The hard road of national renewal

Earlier this fall, I was happy to be one of the initial signatories of “Liberty and Justice for All,” a call for national renewal drafted by scholars concerned about the dangerous deterioration of American public life. The temper of the statement can be discerned from its opening paragraphs and its conclusion:

We stand at the crossroads.

Over the next several years, the noble sentiments and ideas that gave birth to the United States will either be repudiated or reaffirmed. The fateful choice before us will result either in the death of a great hope or a recommitment to an extraordinary political experiment whose full flowering we have yet to realize. The choice will involve either contempt and despair or gratitude and the self-respect worthy of a free people who know long labors lie before them and who proceed with hope toward a dignified future.

In the name of justice and equality, those animated by contempt and despair seek to destroy longstanding but fragile American institutions through which justice and equality can be secured. Destruction of these imperfect but necessary institutions will not hasten the advent of justice and equality but rather accelerate our collapse into barbarism and degradation.

Groups of Americans who today advocate endless racial contempt, who systematically distort our history for political gain, who scapegoat and silence whole groups of citizens, who brazenly justify and advocate violence and the destruction of property invite us not to justice and equality but to an ugly future whose only certainty is fear….

This crisis is acute, and the hour is late. Like our forebears, we aim both to conserve and reform our institutions in light of enduring principles of justice. That is the task of a self-governing people who know they live in an imperfect world yet are not deterred by challenges.

The full statement, which is being endorsed online by men and women across the racial, ethnic, religious, and political spectra of American life, is available here: https://www.realclearfoundation.org/liberty-and-justice-for-all/index.html.

It is worth reading carefully, not least because its resolute yet calm tone clears the mind amidst the dispiriting racket of the most wretched political campaign in living memory. 

“Liberty and Justice for All” should be especially appealing to Catholics serious about the social doctrine of the Church. 

The statement insists that we must treat with each other as mutually responsible individuals, not as embodiments of racial or ideological categories – and thus affirms the first foundational principle of Catholic social doctrine, Christian personalism. The statement suggests that a mature freedom should be lived, not merely for self, but for the common good – the second foundational principle of Catholic social doctrine. The statement challenges the national drift toward concentrations of political and economic power while affirming the importance for a healthy democracy of natural associations (the traditional family) and the free associations of civil society (including the Church) – and thereby underscores the third foundational principle of the social doctrine, subsidiarity. Taken as whole, the statement is a summons to a renewed solidarity in American life, and thus affirms the social doctrine’s fourth foundational principle. 

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was held behind closed doors, absent the glare of public or press scrutiny. Leaving it, Benjamin Franklin was challenged by some Philadelphians: “What is it to be, Dr. Franklin, a monarchy or a republic?” “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.” 

The keeping of it is now in question, perhaps more so than at any time since the years before the Civil War. And it will not do to blame our current national distress on two septuagenarians acting like four-year-olds while contending for the world’s greatest public office (although they surely disgraced themselves and embarrassed the country in their first “debate”). Nor will it do to blame the two major political parties, although both are hostage to their most shrill voices. Nor is the mainstream media the primary culprit, although it would help if some measure of objective reporting would return to our newspaper pages and television screens.

To one degree or another, we are all to blame. We have let this deterioration happen on our watch, and we have done too little to stop the rot. That is another reason why “Liberty and Justice for All” is important. While it rightly challenges the nihilists, anarchists, and race-baiters whose only program is destruction, it also calls decent citizens who have stayed on the sidelines of public life to become part of a long-term project of national reconciliation and renewal.

Benjamin Franklin’s challenge, you see, was also addressed to us.  

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.