspire.

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