Gospel of Life -- Study Guide
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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