In a symposium sponsored by Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, nearly 200 visitors gathered to listen as three prominent figures addressed the role of the Catholic statesman in 21st century America—in the light of the example of St. Thomas More, and of the legacy of President John F. Kennedy’s epochal “Houston Speech,” in which then-Senator Kennedy promised an audience of Protestant ministers that he would keep his political conscience free of Catholic influence. It is a promise that the Kennedy family and its political heirs would keep with a vengeance, as the symposium revealed.
The keynote of the afternoon was the talk by former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who directly attacked the assertions made by Sen. John F. Kennedy in his much-celebrated Houston speech, and argued that American Catholics still suffer from its toxic legacy. Kennedy pointed with admiration to the “absolute separation of church and state” that prevailed in America, and promised to defend it. Santorum noted that no such phrase occurs in any of America’s founding documents, but instead appears in a personal letter written by Thomas Jefferson—and that even there, Jefferson meant the wall to be one-way, to serve as a means of protecting churches from coercion at the hands of the state, and not a barrier keeping people of faith from voting and acting according to their consciences. In fact, Santorum said, “Kennedy’s attempt to reassure Protestants that the Catholic Church would not control the government and suborn its independence advanced a philosophy of strict separation that would create a purely secular public square cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths. Kennedy took words written to protect religion from the government and used them to shield the government from religion.”
Santorum noted that Kennedy made it respectable for Catholic politicians to create a kind of wall of separation within their own minds, separating the truths they claimed to accept from the Church from their own political beliefs. He cited Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech at Notre Dame on the 24th anniversary of JFK’s Houston speech. “There he espoused his nuanced position on abortion: that, as a result of his religious convictions he was personally opposed to abortion. But he then applies Kennedy’s thesis and refrains from imposing his values upon others whose views, because the truth is indiscernible, are equally valid. Virtual stampedes of self-proclaimed Catholic politicians followed Cuomo into this seemingly safe harbor and remain there today. This political hand washing made it easier for Catholics to be in public life, but it also made it harder for Catholics to be Catholic in public life,” Santorum said. In cold, hard fact, “Cuomo’s safe harbor is nothing more than a camouflage for the faint of heart—a cynical sanctuary for concealing true convictions from the public, and for rationalizing a reluctance to defend them.”
Santorum called for a revival of natural law discourse in American public life, citing the example of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously wrote from the Birmingham Jail: “There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws…. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
Santorum emphasized again the purely rational, secular character of the arguments appropriate in defending the moral law. “All of us have an obligation to justify our positions based upon something that is accessible to everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs. We owe the public arguments based upon reason grounded in truth.” Santorum pointed to Edmund Burke’s warning that liberty is only possible among men who practice the virtues, while “men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
The second speaker in Thomas More College’s symposium was Amb. Ray Flynn, longtime mayor of Boston and President Clinton’s appointee as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. As one of America’s most prominent remaining pro-life Democrats—he recounted in his speech his role in crafting the Hyde Amendment that prevented the use of federal money to fund abortions—Flynn called for the creation of a Catholic centrist movement that would speak both for the sanctity of life and for “justice issues.” Flynn warned: “Our country has been moving in the wrong direction both morally and economically. The extremes on the left and right are tearing our country apart. I frequently urge Catholic students and young people to get involved in the civic life of our nation. Openly defend your Catholic and political values, including on the Internet and the media. Don’t wait for others to do it for you.” Flynn recounted the political isolation he encountered in the Democratic Party when he supported George W. Bush over Albert Gore in the 2000 presidential race, in large part because of the former’s pro-life stance, and argued that currently Catholics have no political home. Because of that, he said, we must undertake to build one.
After Flynn, renowned judicial scholar Prof. Hadley Arkes of Amherst College—himself a recent convert to Catholicism—spoke to the critical role of natural law in American politics, particularly in the abolitionist and the pro-life movement. Arkes pointed out that Catholic politicians who support legal abortion have consistently treated this issue as if opposition to it were some quirk of Catholic doctrine, a position no believer would try to “impose” on the general public (like, for instance, belief in indulgences).
Arkes explained that two generations of liberal Catholic candidates have hidden behind Mario Cuomo’s rhetorical dodge: “I am personally opposed to abortion, but….” This rhetorical maneuver, Arkes said, “not only taught the public a false understanding of morality,” but also “misinstructed American Catholics by schooling them in a false understanding of Catholicism. The teaching of the Church on abortion has never been grounded in ‘beliefs,’ or in anything merely ‘personal.’ The teaching has been imparted communally, based on reasons that are accessible to all creatures of reason. As Thomas Aquinas explained, the divine law we know through revelation, but the natural law we know through that reason that is natural to human beings.”
Arkes laid out an example of how such reasoning has worked in the past—in the argument over slavery: “In my own teaching I’ve found no clearer model of natural law reasoning than that fragment Abraham Lincoln wrote for himself when he imagined himself in a conversation with an owner of slaves, asking why he was justified in making a slave of a black man: Was it intelligence – that the black man was less intelligent than the white? ‘By this rule,’ said Lincoln, ‘you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.’ Was it color – ‘the light having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.’”
“The upshot was that there was nothing one could cite to disqualify the black man that would not apply to many whites as well. Some of us simply used the same mode of reasoning applied to abortion: Why was that offspring in the womb anything less than human? It didn’t speak yet? Neither did deaf mutes? It had no arms or legs? Other people lost arms or legs without losing anything necessary to their standing as human beings to receive the protections of the law. And the upshot: there was nothing one could cite to remove the child in the womb from the protections of the law that would not apply to many people walking about well outside the womb.”
None of this depends on Christian revelation, or even on the existence of God, Arkes said. “The teaching of the Church has been a weave of moral reasoning joined with the facts of embryology. In other words, one doesn’t have to be Catholic in order to understand the argument on abortion—and that has been precisely the teaching of the Church: The argument depends simply on that discipline of moral reasoning that forms the ground of the law natural for human beings.”
Each of the speakers answered questions from a lively, interested audience, before the symposium gave way to a cocktail hour and later the evening’s keynote address by Cardinal Raymond Burke.