Contrary to the libertinistic assumptions pervading our contemporary society, property rights, liberty, and even life itself—the bases of any functional economic order—do not exist as ends in themselves, but rather as elements within a greater framework of religious faith and morality. Historically, Christianity established this religious and moral framework for Western culture. Today, to the extent a larger framework is recognized at all, contemporary advocates, both Christian and secular, tend to rely on human dignity by itself to furnish this greater moral framework. But we must take care to remember that human dignity includes more than just each individual person’s dignity or rights.
Traditional Christian anthropology views human beings as participating in both the temporal and the eternal. Thus, while human beings need to survive in a temporal, material world, the material survival of human beings is not the exclusive determinant for the standard of human dignity. To truly preserve human dignity for all humans, all law, commerce, and culture must organize around both the temporal and eternal aspects of our human existence, embracing the complexity that accompanies the application of this traditional Christian anthropology. While historical Christian scholars, such as Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, have strived to understand and apply this Christian anthropology, contemporary Christian scholars seem to have moved in a different direction. In addition to our own sloth-induced forgetfulness, we have Immanuel Kant to thank for this wrong turn.
The Categorical Imperative Surfaces
In his must-read Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert Kraynak introduces us to the concept of “Kantian Christianity.”1 Kraynak claims that the “Kantian influence on modern Christianity is … deep and pervasive.” What he means is that Christian thinkers no longer speak about culture and politics in terms of the more enduring principles of moral virtue, law, and the common good but now focus on social justice, understood as solely the immediate, material rights and dignity of the human person. Moreover, they have drastically reduced the role of prudence in politics accepted under the historical Christian anthropological understanding, which has recognized a variety of political regimes depending on the circumstances. This historical understanding also acknowledged the harsh realities of the political realm in a fallen (albeit redeemed) world, and the difficulties and agonies involved in fashioning a just or moral response to contingent events. Instead of prudential judgments, Kraynak maintains that we now hear only moralistic pronouncements about peace and justice that severely limit the range of (legitimately recognized) political options.
Kraynak maintains that Kantian Christianity has seeped into the language of contemporary Christians even though contemporary Christians do not seem to have a full understanding of the underlying anthropology that comes with it. The rights and dignity of each person replaces moral and theological virtues—rational and spiritual perfection. Further, an emphasis on personal autonomy or personal identity diminishes long-established Christian teachings about the dependence of the Creature on the Creator, original sin, grace, and a natural law through which human beings may share or “participate” in eternal law.
Following Kraynak, it is clear to see that in our public life and culture, this language of rights and dignity tends to lead to absolutes in morality, or “categorical imperatives.” Now, Christianity has no problem with moral absolutes (and in fact dictates several), provided they are properly stated. But a proper statement of a moral absolute is made difficult by the anthropology lingering in Kant’s legacy.
Kant’s original categorical imperative, of course, states that one must live in such a manner that one’s actions could form the basis of a universal law. It is the quest for “universal laws,” exclusive of a prudent account of circumstance, that proves troubling. This universalist language is incompatible with the more prudential approaches to public life articulated by Augustine and Aquinas, which was driven by their much richer understandings of the human person and his or her relation to the physical world and the divine. Examples of this Kantian, univocal language can be seen in many uses of our three most cherished “rights”—life, liberty, and property. Let us address these in reverse order, dealing briefly with property and liberty before examining life questions in some detail.
Property Rights Within the Human Community
Property rights, as readers of this publication know, have been harshly contested in some Christian circles, in part due to the lingering effects of nineteenth and twentieth century Christian flirtations with socialism. Yet clear, legally binding property rights remain an indispensable part of the rule of law, upon which the culture, both economic and social, of the Christian West has been constructed. Aquinas, for example, despite his personal vow of poverty, is a staunch defender of private property in his Summa Theologica, deeming it necessary for productivity, order, and peace.
Yet he makes two caveats. First, the common good always takes priority over private property. Second, in times of extreme want, property ceases to be private. Aquinas writes that “[i]n cases of need, all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.”2 While property is important, it is not sacrosanct. Property rights are not absolute, but may be violated without sin in certain exceptional, but apparently limited, circumstances (for instance, when a person is in imminent danger, and there is no other possible way to avert that danger). Thomas understands—as Kant does not—that the human person is not truly autonomous, but instead remains bound to other fellow human beings by his or her shared dependence on God. Since property is a gift from God, rather than something to be wrested from a hostile creation, an authentically Christian understanding permits a more nuanced vision of property than a purely material understanding would infer. This nuanced vision then facilitates the economic reasons for maintaining property rights while simultaneously preventing those rights from becoming an occasion for the divestment of virtue from property owners.
An Order for Liberty
Liberty is yet another term that has been subjected to Kantian universality. Many Kantian-influenced theorists cannot bear any qualifiers to the term liberty, maintaining that any personal restriction, short of those necessary to protect other persons, is unconscionable. This understanding is false, because it is based on a radical, modern vision of human autonomy. Each individual must be at liberty to do as he or she desires. Thus, only the temporal aspect of liberty is emphasized. No recognition is given to the legitimate need for each individual’s liberty to be carefully balanced against the liberty of each other individual. Thus, as is true for property, liberty is always subservient to the needs of the entire community. Recognizing that fact reintroduces the eternal aspect of liberty into the anthropological equation.
Traditional Christian anthropology does not divorce the temporal and eternal aspects of liberty, rejecting the limits of the Kantian categorical imperative outright. Liberty within a true Christian anthropology is—to borrow a phrase—“ordered liberty,” and a responsible government will contour, restrict, and even quash “liberties” that make a proper ordering of society difficult or impossible. The responsibility of the political authority to maintain and promote the common good gives that authority a certain license to—responsibly—curtail certain liberties.
The Authentic Culture of Life
But the most flagrant use of categorical imperatives in our current political culture deals with life issues. It must be stated up front that no practicing Christian disputes that life is one of the most precious gifts that God has given to us. The second century “Letter to Diognetus” bears testimony to early Christians not taking part in the Roman custom of “exposing [or “discarding”] their offspring”—the preferred method of pagan infanticide for the weak or unwanted.3
But to speak of a “culture of life”—if used simply to express a “seamless garment” univocal defense against any taking of life—has become a categorical imperative. For instance, the core of what we might call the “Bernadin project” is that Christians (in this case Catholics) must dogmatically oppose and fight against any early termination of human life. But this understanding fails to see that there may be an important, and even a critical, difference between a true culture of life and a “culture of merely life.” The former taking into account the authentic existence of human beings within not only the material realm, but also the immaterial, the spiritual; the latter limiting human existence to the breathing of the air in this temporal world only.
This issue cuts very close to home, as it deals with some of the most controversial politics in our culturally fragmented society—abortion, war, capital punishment, infanticide, and euthanasia. To introduce questions of prudence into these debates is often difficult, but such introductions must take place to prevent the categorical imperative from seeping further into contemporary Christian thought. On issues of great import, no matter whether these issues involve economics, politics, or human life itself, making proper distinctions is always of the essence. To choose perhaps the least charged of these issues, Christians, and particularly Roman Catholics, have been engaging in a debate over the proper limits of state-imposed punishment for some time. Led by the personal opposition of John Paul II, the Catholic Church has grown ever more dubious of the appropriateness—and therefore the justice—of capital punishment. Many prominent Catholics in America—some out of deep conviction, others in reaction to the dissolving Democratic party monopoly on Catholic political allegiance—have sought to link opposition to the death penalty with opposition to abortion, having the effect, whether intended or not, of neutralizing any partisan distinctions on “life issues.”
But this categorical language seems to conceal more than it clarifies. For even Pope John Paul II has conceded that the death penalty is a legitimate option “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” Now, a categorical use of this language seems to imply that the state can only take a life when failure to do so endangers other lives. But as Cardinal Avery Dulles has pointed out to us, it may be that:
When the Pope speaks of the protection of society as grounds for using the death penalty, he may have more in mind than mere physical defense against the individual criminal. To vindicate the order of justice and to sustain the moral health of society and the security of innocent persons against potential criminals it may be appropriate to punish certain crimes by death.4
In other words, to insist on categorical language— maintaining that the Church must insist on the continuation of physical existence regardless of the attendant circumstances—may actually be contrary to the “culture of life” that the Church seeks to promote. It is not self-evident that a “culture of life” is promoted by the continuation of human lives that have been tainted by egregious sins against human dignity. By committing the churches to this univocal definition of the culture of life, forbidding any prudential account of circumstances, the lives of the innocent become equated with the lives of the guilty. This inability to make relevant distinctions is indicative of a certain poverty in our contemporary understanding, a focus on the material that implicitly denies access to—and perhaps even the reality of—the transcendent. This univocal focus on pure physical existence does not permit us to assess—to use the Cardinal’s terms—the “moral health of society,” let alone its Christian witness or sanctity. But it does excel in permitting the generation of convenient “categorical imperatives.”
Instead of speaking dogmatically about a “right to life,” it may be that Christians could better promote human dignity by returning to more traditional language, explicitly grounded in a Christian anthropology, that allows for proper distinctions of this sort. To quote at length from Kraynak:
Proclaiming a right to life easily turns into the claim that biological existence is sacred or that mere life has absolute value, regardless of whether it is the life of an innocent unborn child, or the life of a heinous criminal. And the claim that life is a “right” diminishes the claim that life is a “gift” from God: How can a gift be a right? Proclaiming a right to life eventually leads to the mistaken idea of a “seamless garment of life” that is indistinguishable from complete pacifism or a total ban on taking life, including animal life, even for just and necessary causes. It also makes one forget that the good life, not to mention the afterlife, is a greater good than merely being alive in the present world—an unintended but significant depreciation of Christian otherworldliness.5
Christian Life in Otherworldliness, Not Categorical Imperatives
Kraynak forcefully reminds us that in the end the Christian life is about “otherworldliness.” We are merely pilgrims here in this world. A world of “categorical imperatives” seeks to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. This goal is, however laudable in intention, subject to serious abuse—as the totalitarianisms of the past century have so forcefully taught us. And while the categorical language of Kantian rights hardly threatens human dignity and decent government in the same manner or with the same severity as the ideologies of the past century, it does threaten to diminish effective Christian witness in our fallen world. If Christians merely echo the claims of modern Kantians, where is the “sign of contradiction?”
A return to a more prudent politics does not mean that the debate on capital punishment has been resolved in favor of the practice. It may in fact be the case that even a prudential assessment of the societal costs and benefits of executing certain criminals may prove the practice to be undesirable. Perhaps, in the final analysis, a culture of life would be best promoted by the elimination of capital punishment. But I suggest that the churches can only begin to make this assessment by moving away from categorical language, permitting considerations other than the mere continuance of physical existence to enter into the calculus.
The churches and Christians do have an important temporal witness in a fallen world, and part of that witness is an eternal vigilance against the crimes of theft, tyranny, and murder. However, Christians must always be prepared to defend certain truths; not all taking of property is theft, not all restriction of liberty is tyranny, and not all taking of life is murder. Kantian Christianity has indeed seeped into the language of contemporary Christianity and, by discounting its eternal realities, threatens to diminish its temporal witness. A return to the politics of prudence—“love God and do as you will”—provides the basis for a much more consistent and Christian public ethic.