If there was ever any doubt about one of the Obama Administration’s key philosophical commitments, it was dispelled on Jan. 20 when the Department of Health and Human Services informed the Catholic Church that most of its agencies will be required to provide employees with insurance-coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs: i.e., products, procedures, and chemicals used to facilitate acts which the Church and plenty of others consider intrinsically evil.
Alas, it’s not a question of the administration being tragically “tone deaf,” as one American Jesuit claimed, to specifically Catholic concerns. Nor is the bedrock of President Obama’s position, in the end, a commitment to “women’s health.” Outside the ghoulish world of Planned Parenthood, pregnancy does not qualify as a disease. A fertile womb is no threat to human life.
No, this is all about the absolutization of choice for the sake of choice. It’s also about creating a society in which any discussion of the actual ends we choose is considered unacceptable in public debates about law and morality.
Modern liberalism has a long history of trying to exclude consideration of the proper ends of human action from public discourse in the name of tolerance. But neither liberalism nor secularism are as neutral about such matters as they pretend.
Self-identified modern liberals (and secularists more generally) typically insist that justice and tolerance demand that governments shouldn’t privilege any conception of morality, religious or secular, in framing its laws. Unfortunately for liberals, this position — outlined in excruciating detail by the seer of modern secular liberalism, the late John Rawls — is self-refuting. Why? Because it, ahem, privileges a legal and political commitment to relativity about moral questions. It’s the same absurdity underlying the philosophical skeptic’s claim that there’s no truth — except for the truth that there is no truth.
These little internal inconsistencies, however, don’t stop the use of such conceptions of tolerance and justice as weapons for terminating any contribution to public debate that’s informed by the propositions that moral truth exists, that we can know it through revelation and/or reason, and that it is unjust to cordon off these truths from the public square.
And here we come face-to-face with the essence of what a certain Joseph Ratzinger famously described in an April 2005 homily as “the dictatorship of relativism.” Most people think of tyrannies as involving the imposition of a defined set of ideas upon free citizens. Benedict XVI’s point was that the coercion at the heart of the dictatorship of relativism derives precisely from the fact that it “does not recognize anything as definitive.”
In this world, tolerance no longer creates the safety for us to express our views about the nature of good and evil and its implications for law and public morality. Instead, it serves to banish the truth as the reference point against which all of us must test our ideas and beliefs. The objective is to reduce everyone to modern Pontius Pilates who, whatever their private beliefs, wash their hands in the face of obvious injustices, such as what the Obama administration has just inflicted upon not only Catholics, but anyone whose convictions about the truth requires them to abstain from cooperating in acts they regard as evil per se.
Of course, modern liberals do have their preferred ends, which (despite all their endless chatter about reason) reflect their profoundly cramped vision of man’s intellect. Here they follow the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He argued that “reason ought to be the slave of the passions.” Reason’s role, in other words, is not to identify what is rational for people to choose. Instead, reason is reduced to merely devising the means for realizing whatever goals that people, following the profound moral reasoning of a five year-old, “just feel like” choosing.
On this basis, utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham concluded that life was really about nothing more than the experience of sensations. Hence, the goal was to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But having repeatedly failed to construct a coherent hedonistic calculus of utility (even Rawls concluded it was a doomed endeavor), the “ultimate goal” of modern liberalism and secularism now “consists,” as Benedict noted in 2005, “solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
That in turn reduces life and my choices to ensuring that I am among those who are (1) powerful enough to get to indulge my ego and my desires, (2) sophistical enough to produce rationalizations (otherwise known as consequentialist ethics) for doing so, and (3) strong enough to trample over anyone whose existence or beliefs might limit my ability to do whatever I just happen to “feel like” doing.
Here modern liberalism’s essentially illiberal nature reveals its true face. Because if your theological or philosophical convictions get in the way of your employee’s desire to neuter his spouse at your expense in order to avoid the “disease” of pregnancy, then tough luck. Desire plus autonomy — the calling-cards of secularist fundamentalism — trump all (except, apparently, when it comes to the distribution of wealth, climate change, and smoking).
The Catholic Church — and its teachings about good and evil — goes back 2,000 years. Since that time, it’s weathered the savage persecutions of the Roman Empire, the terrorism of the French Revolution, the systematic harassment of National Socialism, and the all-out assault of Marxism-Leninism. And, perhaps most telling of all, it’s managed to survive the many, often terrible sins and faithlessness of its own members. The Church will be around long after the not-so-New Atheists have gone to their eternal reward.
The Church’s struggle with the dictatorship of relativism may, however, prove one of its most difficult challenges. That’s partly because it’s a subtle form of oppression that trades off words like “choice” that strongly resonate in Western societies — the same societies in which many secularists all-too-quickly equate any religion’s claim to teach the truth with murderers who fly planes into buildings.
In the span of human history, the Obama Administration is just a blip, however much it considers itself, like all progressivists, to be on history’s cutting edge. But be warned: the Catholic Church’s fight — in fact, the fight of anyone, believer or non-believer, who recognizes secularist fundamentalism as a danger to freedom — against the despotism of “there-is-no-moral-truth-and-Rawls-is-his-prophet” is only just beginning.