Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tolkien's gulls and doomed elves

            The following is a philosophical reflection on a theme that I think addresses both philosophical and spiritual apathy. Much has recently resurfaced about Tolkien’s views on marriage and death, and as Tolkien’s works have played a formative role in my life, I am seizing the opportunity to add a small reflection. I also use this opportunity to introduce and post Plato's cave analogy, as it appears in the Republic.

If a reader of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings pays attention, he comes across a strange phenomenon that occurs to the character Legolas. When the three companions reunite with Gandalf following the latter’s return, Gandalf gives a message to Legolas from Galadriel:
‘Legolas Greenleaf long under tree
In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.'[1]

            These words he considered ‘dark,’ and ‘spoke openly about [his] death.’ Finally, after the battle at the Pelanor, we come across the following passage:
‘Look!’ he (Legolas) cried. ‘Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelagrir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! For the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.’
‘Say not so!’ said Gimli. ‘There are countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do. But if all the fair folk take to the Havens, it will be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay.’[2]

            Contrary to Peter Jackson’s films, which interpret the elves’ Middle-earth departure as a kind of humanistic passing of the Middle-earth torch to men, for which I think there is little evidence in Tolkien’s legendarium, the elves’ desire to leave Middle-earth constitutes early on the weakness Sauron employs to create the One Ring and enslave Middle-earth in the first place. Within Tolkien’s legends, as explained in The Silmarillion, when Morgoth was assailed and defeated by the Valar host, the elves were summoned or strongly counseled to leave Middle-earth and return into the west, there to be at peace. Middle-earth, and particularly Beleriand, had been laid waste; many of Morgoth’s monsters and servants (such as the orcs, balrogs, dragons, and Sauron) remained, and Middle-earth was changing. The elves, unlike men, were immortal and were bound inherently to the earth, suffering its change and decay; while they lived in Middle-earth the elves knew a deep and abiding sadness. Ultimately, Sauron exploits this weakness; and, with his aid and counsel the elves forge the Rings of Power for the preservation of Middle-earth from change and decay, are betrayed by Sauron, and everything else unfolds creating a prelude to the events in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
            We return to Legolas. He has known a kind of bliss in his forest home, but the gulls stir in him a deeper longing for the sea. This longing is ‘perilous,’ such that he can no longer find rest or contentment in the world he now inhabits. Eventually, the elves grow weary of the world and depart.
           
            This is a real phenomenon, one that philosophers, and especially religious persons, have written tirelessly about. Buried deep within every human being is a deep longing, a nostalgic-like desire, that when uncovered forever unsettles the person. Si oblitus fuero tui Jerusalem, oblivioni detur dextera mea. (‘If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither’).[3] The psalm describes the nostalgia of the those exiled for their homeland of Jerusalem; yet it describes well the high spiritual and intellectual longing of the human being. If the psalmist loses this longing, he loses his right hand, namely, he loses the best of his dignity and his skill. What is best in him, that in which his greatest joy consists is Jerusalem. If that goes, he loses the best of himself and with it the capacity for greater joy.
            To many, philosophers are hopelessly abstracted from the ‘real world,’ and religious persons are fanatical, deluded, or according to some suffer a neurological disorder. In some cases, especially if the very real difference between superstition and religion is considered, there are religious persons who fit this description. There are also philosophers who have profoundly lost a grip on reality, however, some apathetic, naturalists, and atheists suggest this is the norm.
Yet in fact, it is the intellectually or spiritually apathetic person who has not really lived. Only he who has not stirred within himself the concept of the good is not disturbed by its absence. Only he who has seen only the shadows on the wall can laugh at the philosopher who suggests that there is something beyond the shadow.
To stir in the human intellect the desire to know God is, like the sounding of Tolkien’s gulls, in a way fatal to the human being. It does not cause death of the sort that is inevitable, where the physical body perishes. Rather, it causes the death of a worldly joy. This is similar to the feeling of a man who has fallen in love, where all the delights of the world grow dim and gray in comparison to the simple but profound desire to be with the beloved. The person dies in the sense that he loses his capacity to find final joy and happiness in the world, and by contemplating the divine stirs within himself a restlessness never to depart unless graced with the Beatific Vision.
Ultimately this is an interpretation like the one argued for by Plato’s cave analogy. If you haven’t read it, it is a must, and I provided the passage below. Plato speaks well to the ridicule those ‘doomed’ by this perilous stirring experience from the world.
            Many tell us, especially socialists, the sexual liberationists, or those like-minded, that we are distracted by fantasies and delusions from making life better on earth. By this they usually mean increasing for everyone the pleasures and nice experiences this brief life provides and eliminating suffering and other forms of displeasure.
            But if some experience has stirred this longing in you, the doom of the human being who cannot apart from grace achieve the deepest of his heart’s desires, you know you cannot be contented with the pleasures and good experiences of this life, however profound. You, like a freed prisoner in Plato’s analogy, pity those who ridicule you for your apparent delusions and foolishness. They do not understand you. You desire increasingly that they also understand, and you wish to help them stir this doom. Without a death to that capacity whereby you can final rest in the world of sense, you cannot find the joy of the Beatific Vision. Mystics, especially John of the Cross, have commented on how to seek a kind of darkness in the world of sense, but this is another (important) topic that takes this as its point of departure.
            Like the psalmist's right hand, this doom represents what is best and noblest of the human person. It is a death and a doom to a lower joy, but it is a prelude to an even greater bliss. Once stirred, such restlessness cannot be shaken, even if the higher joy is rejected for some lower worldly good.
            Eventually, I think, one becomes weary of this restlessness. Either they are led to a kind of moral despair (common in our culture) or a post-modern intellectual one (which is the basis for a kind of agnosticism), or they reject the world and its joys and attend to God.
           

            Here below I will now provide Plato’s cave, which I think is frequently and foolishly interpreted along the epistemic premises of The Matrix, rather than the pursuit of wisdom that Plato advocated. The analogy comes from Plato’s Republic wherein Socrates describes the cave to Glaucon.
            I think that Tolkien had Plato’s cave particularly in mind when he conjured the elves’ Firstly, the Isle of the Blessed that Plato references is without doubt the inspiration of Tol Eressëa, the western isle in which the elves settle after they depart Middle-earth. Secondly, even if more remotely, the One Ring is speculated to be inspired by the Ring of Gyges, found in Book II of the Plato’s Republic (whereas the cave is Book VII), which conferred invisibility to its holder.

Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cave-like dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.
    I’m imagining it.
   Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it —statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.
    It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.
   They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?
    How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?
    What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them
    Of course.
    And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?
    They’d have to.
    And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?
    I certainly do.
    Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.
    They must surely believe that.
    Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now—because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more—he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?
    Much truer.
    And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s been shown?
    He would.
    And if someone dragged him away form there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?
   He would be unable to see them, at least at first.
    I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.
    Of course.
    Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.
    Necessarily so.
    And at this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.
    It’s clear that would be his next step.
    What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?
    Certainly.
    And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?
    I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.
    Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes—coming suddenly out of the sun like that —be filled with darkness?
    They certainly would.
    And before his eyes had recovered—and the adjustment would not be quick—while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, would he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? And, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?
    They certainly would.
    This whole image, Glaucon, must be fitted together with what we said before. The visible realm should be likened to the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm, you’ll grasp what I hope to convey, since that is what you want to hear about. Whether it’s true or not, only the god knows. But this is how I see it: In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.
    I have the same thought, at least as far as I’m able.
    Come, then, share with me this thought also: It isn’t surprising that the ones who get to this point are unwilling to occupy themselves with human affairs and that their souls are always pressing upwards, eager to spend their time above, for, after all, this is surely what we’d expect, if indeed things fit the image I described before.
    It is.
    What about what happens when someone turns from divine study to the evils of human life? Do you think it’s surprising, since his sight is still dim, that he hasn’t yet become accustomed to the darkness around him, that he behaves awkwardly and appears completely ridiculous if he’s compelled, either in courts or elsewhere, to contend about the shadows of justice or the statues of which they are the shadows and to dispute about the way these things are understood by people who have never seen justice itself?
   That’s not surprising at all.
   No, it isn’t. But anyone with an understanding would remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light. Realizing that the same applies to the soul, when someone sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something, he won’t laugh mindlessly, but he’ll take into consideration whether it has come from a brighter life and is dimmed through not having yet become accustomed to the dark or whether it has come from greater ignorance into greater light and is dazzled by the increased brilliance. Then he’ll declare the first soul happy in its experience and life, and he’ll pity the latter—but even if he chose to make fun o f it, at least he’d be less ridiculous than if he laughed at a soul that has come from the light above.
    What you say is very reasonable.
    If that’s true, then here’s what we must think about these matters. Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes.
    They do say that.
    But our present discussion, on the other hand, shows that the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and that the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good. Isn’t that right?
    Yes.
    Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately.
    So it seems.
    Now, it looks as though the other so-called virtues of the soul are akin to those of the body, for they really aren’t there beforehand and are added later by habit and practice. However, the virtue of reason seems to belong above all to something more divine, which never loses its power but is either useful and beneficial or useless and harmful, depending on the way it is turned. Or have you never noticed this about people who are said to be vicious but clever, how keen the vision of their little souls is and how sharply it distinguishes the things it is turned towards? This shows that its sight isn’t inferior but rather is forced to serve evil ends, so that the sharper it sees, the more evil it accomplishes.
    Absolutely.
    However, if a nature of this sort had been hammered at from childhood and freed from the bonds of kinship with becoming, which would have been fastened to it by feasting, greed, and other such pleasures and which, like leaden weights, pull its vision downwards—if, being rid of these, it turned to look at true things, then I say that the same soul of the same person would see these most sharply, just as it now does the things it is presently turned towards.
   Probably so.
   And what about the uneducated who have no experience of truth? Isn’t it likely—indeed, doesn’t it follow necessarily from what was said before—that they will never adequately govern a city? But neither would those who’ve been allowed to spend their whole lives being educated. The former would fail because they don’t have a single goal at which all their actions, public and private, inevitably aim; the latter would fail because they’d refuse to act, thinking that they had settled while still alive in the faraway Isles of the Blessed.
    What’s that?
    To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less worth or of greater.
    Then are we to do them an injustice by making them live a worse life when they could live a better one?
    You are forgetting again that it isn’t the law’s concern to make any one class in the city outstandingly happy but to contrive to spread happiness throughout the city by bringing the citizens into harmony with each other through persuasion or compulsion and by making them share with each other the benefits that each class can confer on the community. The law produces such people in the city, not in order to allow them to turn whatever direction they want, but to make use of them to bind the city together.[4]





[1] II. 106
[2] III. 149-150.
[3] Ps. 137:5.
[4] Plato’s Republic 7.514a-520a: transl. by G.M.A. Reeve.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The triple tiara and the temporal polity

One of my major preoccupations is the reconciliation of at least seemingly incongruent pieces or patches of thought in search of their common truths. I hold it a moral as well as an intellectual exercise: by balancing the meaning and internal logic of various sources the thinker strengthens his cerebral muscle tone, yet it is moral because it is a most certain way to discerning truth. I want to do that here, and so I will begin with the two protagonists above in my title with perhaps the two statements that would most provoke the other.

At the now unused Papal Coronation rite practiced until 1963 and first discontinued by Pope John Paul I, the Cardinal Protodeacon would place the triregnum over the freshly elected pontiff's brow intoning:
Accipe tiarum tribus coronis ornatam, et scias te esse patrem principum et regum, rectorem orbis in terra vicarium Salvatoris nostri Jesu Christi, cui est honor et gloria in saecula saeculorum. 
Accept the tiara decorated by three crowns, and know yourself to be the father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world and the vicar on earth of our Savior Jesus Christ, Whose is honor and glory for all ages.
Let us contrast this ritual proclamation with the address of then Sen. John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association now mostly accepted, and for the greater part rightly so:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.   
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. 

I doubt I need to explain the obviously apparent contrast in claims between that of the bishop of Rome as ruler of the world and Kennedy's claim as a Head of State to withhold civil allegiance to him or any prelate. I do intend to repudiate the natural claim that these two entirely or even mostly exclude the other. Pleasurably do I correlatively repudiate both civil and religious fundamentalism, namely that expressed on the one hand by former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum who claimed rereading Kennedy’s words “made him sick” and the late Christopher Hitchens’s claim that religion and theocracy are conceptually and in substance the same thing.

To help secure success in these matters, I limit my ambition. I am not suggesting the Papal Coronation ought to return. The triregnum was abandoned by Blessed Paul VI; John Paul I refused coronation, and Benedict XVI left the crown from his heraldry altogether. I claim neither that all of Kennedy’s words in his address were precise nor as precise as I hope to make them here. I am less interested too in the entire history of the triregnum, upon which like many liturgical, civil, and other regalia, meanings and symbolisms are sometimes imposed a posteriori. I am not interested here in the offenses of religions and states, many of which I a Catholic would hardly deny; I suggest rather an ideal to secure greater liberty to individuals and polities that I claim results from a resolution between these two pronouncements.

There ultimately is a lesson here. Sensitive as we are to authority, especially concerning religion, morality, and democracy, it is too easy to devolve into fundamentalism. Frustration at the challenges of intellectual rigor posed by values dear to us provokes this devolution, and we are the worse for it. Ultimately we must play the diplomacy of ideas. We desire, most of all, freedom from tyranny, religious liberty, freedom of conscience, democracy, and the like, and these desires force us to mitigate between them. Unlike diplomatic compromise; however, often the corruption of one idea elicits corruption in the other. Ultimately sacrificing one of these to the altar of another results in sacrificing both to attain none. We are fools if we do not see this, and we are greater fools if we blindly cast off this intellectual burden and accuse reasoning interlocutors of trying to deceive us.


The dispelling of tyranny is the major preoccupation of those who, in writing constitutions, distribute political powers. The fear thereof issues many of our own preoccupations; the threat of tyranny in its various forms motivates many of our political acts. Tyranny does not lie within the reach of strict definitions as do some other terms, but many would define it as an unjust and unchecked overreach of a ruler who by so doing oppresses the whole or a group under his power.

Some suppose wrongly that mere democracy solves this problem. This supposition happily is lessoning, yet the fundamental error is strengthening in its adherents. Democracy cannot on its own dissolve or prevent tyranny, as evinced by the parties of National Socialism elected into power in the 1920s and 30s, because majority rule might always oppress some minority or otherwise err. Those who step back from this error, however, often attempt to alleviate by problem merely by giving a megaphone to various minorities.

France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen succinctly expresses this this error when in Article 6 it says, La loi est l’expression de la volunté général: The law is the expression of the general will. We rightly contrast with an earlier and erroneous opinion that law is the expression of the opinion of some monarch. Indeed as a believer in democracy I admit its procedural verity, but as to the essence of la loi I cannot assent to the theory that the law is just what we want to do and apply as a polity upon ourselves.

To be fair, Article 2 asserts that the goal of a polity is the preservation of certain rights, particularly liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression. If so, then the law is not merely an expression of the general will, but an entity with a purpose. Just as the general will may be good or bad: so too the law.

Thus if someone else asserts that the general will keeps those in power accountable, we ought not say that they are merely accountable for representing the general will. If the general will is bad, we would have no means by which to call the law bad. An unjust or otherwise bad law can still represent well the general will, so the law that does this is in fact good. Thus the general will should keep lawmakers accountable to something else. But Article 2 is upon consideration rather vague in what it offers. This is illustrated well if we give them their popular meanings. If liberty is the capacity to do what one wishes without threat of violence, we would without quarrel accept that the law can limit liberty (which is what the law does). Does the law limit property, sure. Safety: you can be thrown in prison, your goods suspect, your actions can place perfectly acceptable legal threats on your the very safety, etc. Any lawbreaker might feel oppressed when held to account for his crimes.

This is not to say these are hopelessly vague; rather to save them we must assert some sort of natural order or natural law to these things. So we could say that democracy is a factor that keeps the rulers accountable to the natural law. If laws violate the natural law, that law is unjust (or following Augustine: no law at all). Yet there are more political machinations that keep polities accountable, within which I argue, democracy fits. There are also the balance of powers and the freedom of speech.


Let us back away from this discussion temporarily and refocus attention to the triregnum, about which John Paul II in his inaugural homily said it was, "an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes." Thus we should say that the triregnum is a symbol of spiritual authority, which above the Roman Pontiff no temporal person can possess. Yet this does not mean that he necessarily has temporal power over other princes and kings.

Jesus Himself affirms the temporal authority of the Roman prefect to whom He said, 'You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.' (John 19:11). Wrongly would one interpret this under the manner of the Divine Right of Kings; rather, we should interpret this saying that all power is from God: to exercise any authority or power wrongly is to offend God Who is that power's sole claimant. Not only does one in authority bear an account to God for how well he keeps to the natural law, instilled in him by nature, but for the laws he promulgates by any power vested in him, which power is the sole right of God Himself.

It is clear, at least for a Catholic, that the highest spiritual authority possessed by any temporal person is vested in the bishop of Rome, who himself must also give an account to God, for that authority is Christ's and Christ's alone. Other prelates possess lesser degrees of this spiritual authority and over certain jurisdictions, or certain dicasteries that in the name of Christ's vicar on earth exercise papal authority. These prelates do not possess temporal authority by any Divine right, however, and while it is clear that while someone must possess temporal authority, no one else possesses it by any kind of Divine right.

Yet both spiritual and temporal authority, possessing different functions, are bound by the natural law. We must assert the separation of Church and state not primarily because of freedom of religion, of which every human person is a claimant, but because as much as possible spiritual and temporal authority are different things. This is true on a more micro-level in government, divided into that which legislates, that which executes laws, and that which judges cases according to law. To check these natural powers, our own constitution divides these into branches executed by different elected groups who hold non-overlapping offices. Following this model then, temporal authority should not exercise spiritual authority, and vice versa (excepting, for the protection of this separation, Vatican City State).

Yet each, to repeat myself, is bound by a natural order and answerable to God. One can witness against the other and hold the other accountable to the natural law. No pope or any prelate ought violate the natural law: none should incite their congregations to violence, abuse children, etc. About those checks spiritual authority applies to those temporal powers, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in 2010 at Westminster Hall, said the following:

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.  
Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.

To answer the issue raised by then Sen. Kennedy, neither the POTUS, nor any person of temporal authority, is answerable to the will of any spiritual authority. Yet as the natural law is shared by both temporal, spiritual authority, and by all persons, that which issues from the dictates of reason and concerning which all men and all persons of authority are answerable to God, both temporal and spiritual powers can possess a corrective and illuminative role on the other.

What then does it say about us when we are alarmed when bishops protest injustices by the state? When bishops excommunicate politicians who legalize abortion and euthanasia, who change the nature of marriage, etc.?

It is by nature, remember, that we are free. By following a natural order, we remain free, and by passing laws respecting the natural order we create legal protections for that freedom. A person is most free when he possesses the virtuous habits whereby he regulates his appetites to an order following the dictates of reason: prudence, whereby he gives to others what he owes and acquires what is owed to him: justice, whereby he commands his own passions: fortitude, and finally whereby he regulates his own sensual appetites: temperance. The free state is the just one, as the state and her laws concern relations between persons. A just law respects nature, for the nature of a person in a way is the person, and any person, entity, or law that does violence to a person's nature does violence to the person. We suppose that any inalienable rights of the person are by definition had by nature.

But what of these bishops? Who will rid us of these meddlesome priests? What of our consigning the violation of religious freedom to these men? What do we do, really, when we insist in order to not be oppressed by religion and her morality, the natural law, have no place in civil law? Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! we cry, democracy! Freedom from religion! no ascetic priest can impose his moral code upon our heads! Revolution! The people's rule! Etcetera, etcetera! — This is to say our (for now) democratic laws are not bound by the natural law. It does not matter whether they are just or not, so long as they reflect the will of the people. When we shuffle off the coil of the natural law, it can be said that we no longer live in a free society. A state that claims the right, contra natura, to be one where you can kill unborn children, kill the elderly, change the nature of marriage, oppress the poor, etc. is not free. We are the rulers, but we the rulers are restrained by nothing: not nature, not justice, not God.

We do not accept the checks and corrections of religion not because we do not want any spiritual authority as our temporal one, but because we the rulers do not want to account to the natural law. We are hardly fighting oppression: we are embracing it.