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Living the Gospel of Life -- Study Guide

Paragraph Four

Reflection

Two kinds of Government

The key distinction is made in this paragraph between political life for and by the people, and a political experiment on people. These are, ultimately, the two kinds of government into which all political systems can be categorized. One type recognizes that God is the source of our rights and government exists to secure those rights. That is the type America was founded to be. The other type asserts that government is the source of our rights, and can therefore modify or negate them. That is the type of which totalitarian regimes and holocausts are made. A "totalitarian" government is "total" in the sense that the whole of human life, existence, and rights are subject to it. There is nothing that such a government acknowledges as beyond its reach.

People under this latter form of government cannot be free, because the foundation of our security is the acknowledgment that our rights come from God, and hence no other human beings can touch them. As soon as that premise is eliminated, then people have no recourse against the powerful who are willing to oppress them. This threat, the document recognizes, does not simply come from the outside. It comes from within our own nation, when we begin to tamper with our own identity as humans. If life itself becomes an experiment, the obvious question is, By what criteria do some human beings get to experiment on others rather than be experimented upon? If two people are equally human, by what criterion does one obtain the right to dominate the other? On the other hand, if our rights belong to us precisely because we are human, then no other human can tamper with them. It is then that we are free.

Our Declaration of Independence is, in fact, a declaration of dependence upon God. The first role of government is to know its place; the first duty of public officials is to know where their authority stops. And it stops at the boundary of human rights, which we possess not because any Court, Congress, or King gives them to us, but precisely because God gave them to us when he made us human.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Government, then, cannot tamper with human rights. Government, in this sense, is not an authority over people, but rather flowing from them and at their service. Government exists for human beings, not human beings for government. Our Founders understood this well, which is why they knew that no ruler could trample upon human rights. They also realized that the people themselves could not trample upon their own rights. This is the sense in which those rights are called "unalienable." They cannot be taken away by someone else, nor can they be thrown away by those who possess them.

Thus, certain things are beyond the reach even of the majority, and in this sense our Founders did not establish a "democracy." In its technical meaning, "democracy" means that whatever the majority says, goes. In such a system, if most of the people were to decide that oppressing a minority were OK, then it would be OK. The Founders recognized the dangers of such an arrangement. John Adams, the second President of the United States, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

Rather than a democracy, our Founders established a Republic, which is based on the rule of law. Certain things are beyond the reach of the majority. The law, furthermore, is of two kinds. Alexander Hamilton, a signer of the Constitution, wrote, "[T]he law…dictated by God Himself is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this" (The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. I, p. 87).

James Wilson, another signer of the Constitution and a US Supreme Court Justice, wrote, "All [laws], however, may be arranged in two different classes, 1) Divine. 2) Human…Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine" (The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, Vol. I, pp. 103-105).

The Founders of our nation believed in Biblical law, and that was the standard for law and government in our country until the turn of this century. Now, instead, legal positivism has become the standard. It says that there are no unchanging, superior laws. Rather, man-made law is the final law and can always change according to circumstances. That's the poisoned soil out of which Roe vs. Wade and other abortion decisions have grown.

A preferential option for the poor and vulnerable

In this paragraph and the next, the bishops point out that some people are more vulnerable than others. The Church, like Jesus, exercises a "preferential option for the poor," which means that we make the strongest effort to help those most in need of our help. It is not that some lives or people are more important than others; rather, some are more vulnerable than others. This paragraph points out that many people who are marginalized "at least have a presence. They at least have the possibility of organizing to be heard." They can vote, lobby, write letters, march, and pray. But the unborn children have no such opportunity. They cannot even pray or know the threat that looms over them. They are, as the next paragraph will indicate, "the poorest of the poor." That is why they deserve the most attention.

Discussion Questions

In what sense is American government an "experiment?" What kind of "experiment" is legitimate, and which is not?

How are the unborn, infirm, and terminally ill at an even greater disadvantage than others who are marginalized in our society?

The bishops assert that "we are arguably moving closer to that day" when the experiment of American political life "will no longer be worth conducting." Comment upon the seriousness of such an assertion.

Further reading

Hadley Arkes, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (Washington, DC; Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994)

Click here to read the transcript of Fr. Frank Pavone's homily "Roe vs. Wade: A New Form of Government."

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