Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Euthanasia from an Agnostic and from a Catholic Point of View

In my ethics classes, I have my students write a paper on euthanasia, focusing especially on the Brittany Maynard case.  They have to answer these questions:

1. Is the sort of euthanasia illustrated in Brittany Maynard's case ethical?  Is it a legitimate moral option that some people might ethically choose, or is it ethically wrong? 
2. Should this sort of euthanasia be legally recognized and approved by allowing the medical profession to participate in it, as is the case in Oregon and elsewhere (physician-assisted suicide)?

They have to write their paper as a letter to one of two made-up individuals, George Stewart or Robert Merryweather.  I role-play both of these individuals in the class.  George is a Catholic, and Robert is an Agnostic.  The students have to write to whomever is on the opposite side of the questions from themselves, or at least whomever is furthest away from their own position.  They have to explain their position to whomever they are writing to and show they why they think they are right (and therefore the other person is wrong).  They are instructed specifically to be careful to avoid begging the question in their arguments, arguing superficially, etc.  When they write this letter, I respond as either George or Robert and give them feedback, argue with them, etc., to help them to hone their arguments, understand their own assumptions better, understand the other person's assumptions better, etc., and in general to grow in their ability to critically think through the issue and to dialogue with those with whom they disagree.  They can then write back and try again, get more feedback, try again, etc., and this process lasts over the whole semester.  It's a lot of fun (and a lot of work)!

Here are the documents I've written up for both George and Robert that the students read before writing the first draft of their paper:


My answer to both questions is no. My fundamental reason for this answer is that the sort of euthanasia illustrated in Brittany Maynard's case is contrary to the objective moral law of God.


I am a Catholic, and so I hold to the Catholic worldview. The Catholic worldview is described in great detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in a more condensed form in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is summarized in the Nicene Creed. The Wikipedia article on the Catholic Church is also helpful. We believe that there are two fundamental sources of knowledge-- reason (which refers to what God has made known to us by means of our senses and reasoning ability) and revelation (which refers to what God has made known through special messages and messengers, culminating in Jesus Christ and the revelation he has entrusted to his Church). The Catholic Church, being the church founded by Jesus Christ, has been entrusted with God's revelation and is the authoritative interpreter of it. This revelation has been preserved and expounded by the Church in two forms—in Scripture (the revelation of God written and infallible) and in Tradition (the revelation of God handed down infallibly through preaching and practice, with the interpretation of that revelation the Church is led into through the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit). Two documents of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (especially Chapter II) and Lumen Gentium (especially #25) describe this in greater detail.

Since my answer to the questions is rooted in the assumption of the truth of the Catholic worldview, it is my responsibility, to avoid begging the question, to make a case for the truth of that worldview. I will not attempt to do so here, however, as I have already done this in the two debate documents Robert and I have written up and which you can find on your Syllabus tab in Canvas. I will simply refer you to those documents.

God, being the supreme being and the author of all creation, is the ultimate moral authority of the universe. God's viewpoint defines reality, and therefore his views of good and bad are the foundation of an objective moral law which binds all of reality. He is also, for the same reason, necessarily the supreme judge. He will ensure that good is ultimately rewarded with good, and that bad is ultimately rewarded with bad (because he loves the one and hates the other), even though, in his wisdom, he does not always bring full judgment immediately. (See the second debate document for more on these points. See also the Catechism's discussion of the moral law.)

Human laws derive their legitimacy from God's moral law. God has created human beings and the universe in such a way that human nature naturally calls for certain forms of organization among human individuals with certain authority structures that go along with them--such as organizations of family and civil society (the state). Since God is the author of the human nature that gives rise to these institutions, these institutions are ordained by God and therefore have his authority behind them. Thus, in St. Paul's language (Romans 13:1-7), the "powers that be" are ordained of God and are thus ministers of God whom we are commanded by God's moral law to obey. Since these institutions are "ministers of God," they do not have unlimited authority. They only have authority when they are legitimately fulfilling their essential functions in a manner consistent with the objective moral law of God. Essential human governments, then, are a sort of limited microcosm of God's government of the cosmos. Just as God seeks to promote the good and condemn the evil in his government of the world, so human governments ought to rule according to God's moral law, promoting what is good and hindering or opposing that which is evil in order to further the common good and the glory of God. For more, see the Catechism's discussion of civil authority. (And see below as well.)

Euthanasia is Immoral

From these fundamentals, I can provide the foundation on which my answer to the questions is based. Euthanasia, particularly the kind illustrated in the case of Brittany Maynard, is unethical because it is contrary to the moral law of God. This is discussed under the heading of the fifth of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism. Our lives belong ultimately to God, and we are to use them in his service and not as if we were the ultimate masters of them. Human lives are valuable to God, and he commands us to respect and value them and to treat them accordingly. The intentional taking of a human life is therefore forbidden. There are times, such as when one's own life or the life of someone one is bound to protect is threatened by an aggressor, when necessary and just acts required to protect life unavoidably involve the unintended side effect of ending the life of another, but this is not an exception to but an illustration of the value with which we are to value life.

The prohibition on taking human life applies to our own lives as well as to the lives of others—because the same reasons apply in both cases. Although a Naturalist may argue that our lives belong to ourselves so that we may do with them whatever we please, yet the Catholic cannot view things in this way. The Catechism summarizes the Catholic position thus:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

In a case like that of Brittany Maynard, the desire to end one's life, or to assist another in ending his/her life, is very understandable. The grave suffering and difficulties Brittany and her family would have had to have undergone if she had not ended her own life should not be underestimated. We should assume the best of her motivations and have great sympathy for her situation and her decision. Nevertheless, even in such a case of great suffering, suicide is not permitted. As the Catechism says (#2277), “an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.” We must remember that God is the supreme creator, the ultimately moral authority of the universe, and infinitely wise and benevolent. All the commands of his moral law, therefore, are, by definition, absolutely perfect and good and best, tending in the best manner to his glory and our welfare. Violation of God's will is intrinsically immoral. To rebel against God is to incur infinite loss and misery, while to follow him brings, in the end, the full satisfaction of perfect happiness. Although our earthly sufferings seem and indeed are in themselves very great, yet they are nothing when placed in the scale against the infinite blessedness of the glory of God which those who follow God are invited to share in for all eternity. As St. Paul put it (2 Corinthians 4:17--KJV), “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” By calling our earthly sufferings “light,” Paul is not minimizing those sufferings; rather, he is exalting tremendously the blessedness of sharing in God's own infinitely blessed life.

Physician-assisted Suicide Should Be Illegal

As I mentioned earlier, the legitimacy of human laws, including civil laws, are rooted in the moral law of God. Consequently, as the Catechism puts it (#1923), “[p]olitical authority must be exercised within the limits of the moral order.” Human governments have no authority to legitimize or approve of what God has condemned and forbidden, and vice versa. If the state were to grant its citizens a right to engage medical aid in acts of suicide, it would be evaluating the value of human life in a way contrary to God's moral law. It would fail to protect life as God requires it to do.

Some might argue that it is illicit to base civil laws on God's moral law, for there should be a “separation between church and state.” This phrase tends to be highly ambiguous. If it means that the state should adopt, in effect, an Agnostic outlook and base its laws on this, it is contrary to Catholic doctrine which teaches that human societies, no less than human individuals, owe allegiance to God and to his moral law. Nor is worldview-neutrality possible in civil law (or anywhere else), for civil law is applied social ethics, and ethics is applied worldviews. Pope Leo XIII addressed this issue in great detail in his 1888 encyclical Libertas (see especially #15, #18, #20, and #21):

18. There are others, somewhat more moderate though not more consistent, who affirm that the morality of individuals is to be guided by the divine law, but not the morality of the State, for that in public affairs the commands of God may be passed over, and may be entirely disregarded in the framing of laws. Hence follows the fatal theory of the need of separation between Church and State. But the absurdity of such a position is manifest. . . .

21. This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false. For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.

It is true that the state must sometimes tolerate some evils in order to avoid bringing on even more evils. In particular, the Catholic worldview acknowledges that, especially in our current pluralistic age, room must be made for the individual consciences of men and women in order to avoid as much as reasonably possible coercing people to go against their consciences or causing them to lack sufficient civil freedom to properly form their consciences through the seeking of truth. In order to safeguard individual consciences, then, and the ability of all to pursue their duty to seek and follow the truth, especially in our pluralistic society and age, the state must allow a reasonable freedom of conscience and religion. The Catechism discusses this under the heading of the first commandment (particularly #2104-2109), and Pope Leo XIII addresses the need for a degree of toleration within due limits in Libertas #33 and #34.

However, freedom of religion and conscience is not to be granted without limits or in a fashion contrary to the moral law of God. As the Catechism says (#2109—footnotes removed), “The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a 'public order' conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner. The 'due limits' which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with 'legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order.'” Although evils must sometimes be tolerated, the state, like the individual, must never “do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8).

Particularly, tolerance of evils cannot extend to tolerance for the violation of fundamental human rights and values that give to the social order the foundation for its very existence, including the value of human life. In order to pursue their duty to seek the truth in this life (which is what liberty of conscience is all about), individuals obviously must be alive. Thus, appeals to liberty of conscience cannot adequately warrant legal acceptance or toleration of PAS (physician-assisted suicide). Pope John Paul II addressed this point in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (footnotes removed):

Certainly the purpose of civil law is different and more limited in scope than that of the moral law. But "in no sphere of life can the civil law take the place of conscience or dictate norms concerning things which are outside its competence", which is that of ensuring the common good of people through the recognition and defence of their fundamental rights, and the promotion of peace and of public morality. The real purpose of civil law is to guarantee an ordered social coexistence in true justice, so that all may "lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way" (1 Tim 2:2). Precisely for this reason, civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being. While public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which-were it prohibited- would cause more serious harm, it can never presume to legitimize as a right of individuals-even if they are the majority of the members of society-an offence against other persons caused by the disregard of so fundamental a right as the right to life. The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others, precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom.

In the Encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII pointed out that "it is generally accepted today that the common good is best safeguarded when personal rights and duties are guaranteed. The chief concern of civil authorities must therefore be to ensure that these rights are recognized, respected, co-ordinated, defended and promoted, and that each individual is enabled to perform his duties more easily. For to safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person, and to facilitate the performance of his duties, is the principal duty of every public authority'. Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force".

In #68-73 of the same encyclical, Pope John Paul II considers those who would claim that the value of protecting life is a relative value that can be overbalanced by other concerns, such as respect for majority opinion, or fear of the social repercussions of making abortion or euthanasia illegal, and he concludes that such thinking is too relativistic and does not adequately preserve the absolute and foundational nature of the right to and value of life. Since life is obviously fundamental to the social order, the devaluing of it or the overturning of its rights cannot be tolerated. John Paul II again, from the same encyclical (#72):

Now the first and most immediate application of this teaching concerns a human law which disregards the fundamental right and source of all other rights which is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual. Consequently, laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law. It might be objected that such is not the case in euthanasia, when it is requested with full awareness by the person involved. But any State which made such a request legitimate and authorized it to be carried out would be legalizing a case of suicide-murder, contrary to the fundamental principles of absolute respect for life and of the protection of every innocent life. In this way the State contributes to lessening respect for life and opens the door to ways of acting which are destructive of trust in relations between people. Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.


As the above is quite clear, I think, there is really nothing more of substance that needs to be added. I will therefore close with a summary statement of the entire subject in the form of a quotation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a Vatican committee designed to help the papacy and the whole Church wade through various doctrinal and ethical matters) in their (papally-approved) Declaration on Euthanasia:

It is necessary to state firmly once more that nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.


My answer to both questions is yes. I do think that euthanasia, of the sort illustrated in the case of Brittany Maynard, can be an ethical option for some, and I also believe that death with dignity (doctor-assisted death such as the sort practiced in Oregon) should be legal. My main reason for thinking the way I do on these points is my conviction that our lives are ultimately our own to use as we see fit, and that death with dignity, in some rare cases, is the best option available to finish out one's life in the best way possible.


My views on euthanasia are, of course, rooted in my broader worldview assumptions. I am an Agnostic Naturalist. I believe that, at this time, we humans do not possess knowledge of anything beyond the natural, empirical world that we inhabit and experience with our senses. I do not assert that such knowledge could never be had in principle. I won't even assert dogmatically that absolutely no one at all has such knowledge now, but I claim that if anyone does have such knowledge, it does not seem to be generally available to us. So perhaps I should say that there seems to be no publicly verifiable knowledge available to the human race at present of anything beyond the natural world. Of course, unlike George, as an Agnostic I do not have “official documents” I can refer you to to find out more about Agnosticism. Agnosticism is a substantial view regarding what we know and what we don't know, and it greatly affects how we view the world we live in, but in a sense it is a much more “negative” worldview than George's—not “negative” in the sense of “bad” but rather in the sense that it is more an affirmation of what we don't know than a list of things we do know. This makes it much easier to define. If you want to see more descriptions and definitions of Agnosticism, I would recommend the Wikipedia article on “Agnosticism” as a good basic overview, as well as Bertrand Russel's essay What is an Agnostic?

Of course, not everyone agrees with me about Agnosticism, and many non-Agnostic holders of other worldviews have claimed that their worldview can indeed be known to be true and have presented arguments attempting to show this. If I wish to avoid begging the question, then, in my claims regarding euthanasia which are rooted in my Agnosticism—and I do!—I must do something to respond to these arguments. George and I have written up a couple of debate documents (found on your Syllabus tab on Canvas) in which George has presented some of his arguments for his Catholic worldview and I have responded to them, attempting to show that they don't really prove what he thinks they prove and thus trying to establish an Agnostic position. I will not repeat my arguments here, but simply refer you to those documents.

It may be that there is more to reality than the natural, empirical world, but if there is, we don't know about it. No doubt there is much about the natural, empirical world even that we don't know. But in constructing a system of ethics and deciding how practically to live our lives, we cannot build on what we don't know but only on what we do know. If someone suggests that we ought to follow the commands of the Christian God just in case Christianity might turn out to be true, well, what if Islam, or Hinduism, or for that matter the ancient Aztec or Norse religion turns out to be true? We will simply have dug ourselves into a deeper hole, perhaps, by trying to be Christian. Of course, the religions overlap to a great extent in terms of practical advice, but then in most of the areas of overlap—such as prohibitions against murder, theft, etc.—one can reach the same conclusions on Naturalistic grounds as well and so one doesn't need to know anything about the supernatural to establish such things. When we go beyond these basic ethical principles, however, and begin to get into more specific practical commands and prohibitions of the various religions, we find that the religions differ greatly. Is it a sin to eat pork? Christianity says yes, Islam and Judaism say no, etc. Also, there are times when the historic religions of the world mostly agree on certain particular principles, but that agreement seems to be rooted more in custom and prejudice than rational consideration. Euthanasia is, I think, one of those cases. Many religions have been against it in human history, but I don't think they can show that they have had good reasons to be against it (barring belief in the supernatural claims of the religions). If human antiquity nearly agrees on something, that should give us pause and make us consider the matter carefully, but it should not determine the matter for us if the position seems to be without or contrary to reason. After all, there are many things—slavery, for instance, or lack of religious freedom, or belief in magical cures for diseases—which have been nearly unanimously thought to be OK by most human cultures in history which we now reject as irrational and not conducive to human thriving. Euthanasia has been objected to by many historic religions, but that doesn't prove they had (or have) a good reason to be against it—and not all have been against it.

At any rate, we can only work with what we have, and all we have, Agnostics claim, is what we know of the natural, empirical world. This includes our knowledge of the external, physical world as well as our knowledge of our own inner thoughts, desires, etc. George's Catholic worldview claims that there is an “objective moral law” rooted in the will of God. We were created by God and belong to him, and therefore there is a purpose for which we were made and to which we have a duty to conform. But I see no basis to claim the existence of any such “objective moral law.” What I do see is that we all have desires. We all want to be happy. There are certain things that are more conducive to making us happy, other things less conducive. Since we all want to be happy, we will want to live in such a way as to be as happy as we can be. It is out of this fact, I believe, that ethics arises. Ethics, in my view, is the art of recognizing both our desires and the relevant facts of the universe in order to find a way to live that brings about happiness and contentment. I would argue that the sorts of motivations that are natural to us include motives of self-interest, by which we seek our own personal happiness and well-being, and also motivations which embrace a concern for others—such as love, empathy, sympathy, compassion. As beings who have evolved in a social context, we are not only naturally concerned for ourselves, but we are also naturally concerned for other beings around us who we can see are like us in their capacity to experience pleasure and pain. Therefore, I would argue that, ordinarily, the best way to live the happiest life we can is to live in a way that balances self-interest with other-focused motivations. We don't want to be too selfish, and on the other hand we don't want to live as slaves to the desires of others to the point of our own misery. I could go further on this point, but instead I will refer you to an excellent little essay by Fred Edwords, The Human Basis of Laws and Ethics, which I think has argued for these points in a very compelling way. Here's another good one from Ronald Lindsay.

As social beings, we tend to live in groups and therefore require rules by which we can all attain happiness in harmonious societies. Since there is no moral law that transcends human desires, or at least none that we have any knowledge of, there is no basis for one person to have any intrinsic authority over anyone else. That is, there is no basis for me to say to you, “Because I am me, and you are you, it is inherently the case that you ought to do what I want you to do or what I tell you to do.” And vice versa. I am my own boss, and you are yours. I want my personal autonomy to be respected by others, and I'm sure you do as well. If, then, all of us want to live together in society, and we are properly motivated both by self-interest and by compassion for others, we will want to create a society that respects the autonomy of all individuals, treats all individuals equally, etc. We will want our laws and policies to be based on the consent of all the governed, and to be based on principles, ideals, and beliefs that all of us can reasonably be expected to share. We will not want to impose our own peculiar, un-objectively-verified opinions, values, and desires on each other.

John Locke, the great 17th century British philosopher, was one of the historic pioneers of the viewpoint that governmental authority must be based on the consent of the governed—usually called the social contract theory of government. Here is how he describes this position in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter 8:

Sec. 95. MEN being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.

Of course, we don't want to fall into a philosophy of “mob rule,” where the majority has the power to tyrannize over minorities. We want the laws and policies of society to be based on principles all people, both majorities and minorities, can share. Here is how the great twentieth-century moral philosopher John Rawls put it in his book, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 137:

Our exercise of political power is fully proper only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common human reason.

Therefore, we will want to avoid restricting the behavior of others except insofar as it is necessary to achieve the basic goals for society that we all share—such as the preservation of our lives from being taken away by others, preservation of personal property, and other such basic liberties and rights. This is the basis for the ideal of freedom of religion and conscience, such as is expressed in the First Amendment--”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”--and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18--”Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” It is inappropriate for a person to impose his/her religious values on other people through public laws and policies, for this would be to impose on other people without their consent, thus violating the very foundation of the social contract theory of government. Laws and policies should be based only on public reasons, not private ones—that is, reasons that are accessible to all through common human reason, not reasons that are believed only by a few because they are not fully objectively verifiable. Religious beliefs cannot be fully objectively verified, and therefore they fall into the private and not the public realm in this sense. They should not be made the basis of public laws and policies. The behavior of citizens thus should not be restricted on the basis of only private reasons, such as religious reasons. Leif Wenar shows how this would apply, for example, in the case of same-sex marriage:

To take a straightforward example: a Supreme Court justice deciding on a gay marriage law would violate public reason were she to base her opinion on God's forbidding gay sex in the book of Leviticus, or on a presentiment that upholding such a law would hasten the end of days. Not all members of society can reasonably be expected to accept Leviticus as stating an authoritative set of political values, nor can a religious premonition be a common standard for evaluating public policy. These values and standards are not public. (Leif Wenar, "John Rawls", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Fall 2008 Edition], Edward N. Zalta [ed.], URL = <>)

Euthanasia Can Be Ethical

On this foundation, I can begin to put forward my reasons for my position on euthanasia. Here is my basic reasoning: In the vast majority of cases, it is better to live than to die. We all naturally value our own lives and wish to preserve them. Therefore, suicide is ordinarily a very irrational act. This is why we work so hard to prevent people from committing suicide, and why we regard it in such a negative way. This is all very appropriate. Obviously, our ability as individuals and societies to survive and thrive would be greatly imperilled if we ceased to care greatly about our own lives. However, in some rare cases, it seems that a person making a careful, rational, objective evaluation of his/her options may conclude that it is better to die than to live. This will be the case when the cons of continuing to live so greatly outweigh the pros that one would not reasonably be able to achieve a sufficient level of happiness to make continuing to live worth it. Brittany Maynard's case seems to me to be just such a case. Her evaluation of her options, so far as one can tell without being Brittany herself or at least someone much closer to her, seems to have been carefully and rationally conducted, and she concluded that the sufferings and difficulties which her disease and its treatments would almost certainly bring upon her and upon her family and friends were such that it was truly better for her to die than to continue to live out the rest of her limited lifespan naturally (or unnaturally, as the case may be, with all the treatments, painkillers, etc.). I can see nothing in any of the data of her case or situation that would suggest that Brittany's conclusion or decision was in any way irrational, or that she would truly have been happier continuing to live.

It is easy to claim, as some do, that her decision was irrational, and that she would have found a sufficient happiness in continuing to live. It is easy to claim this, but much harder to prove. I think we have to ask ourselves, Who was in the best position to evaluate Brittany's options and make the decision? Surely the answer is, Brittany herself. Part of the concept of our “autonomy,” as I like to call it, is that we are the masters of our own lives. We don't like it when others don't respect that fact with regard to our own lives. When I make decisions regarding how to live my life, make use of my resources, etc., I don't want to be constantly judged by others on the basis of their own desires, speculations about what is really going on in my life and inside my head, hypothetical scenarios that aren't based on any actual facts, etc. I want people to respect me and my decisions, to give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I am a rational person capable of making rational choices regarding my own life unless there is some clear evidence to the contrary. In many cases of suicide, there is a strong degree of evidence to the contrary. If Larry says he wants to kill himself because his girlfriend broke up with him that afternoon and he is convinced that there is nothing more to live for, and he is obviously not considering the fact that these things are ordinarily gotten over, the good prospects of the future, etc., those who are in contact with Larry surely have a basis for considering that Larry is probably not evaluating his options very rationally. At the very least, they have a basis to restrain Larry until it is more clear that he is acting with his full rational capacity. We all want to be protected, not just from others, but even from ourselves in certain circumstances—insanity, debilitating medical depression or other mental disorders, etc. But Brittany's case seems obviously far different from Larry's. In a case like hers, where we cannot show some obvious irrationality, I think that proper respect for individual autonomy requires us to respect the rationality of the person's decision and his/her competence to make that decision.

Death with Dignity Should Be Legal

In a case like Brittany's where our reasonable attitude ought to be respect for the rationality of her own choice as to what to do with her own life, I think this respect extends to allowing a person the right to make use of the medical profession in carrying out his/her death if that is what he/she has chosen to do. The medical profession, like all human institutions, exists to help us live happier lives. Ordinarily, this involves trying to preserve our lives, but, as we saw above, not necessarily always. The medical profession can help a person in a case like Brittany's to die on his/her own terms in a way that is cleaner, perhaps less painful, more orderly, and in a way that can avoid the legal impediments and social stigma that (usually rightly) ordinarily attend acts of suicide.

Some would argue that doctors ought not to be allowed to aid in euthanasia, since doctors are supposed to preserve lives. Would this assisting in death, then, be contrary to their essential function? But this is too mechanical a way to view the medical profession. As I said above, the purpose of any human institution is to help us live happier lives. Of course, ordinarily doctors are in the business of preserving lives, but in those rare cases where continuing to live would truly bring more suffering than good, why should they not be allowed to provide aid by contributing their resources to helping someone end his/her life in a way more conducive to his/her happiness? I can think of no good reason.

Some people fear that allowing legalized death with dignity would inevitably lead to abuses. But I find that those who make such a claim rarely put forward specific arguments proving it in any specific way. The concern tends to be articulated merely as a vague, ominous fear, and upon investigation no rational, quantified foundation can be found for it. Oregon, and other places that allow death with dignity, place restrictions and requirements upon it to prevent abuses. If these are found to be unsatisfactory in some ways, others can be suggested. There are always some risks to any human institution, and abuses can never be wholly prevented. But we do not ordinarily ban very useful institutions for this reason alone. (If we did, we would have to ban all civil government, the medical profession in general, parenthood, etc., etc., etc.) Some of the requirements already in place in Oregon and elsewhere include things like a requirement that a person cannot have a diagnosable mental illness or depression, a requirement that a person must go through a waiting period before being able to receive aid to die, that a person must get more than one medical opinion and make the request more than once, that the doctor cannot administer the lethal drug himself, that the whole thing must be carefully documented, etc. I see no reason why, if careful regulations of this sort are in place, we need fear abuses to such an extent that we must ban medical aid in such an important area entirely.

Some people suggest that if we allow death with dignity, we will eventually be allowing doctors to kill patients at their own whims and without patient consent. But an institution based on respect for personal individual autonomy cannot logically lead to an institution based on complete disregard for individual autonomy. Sure, humans can twist anything, but if B is in truth the opposite of A it is hard to blame B on A!


To summarize my above arguments: Although it would clearly be irrational for most people to end their own lives, there are some people in rare cases in which, so far as I can see, it would not be irrational to do so, because the sufferings involved in continuing to live so much outweigh the pros of continuing to live. When a person in such a condition makes the decision to die and shows no clear signs of irrationality, respect for individual autonomy requires us to respect the person's decision and refrain from sitting in judgment over it by declaring it unethical (that is, irrational, not truly leading to happiness). Since the medical profession can provide significant aid to those who are in such a condition and have made such a decision, and there is no good reason not to, it makes sense to allow the resources of the medical community to be available to them, and so “death with dignity” should be legal, so long as proper regulations and safeguards are in place.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Protestantism, Denominational Division, and the Parable of the Tenants


Jesus's parable of the tenants in Matthew 21:33-46 is an important text for establishing how Christians should view the idea of denominational divisions within Christianity.

Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:  And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.  And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.  Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise.  But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son.  But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.  And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.  When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?  They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.  Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?  Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.  And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.  And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.  But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.

The owner of the vineyard is obviously God.  The vineyard is the people of God itself.  Who are the tenants?  They are the leaders of the Jewish people, appointed by God (Matthew 23:2, Acts 23:5, etc.) to lead his people.  The messenger servants sent by the owner of the vineyard are the prophets of old who brought God's messages to his people.  The son is, of course, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  Who are the "other tenants" to whom the vineyard will from now on be leased to?  They are the leaders of the Christian Church.  So here is the gist of the story, taking into account its real-world referents:  God formed a people for himself in this world.  He appointed the Jewish leaders to watch and rule over it and care for it (by administering its laws, teaching the people, etc.).  But the Jewish leaders did not perform this function well.  They rebelled against God and refused to fulfill their purpose.  God sent the prophets to warn them that they needed to do what God had appointed them to do, but they refused to listen and even opposed and murdered the prophets.  Finally, God sent his Son into the world as the final messenger, but the Jewish leaders rejected him and killed him as well.  This was the final straw.  God is now rejecting the Jewish leaders and punishing them, and is putting another group of leaders, the bishops of the Christian church, in charge of his people to lead, teach, and discipline them.

I want to focus on what this parable has to say regarding denominational division among the people of God.  Notice, first, that the people of God are described as a visible body with visible leaders.  They are also described as a single body.  They are an organized group with common leaders.  In effect, they are a denomination, since a "denomination" is simply a religious group with a common set of laws and rules and beliefs under a common government.  There are not multiple denominations here, since there is only one set of leaders.  There is one organization.

Notice next that up to the current time (when Jesus was speaking), there had only been one denomination from the beginning.  Never before had there been a situation in which a new denomination had been formed.  The tenants originally granted leadership over the vineyard continued to exercise that leadership until after they had rejected the Son.  There was never a previous time when that group of leaders had been rejected as a group and replaced by a new, discontinuous group of leaders.

Observe then that now, in Jesus's time, there will be for the first time a replacement of the leadership.  The old body of leaders will be ejected, and a new body will be established in its place.  The old organization, or denomination, is being rejected, and a new one formed in its place.  The new body is continuous with the old in that it is fulfilling the same basic role--to shepherd the people of God.  But the new body is discontinuous in that it is a new visible governing body.  It has been established as a new body in the place of a rejected body, as opposed to being simply a continuation of the old body.

Lastly, observe that there will never again be the establishment of a new organized body of leaders in place of the old.  Unlike with the old body, which constantly failed and was finally rejected as a failure, it is promised of the new body that it will succeed where the old one failed and therefore never need to be replaced.


As we look at the history of the people of God in the Bible, we see the pattern outlined in this parable played out.  God called his people at the beginning and gave them leaders--Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, the priests and elders appointed by Moses, etc.  These leaders in fact governed the people of God all the way up to the time of Christ, when the chief priests and the elders among the Pharisees were still ruling the people.  When Jesus walked the earth, he attended the mainstream synagogues of the Jewish people, not some break-away synagogue.  The path of the people of God in the Old Testament was very rocky (to put it mildly!).  The people were constantly rebelling against God and constantly being disciplined, restored, disciplined, restored, disciplined, restored, etc., etc., etc.  But throughout all that time, no matter how bad the people got, no matter how idolatrous they became, no matter how much they apostatized from the truth and the law of God, never did God authorize a rejection of the body of leaders as a whole or the organization of the Jewish people to form a new visible body.  The prophets were sent to the people to warn them century after century, but they never advocated forming a new organized body of the people of God--a new denomination.  There was never a time when they called for the people to leave the current organization to form a new one which would then exist separately from the old, rejected one.

The idea of forming a new denomination was actually brought up rather early, in the time of Moses.  After the people had committed the sin with the golden calf, God said this to Moses (Exodus 32:7-10):

And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves:  They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.  And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people:  Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.

God himself proposes the making of a new organized, visible body of his people out of Moses's descendants to replace the old one.  The new people would have continuity with the old one.  They would still be descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  So wouldn't that fulfill the requirements of the covenant with Abraham?  Moses didn't think so (32:11-13):

And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?  Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.  Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.

It turns out the whole thing was a test for Moses, and Moses has passed.  God agrees with Moses (v. 14):  "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people."  Of course, God was not about to forget his covenant and break his promises, but he wanted Moses to stand up for what was right himself.  (See something similar going on in Genesis 18:16-33.)

We see from this that the replacing of the old visible body with a new one is a big deal in God's view.  Even if there is a lot of continuity, it is unacceptable.  God has not just chosen for himself a vague, nebulous, semi-visible body, but one that comes with a unified, visible, governmental identity, and to destroy that organizational body and replace it with another is equivalent to forsaking God's people and trying to form an entirely new people of God.

The parable of the tenants is very reminiscent of what happened here with Moses.  But according to Jesus, what was unthinkable in Moses's day will now become a reality.  God will indeed cast off his old visible organized body and replace it with a new one, a new nation that will produce the proper fruits.  Is this incompatible with God's previous promises to Abraham?  Did the establishment of the Christian Church involve God breaking his earlier covenant promises?  It's a reasonable question to ask.  The Apostle Paul addresses the question in Romans 9-11 quite explicitly.  If you go back and read the passage, you will see that his answer has three parts to it.  The first part of his answer (9:14-33) is that the rejection of the Jews does not mean God has abandoned his promises because never has it been the case that all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have been considered children of the promise.  God has always maintained an elect group within the visible body to whom the promises ultimately apply.  But this doesn't entirely solve the problem, for Moses could have used that argument to agree to God's hypothetical plan to start all over again with him.  So Paul goes on in the second part of his answer (11:1-10) to point out that God is continuing to preserve a remnant of Jews in the Church.  It has never been and never will be only Gentile.  But even this doesn't solve the problem, for if God had started all over with Moses it could still have been said that a remnant of Abraham's descendants had been preserved.  So in the last part of his answer (11:11-32) he affirms that the falling away of the Jews is only temporary.  They will eventually be grafted back into their own olive tree.  So "all Israel will be saved" (v. 26).  This satisfies the requirement.  The visible body of the Jews cannot be rejected, because "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (v. 29).  They have been rejected, but only temporarily.  Things will be different from now on.  They will have to share the body of God's people with the Gentiles (as was always a part of the promise), but they themselves will not be permanently rejected.

So we see how seriously the Bible takes denominational division.  There is only one time in the entire history of God's people where it was right for the old organizational, governmental body to be rejected and a new one put in its place, and that was at the most central, pivotal time in all of human history--and even then, the rejection was only temporary!  And if denominational division was considered unthinkable and abominable in Old Testament times, when "failure" was the dominant characteristic of the people in terms of their ability to be the holy people God had called them to be and to keep the covenants he made with them, how much more will this be the case in New Testament times in the Christian Church!  Unlike the Old Testament community, the New Testament people are promised specifically that they will succeed where the old people failed.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)

The gates of hell prevailed against the Old Testament people of God and their governing body.  That is one of the main points of the parable of the tenants.  But an equally main point is that the gates of hell will not prevail against the New Testament people and their governing body.  We will never need to do in the Christian Church what had to happen with the Jewish Synagogue--we will never need to break away from the visible, governing institution of the Church in order to found a new one.  We will never need to reject an earlier Christian denomination in order to form a new one.  The Church has the New Covenant, whereas the Old Testament people had the Old Covenant.  The promises of the New Covenant are infinitely greater than those of the Old.  Whereas the Old had types and shadows, the New Covenant has the fulfillment and the substance.  Whereas the Old Covenant had the law and the promises, the New Covenant has the Spirit and the fulfillment of the promises.  The promise of the New Covenant is that the sins of the people will be forgiven and they will be caused to be truly righteous and holy through the redemption of Christ and the Spirit of God.  This does not mean that there is complete discontinuity.  Redemption and the Spirit of God were operative in Old Testament times, and sin is still present in New Testament times (at least until everything is brought to completion).  But there is also a radical discontinuity.  The Old Testament had righteous saints, but overall the people failed.  The New Testament has sinners, but overall the people will succeed.  The reason for this disparity is to highlight that it is only with the New Covenant that the promises of the Old Covenant can be truly realized.  The Old Covenant was never meant to be the substance and the fulfillment, but was always meant to point to and be completed by the New.


In light of all of this, I think the Protestant position on denominational division is untenable.  The Protestant position implies that the same thing that happened to the Jewish Synagogue has also happened to the Christian Church.  It went apostate to the point that the people of God needed to come out of it and abandon it and form a new organizational body (the Protestant Church).  All Protestants must hold this in order to be Protestant, for all Protestant churches have come into being by forming a new body upon the rejection of an old body previously adhered to.  The Protestant position ignores Christ's promises to his Church regarding how it would be different from the Old Testament Synagogue.

Protestants will object at this point (of course :-) ).  One objection they may raise is that the Protestant Church did not make a complete break with the Catholic Church.  They will say that the Protestant Church is actually in continuity with the older Catholic Church and is indeed its true successor.  Because of their apostasy, it is the Romanists who have truly broken off from the Catholic Church and formed a new denomination.  Now, it is true that upon a Protestant reading of things there would be true continuity between the Protestant Church and the earlier Catholic Church.  In their view, they have the same faith as the early Church.  They are still the same people of God.  All they have done is refuse to submit to the overall governing body of the Catholic Church to whom they were previously in submission and to form a new governing body to fulfill the same functions and be the true successor of the old one.  Even some of the leaders in the new body were leaders in the old one before, and so there is continuity that way as well.

But this will not save the argument, for the Christians could have said the same things upon their break from Judaism.  The Christian Church saw itself as the true successor and continuation of Old Testament Israel.  St. Paul (Romans 11) describes the people of God as an olive tree, and says that the Jews have been broken off from it and the Gentiles have been grafted on.  The Old Testament and the New Testament peoples are the same people of God, but under different dispensations of God's salvation history.  The Christian Church claimed that they were continuing the same fundamental faith of Old Testament Israel, and it was the Jews who had betrayed that faith by rejecting the Messiah.  There was even continuity in terms of individual leaders.  Some of those who were leaders among the Jews became leaders in the Church.  Think of the Apostle Paul, who was a Pharisee before he became an apostle.  Also "a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7).  So there was lots of continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament people, but this is not enough to stop Jesus from saying in the parable of the tenants that the old governing body had been rejected for a new one.  He even calls the new body a new "people" or "nation" (v. 43).  And he says that this will never happen with the new people.  The kind of break that divided the Church from the Synagogue will never happen in the Church.  There will never be a situation where a part of the older body goes out from the visible body, rejecting the decisions of its governing body, to form a new body with new overall leadership.  And yet that is exactly what happened in the Protestant Reformation.  The Protestants left the existing institution, rejected the decisions of its overall leadership, and formed a new organized body with a new overall leadership.  It doesn't matter that there was some continuity; there was not enough continuity to preserve Jesus's promises to his Church.  Protestants cannot escape the conclusion that according to their scheme it has to be said that the gates of hell prevailed against the established Christian Church, requiring them to form Church 2.0.  The gates of hell prevailed precisely in the ways that Christ promised they would not prevail.

Some more history and tradition-oriented Protestants like Anglicans will try to argue that the above arguments don't apply to them.  The Anglicans, for example, will say that the Anglican Church never broke off from the Catholic Church to form a new body.  They will say that the Anglican Church was already established before Henry VIII and so a new church was not formed.  But this is inaccurate.  Sure, there was an English church before Henry VIII, of course.  But what was it like?  It was Catholic.  More specifically, it was Roman Catholic.  Its bishops were in conscious and avowed submission to the Church of Rome.  It was not a church on its own, but was a province of a larger Church.  Its leaders were not supreme in an independent sphere, but were a part of a larger body of leaders over all the other provinces of the Church, under the supreme headship on earth of the Bishop of Rome.  And that is not merely my description of what they were; it is how they would have described themselves.  When they broke off from Rome, then, they were breaking off from the larger body they had previously been a part of to form their own new and separate organization which would now no longer be a province of the Roman Catholic Church but a distinct and independent body--indeed, a body in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, with contrary claims.  Its leaders abandoned their previously avowed foundation for their authority and made up a new basis that before they would have rejected.  Imagine that in ancient Israel some province within Israel had broken off from the rest of Israel, refused to submit to the common leaders of Israel, and set themselves up as a new independent body out of communion with the rest of Israel.  Would this not have been seen as schismatic, as the rejecting of the people of God for a new people of God?  Of course it would have (Joshua 11).  Even in less divinely-inspired human organizations we can see the same thing.  If a local branch of Wal-Mart suddenly decided that it was going to refuse to submit to headquarters, break off from the rest of the body and set itself up an an independent store in direct opposition to Wal-Mart rules, it would be silly of them to claim to be the "true" Wal-Mart.  Obviously, they are not Wal-Mart anymore, but something new, for the old body continues and this new body is, well, new, even if there is a good deal of continuity in various ways.

I have been talking above as if there is such a thing as "the Protestant Church."  But, of course, that is granting more than reality will permit.  For the Protestant Reformation was really like the starting of an avalanche on the top of a mountain.  The Protestant leaders (Luther, Calvin, etc.) were originally hoping they wouldn't have to break with the Catholic Church.  When the Catholic Church refused to do what they wanted and to change according to their desires, they had to break from it to form a new church.  They hoped this would be a one-time sort of thing, but the reality proved far different from their hopes.  Of course, what we have seen ever since is that Protestantism has exploded into a myriad of competing traditions, beliefs, and denominations.  Having started down the path of feeling it is OK to have denominational divisions, they have not been able to stop themselves from doing it again and again and again.  (It's like eating potato chips--"Once you start, you can't stop!")  It seems that just about every generation or maybe century or so (and often much more rapidly than this among some), the various Protestant churches feel it is time once again to shed their own denominations for new ones, like a snake shedding its skin from time to time.  Even Anglicans, once having broken from Rome, cannot stop themselves from shattering into little Anglican break-away groups.  Of course, it is always said that there are good reasons for any particular break.  It would seem that once breaking away is considered acceptable, there are just about always good reasons to keep doing it again and again.  But according to Christ's promise, there should never be a good reason for this.  The whole idea is based on a fundamentally flawed foundation, and I presume that the disintegration will never stop until this is recognized and Protestants go back to the point they started from and take a different direction.

Of course, Protestants may wish to argue with me on my biblical interpretation regarding these matters.  Of course they will, for that is what Protestants do, and that is precisely why they can never find unity.  Their fundamentally incorrect attitude towards denominational division is rooted in a deeper fundamental problem--the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  But this is not the place to pursue that discussion any further.  (See here, here, and here.)

I would like to end with a couple of quotations from St. Francis de Sales, who really has written one of the definitive books on this subject (and one I would highly recommend all Protestants read--you can find it here at or here or here online).  The quotations are taken from The Catholic Controversy (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1989), but the text is copied from here with some minor corrections).  de Sales is speaking to Protestants (back in the sixteenth century).

FIRST, then, your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. Wherefore they are inexcusable; and you yourselves also, who knew and still know or ought to know, this defect in them, have done very wrong in receiving them under such colours. The office they claimed was that of ambassadors of Jesus Christ Our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce between Our Lord and the ancient Church His Spouse; to arrange and conclude by words of present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. For in effect, to stand up as preacher of God’s Word and pastor of souls, - what is it but to call oneself ambassador and legate of Our Lord, according to that of the Apostle (2 Cor. v. 20): We are therefore ambassadors for Christ? And to say that the whole of Christendom has failed, that the whole Church has erred, and all truth disappeared,-what is this but to say that Our Lord has abandoned his Church, has broken the sacred tie of marriage he had contracted with her? And to put forward a new Church, - is it not to attempt to thrust upon this sacred and holy Husband a second wife? This is what the ministers of the pretended church have undertaken; this is what they boast of having done; this has been the aim of their discourses, their designs, their writings. But what an injustice have you not committed in believing them? How did you come to take their word so simply? How did you so lightly give them credit? (P. 11-12) 
But the word of Our Lord frees us from all these difficulties, who has built his Church on so good a foundation and in such wise proportions that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it. And if they have never prevailed nor shall prevail, then the extraordinary vocation is not necessary to abolish it, for God hateth nothing of those things which he has made (Wis. xi. 25). How then did they abolish the ordinary Church to make an extraordinary one, since it is he who has built the ordinary one, and cemented it with his own blood?  (P. 26)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

God's Law, Civil Law, and Liberty of Conscience in Catholic Doctrine

I would like to explore a little bit the Catholic Church's position on civil law and its authority, particularly as these relate to questions of how civil law relates to God's law and authority, secularism, sins against the "first table of the law" (i.e. false religion, blasphemy, etc.), and liberty of conscience.


A couple of relevant sections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be found here and here (particularly #1897-1904 and #2104-2109).  Here is how I would briefly summarize the basic Catholic position on civil authority:  God has created human beings and the universe in such a way that human nature naturally calls for certain forms of organization among human individuals with certain authority structures that go along with them--such as organizations of family and civil society (the state).  Since God is the author of the human nature that gives rise to these institutions, these institutions are ordained by God and therefore have his authority behind them.  Thus, in Paul's language (Romans 13:1-7), the "powers that be" are ordained of God and are thus ministers of God whom we are commanded by God's moral law to obey.  Since these institutions are "ministers of God," they do not have unlimited authority.  They only have authority when they are legitimately fulfilling their essential functions in a manner consistent with the objective moral law of God.  Essential human governments, then, are a sort of limited microcosm of God's government of the cosmos.  Just as God seeks to promote the good and condemn the evil in his government of the world, so human governments ought to rule according to God's moral law, promoting what is good and hindering or opposing that which is evil.

Since human governments, including the state, are under God's law and are ministers of God, the concept of secularism (understood as the idea that the state should refrain from endorsing any particular religious viewpoint or basing its laws on any religious viewpoint--in effect, that the state should embrace Agnosticism and base its laws on that assumption) is contrary to Catholic doctrine.  The Catholic worldview insists that just as human individuals are not morally autonomous but are under God's rule, so human societies, including civil societies, likewise are under God and are not autonomous or independent from God.  Pope Leo XIII articulated this viewpoint in opposition to Agnostic secularism very clearly in his encyclical Libertas issued in 1888:

15. What naturalists or rationalists aim at in philosophy, that the supporters of liberalism, carrying out the principles laid down by naturalism, are attempting in the domain of morality and politics. The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes itself the supreme principle and source and judge of truth. Hence, these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license. The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question. For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man's individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction to reason. To refuse any bond of union between man and civil society, on the one hand, and God the Creator and consequently the supreme Law-giver, on the other, is plainly repugnant to the nature, not only of man, but of all created things; for, of necessity, all effects must in some proper way be connected with their cause; and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher. . . . 
18. There are others, somewhat more moderate though not more consistent, who affirm that the morality of individuals is to be guided by the divine law, but not the morality of the State, for that in public affairs the commands of God may be passed over, and may be entirely disregarded in the framing of laws. Hence follows the fatal theory of the need of separation between Church and State. But the absurdity of such a position is manifest. Nature herself proclaims the necessity of the State providing means and opportunities whereby the community may be enabled to live properly, that is to say, according to the laws of God. For, since God is the source of all goodness and justice, it is absolutely ridiculous that the State should pay no attention to these laws or render them abortive by contrary enact menu [sic]. Besides, those who are in authority owe it to the commonwealth not only to provide for its external well-being and the conveniences of life, but still more to consult the welfare of men's souls in the wisdom of their legislation. But, for the increase of such benefits, nothing more suitable can be conceived than the laws which have God for their author; and, therefore, they who in their government of the State take no account of these laws abuse political power by causing it to deviate from its proper end and from what nature itself prescribes. And, what is still more important, and what We have more than once pointed out, although the civil authority has not the same proximate end as the spiritual, nor proceeds on the same lines, nevertheless in the exercise of their separate powers they must occasionally meet. For their subjects are the same, and not infrequently they deal with the same objects, though in different ways. Whenever this occurs, since a state of conflict is absurd and manifestly repugnant to the most wise ordinance of God, there must necessarily exist some order or mode of procedure to remove the occasions of difference and contention, and to secure harmony in all things. This harmony has been not inaptly compared to that which exists between the body and the soul for the well-being of both one and the other, the separation of which brings irremediable harm to the body, since it extinguishes its very life. . . . 
20. But, assuredly, of all the duties which man has to fulfill, that, without doubt, is the chiefest and holiest which commands him to worship God with devotion and piety. This follows of necessity from the truth that we are ever in the power of God, are ever guided by His will and providence, and, having come forth from Him, must return to Him. Add to which, no true virtue can exist without religion, for moral virtue is concerned with those things which lead to God as man's supreme and ultimate good; and therefore religion, which (as St. Thomas says) "performs those actions which are directly and immediately ordained for the divine honor",(7) rules and tempers all virtues. And if it be asked which of the many conflicting religions it is necessary to adopt, reason and the natural law unhesitatingly tell us to practice that one which God enjoins, and which men can easily recognize by certain exterior notes, whereby Divine Providence has willed that it should be distinguished, because, in a matter of such moment, the most terrible loss would be the consequence of error. Wherefore, when a liberty such as We have described is offered to man, the power is given him to pervert or abandon with impunity the most sacred of duties, and to exchange the unchangeable good for evil; which, as We have said, is no liberty, but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin. 
21. This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false. For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers [sic] upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide - as they should do - with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community. For public authority exists for the welfare of those whom it governs; and, although its proximate end is to lead men to the prosperity found in this life, yet, in so doing, it ought not to diminish, but rather to increase, man's capability of attaining to the supreme good in which his everlasting happiness consists: which never can be attained if religion be disregarded.

So the function of the state is to be a minister of God for the praise and promotion of good and the hindering and opposing of evil, as these are defined by God's moral law, within the bounds of civil society.  The state is, to the best of its ability, to protect the civil sphere from evil and for good.  The core of God's moral law is summarized in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, the Ten Commandments "express man's fundamental duties towards God and towards his neighbor":

The Ten Commandments belong to God's revelation. At the same time they teach us the true humanity of man. They bring to light the essential duties, and therefore, indirectly, the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of the human person. The Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law: . . . The commandments of the Decalogue, although accessible to reason alone, have been revealed. To attain a complete and certain understanding of the requirements of the natural law, sinful humanity needed this revelation: . . . We know God's commandments through the divine revelation proposed to us in the Church, and through the voice of moral conscience.

For example, the fifth commandment is "Thou shalt not kill."  The underlying principle of this commandment is that human life belongs to God and is valuable to him, and that we are therefore to respect it.  In terms of civil law, this translates into prohibitions against murder.  The state works to protect and honor human life by forbidding life to be taken, trying to prevent life from being taken, and punishing those who take it.  Oftentimes, good civil laws are agreed upon by Christians as well as by people of other worldviews, even Atheists or Agnostics, because it is apparent to human reason that the breaking of these laws would be bad for the welfare of society.  This is obviously the case with civil laws against murder in a general sense.  But sometimes there might be disagreement over civil laws arising from different beliefs and values of different worldviews.  For example, it has become common of late, and it is becoming more common all the time, for those who hold a secular (Atheist or Agnostic) worldview to defend the legalization of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) in various circumstances.  PAS is the the intentional ending of one's own life with the aid of the medical community.  According to God's law (see the Catechism, #2276-2283), suicide is a grave sin because it is self-murder.  Our lives belong to God and they are valuable to him, and therefore we should not deliberately end them even if continuing to live involves great trials.  Rather, we should seek to use our lives for the service of God and man until God himself ends them.  But in a secular, Naturalistic worldview, our lives are seen as owned ultimately only by ourselves, and our only ultimate responsibility is to our own desire to live a happy life.  God either does not exist or cannot be known to exist, and so we owe no responsibility to him, and nothing is gained by seeking to live according to what are claimed to be God's commands but what are really only the commands of ancient human beings.  Within this worldview, a plausible case can be made that it can make sense in some circumstances for people to end their own lives.  If my life has become much more of a burden than a joy (say I am sick with some disease which causes a great deal of pain or loss of dignity), why should I not choose to end it rather than continue to suffer?  And if this is a reasonable choice, why should I not be able to enlist the aid of the medical profession in carrying out this intention, just as we make use of this profession to help us in so many other areas of life?  And therefore many secularists today argue that PAS ought to be legal.  Within a Catholic worldview, however, PAS can never be approved or endorsed by the state, nor can the state ever grant a right to it, for the state has no authority to authorize what God has forbidden.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in their Declaration on Euthanasia back in 1980, put the Catholic position this way:

It is necessary to state firmly once more that nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.


Ideally, human societies ought to root out all evils among them.  But, as the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13) reminds us, until the final judgment it will not be possible to root out all evil without destroying good (and thus perpetrating evil) as well.  Therefore, while the state can never grant a right to do evil or approve of evil, there are often occasions where the state must tolerate or refrain from punishing or thwarting evil to an extent.  In doing this, of course, just as in its punishing evil and rewarding the good, the state imitates God himself, the great Governor of the universe, who allows various evils to exist somewhat unhindered for a time in order to bring about a greater good.  One simple example of this sort of situation (on a small, very temporary scale) is when a thief breaks into a house and holds its inhabitants hostage.  Theft is a violation of justice, and so ordinary the state ought to thwart and punish it, but in this case the immediate attempt to thwart the thief would likely result in the deaths of the innocent inhabitants of the house, and so the police will wisely forbear to carry out an immediate apprehending of the criminal.  This is, of course, not the same as granting a license to the thief to steal or to break into people's homes.  The state will still attempt to apprehend the thief, but it will pursue this goal over a longer period of time and in a way that will also safeguard the safety of the innocents, which is in this case the higher value.  We can think of other situations that are not so temporary, where the evil is more entrenched and harder to uproot without causing more harm and so a longer and deeper tolerance is called for.  For example, some cities might allow gangs to exist for long periods of time at their heart, not because they approve of what they are doing, but because they cannot completely eradicate them without causing more harm than good.  Or the state might allow certain speech that is to some degree offensive, not because the speech itself is approved but because the results of curtailing the speech would be worse.  (Indeed, where to draw the line in this area and how to balance the various concerns properly is the subject of a large and long-standing debate in modern western culture over so-called "hate speech regulation.")

One area that in modern times in particular demands much careful, nuanced, and balanced consideration is the question of how modern societies ought to treat violations of what is often called the "first table" of the law--that is, the first three (or four, depending on how you divide them up) of the Ten Commandments which focus more directly on man's relationship to God rather than man's relationship to man--do not worship false gods, do not take God's name in vain, keep the Sabbath day holy, etc.  Of course, secularism is dead set against any civil prohibition or punishing of these types of actions, because from an Agnostic or Atheistic point of view these aren't evil actions at all but are of no importance.  Since God either does not exist or at least cannot be known to exist, why would it matter whether someone worships the God of the Bible or Zeus, or some statue in his backyard, or whether he engages in insulting speech regarding some imaginary deity?  One might as well criminalize the insulting of the Keebler Elves.  But things aren't so simple from the Christian point of view.  In the Christian worldview, God is the Supreme Being, and he is therefore of supreme importance.  He is the fullness and source of all being, all beauty, all worth, and all good.  If human individuals and societies ought to value life and protect it, how much more should they value the honor and true worship of the one true God and the preservation of the one true religion?  As Pope Leo XIII put it in his encyclical Libertas quoted earlier,

But, assuredly, of all the duties which man has to fulfill, that, without doubt, is the chiefest and holiest which commands him to worship God with devotion and piety. This follows of necessity from the truth that we are ever in the power of God, are ever guided by His will and providence, and, having come forth from Him, must return to Him. . . . God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.

Because of this, Pope Leo is not thrilled at the secular idea that every person has a right that ought to be acknowledged by civil authority to worship whatever he wants and in whatever way he thinks fit:

To make this more evident, the growth of liberty ascribed to our age must be considered apart in its various details. And, first, let us examine that liberty in individuals which is so opposed to the virtue of religion, namely, the liberty of worship, as it is called. This is based on the principle that every man is free to profess as he may choose any religion or none. . . . [W]hen a liberty such as We have described is offered to man, the power is given him to pervert or abandon with impunity the most sacred of duties, and to exchange the unchangeable good for evil; which, as We have said, is no liberty, but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin. . . . 
This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false.

This point has been made by many popes in recent times, as the subject over the past few centuries has become a pressing one.  For some examples, see Quas Primas, Immortale Dei, Quanta Cura, and the Syllabus of Errors.

However, on the other hand, there are other important principles and facts to consider.  One of these principles is that God requires of human beings that we worship, believe in, and obey him willingly and rationally.  We have been designed by God with the capacity to examine the world around us and to seek and arrive at truth as we follow the evidence where it leads, as well as the capacity to choose freely to follow truth once we have found it.  We have a moral obligation to do these things.  Therefore, we have a right to have sufficient freedom and "free space" to be able to perform these functions.  In short, we have a right to be granted room to perform the duties of forming our moral conscience and of following it.  How much "free space" we need to be able to do this will differ in different circumstances, depending on all the factors that make this task more or less easy for us.  In some cases, forming our moral consciences (that is, using our reason to examine the evidence and come to a a conclusion as to what is right and good) might be very easy and require little time and effort; in other cases, this process might require a lot of effort and time (such as when the question is a more difficult one, or when one has to overcome opposition arising from having been trained to think in a wrong way or from being surrounded by contrary or conflicting voices).  Oftentimes, we do not engage the due diligence necessary to form and follow our consciences to the best of our ability.  Sometimes we do engage due diligence, but to some degree of innocent ignorance or confusion we arrive at the wrong conclusion.  In this latter case, the question of what our duty is becomes more convoluted.  St. Paul addresses this kind of situation in Romans 14:13-23:

Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.  I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.  But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.  Let not then your good be evil spoken of:  For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.  For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men.  Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.  For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.  It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.  Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.  And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

Here we have a situation where some people think that something is wrong to eat when in fact it is not.  But even though there is in fact nothing wrong with eating, the person who eats thinking he is doing something wrong is sinning, because he is making a choice (as he thinks) to break God's moral law.  St. Paul warns those who are not confused over what can be eaten and what cannot be eaten not to use their knowledge as an occasion to tempt into sin (to scandalize) those who do not have this knowledge.  Even if one's conscience is ill formed, it is always a sin to go against one's conscience.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its excellent summary treatment of moral conscience, puts it this way:  "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed."

What are the implications of the above considerations when it comes to civil law, particular in relation to sins against the first table of the law?  We  have seen that the state has a duty to oppose evil and to promote good.  False religion and blasphemy are great evils, and the state ought not to connive at them.  But at the same time, the state has an obligation to protect the right of citizens to form and follow their consciences (since to do so is a moral duty).  Therefore, the state must provide sufficient free space for citizens to have time and opportunity to examine the evidence in order to come to the truth in religious matters.  In a pluralistic, secular society like ours in the modern United States, this is often not an easy task.  While the objective evidence does clearly point to Catholic Christianity as the true religion, the multitude of contrary voices combined with the lack of proper training in how to sort through them and competently arrive at truth, combined oftentimes with bad religious and moral training inclining citizens to the wrong positions, creates a situation where the finding and arriving at truth in these areas can be very difficult and can require much time and effort.  (Of course, the degree of difficulty in terms of various aspects of religious and moral truth will depend partly on the degree of "apparentness" in particular truths.  The basic, fundamental truth that there is a higher Supreme Being with whom we have to do is more objectively "apparent" than some obscure point of Catholic theology in some minor area--although even in the more fundamental and "obvious" truths there can be confusion when it comes to consciously formulating and articulating the truth, so that oftentimes people might recognize "subconsciously" more than they could articulate to themselves or others consciously.)  The state will certainly need therefore to grant more time and space to citizens to work through these issues in our modern times than would likely have been needed, say, in medieval Europe at a time when nearly the entire population was Catholic and nearly everyone had had some basic training and upbringing in Catholic principles and were exposed to them (and pretty much to them alone) on all sides everyday.

And going along with this, of course, people in a modern pluralistic, secular societies are going to be more likely to fall into religious and even to some degree moral error--sometimes through their own fault and negligence, but also sometimes at least partly in spite of due diligence.  And this will create a situation where there will be many people who, through no or through relatively little fault of their own, are walking around with badly formed religious and moral consciences.  Since it is a sin to go against one's conscience, even a badly formed one, the state will need to take great care to avoid creating situations where people are coerced into sin.  The state must protect people in following their consciences even when their consciences are, to some degree, objectively wrong.  These observations of how conscience and civil law are to relate to each other, especially in our modern secular pluralistic societies, are central to Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II document in which the Church attempted to articulate some key principles in this area:

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed. . . . 
On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.(3) The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.

So we have here a tension that requires careful balancing.  The state's job is to protect and promote good and to oppose and thwart evil according to God's law to the extent that it is reasonably able to do so.  On the one hand, there is the good of the true religion, honor, and worship of God and the corresponding evil of false religion and blasphemy; on the other hand, there is the good of protecting citizens in the fulfillment of their duty to form and follow their consciences and the corresponding evil of coercing citizens to sin or preventing them from being able to fulfill their duty to rationally and freely form and follow their consciences.  How are these competing concerns to be balanced?  Neither of them are absolute--or, in other words, both of them are conditioned upon each other (and upon every other relevant consideration).  There is to be liberty of conscience, but within due limits, the limits of a just public order.  There is to be the preservation and promotion of the true religion and honor of God, but within the limits of the state's obligation to avoid violating men's consciences.  There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to how to balance these concerns.  Certainly, the principles of God's law (as opposed to secular or Agnostic or other principles of false worldviews) are to be the foundation for how these issues are to be decided in particular cases, but the particularities of the cases will be unique and therefore it will require active political prudence to decide how to balance the concerns in any given concrete situation.  The Catechism in its treatment of this question (#2104-2109--footnotes removed) puts it this way:

The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a "public order" conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner. The "due limits" which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with "legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order."

For example, as I said earlier, in the context of modern secular, pluralistic societies, there needs to be a lot more space given for conscience-formation than would have been the case probably at most times in medieval Europe.  If a person in a medieval European society were to have set up a golden calf in the middle of town, this would have been seen by everyone immediately and clearly as an attack on the honor of God and on the truth of the true religion.  It would naturally have been regarded as an act of treachery against the common core values of the society, and therefore the emphasis in that setting might best have been put not on respecting the individual conscience of the golden-calf-worshipper, but rather on protecting the just and good established values of the society and the honor of God and the true religion.  This is not to say that the state should have completely ignored the individual conscience of the idolater, but that the more immediate and greater value at stake in that setting probably would have been the objective immorality of his action considered in light of the perspective of the rest of the society.  However, in modern times, the setting up of a temple to a false god is regarded very differently by society.  It is not seen or likely intended directly as an attack on the God and faith of Catholic Christianity but as a natural expression of the consciences of particular groups within society.  In that context, the emphasis will probably be better put on protecting conscience than on punishing idolatry--not that idolatry should be considered acceptable, but that concerns about conscience would be more at the forefront.  Therefore, in modern times, there will probably need to be a greater emphasis overall on protecting conscience than punishing expressions of false religion per se.  In the United States today, it would be absurd to try to legislate overnight that expressions of non-Catholic religion should be prohibited and punished.  This would result in wide-scale serious negative reaction (even rebellion), and much of that reaction would be justified, for our action would simply make no sense to most modern US citizens, not necessarily because they are deliberately trying to fight the truth but because the idea of punishing non-Catholic religions as such would be so new to them that they simply would not be able to comprehend the rationale for it.  It would seem, and understandably so, like a fanatical attempt to impose an arbitrary tyranny over the society.  The focus at this time and in this place ought not to be on legislating bans on public displays of false religion but on evangelizing a non-Catholic culture--that is, on preaching the gospel so that individuals who make up the society can be brought to the truth.  When individuals are brought to the truth, this will naturally have the effect of altering society as well.  The Catechism puts it this way (#2105--footnotes removed):

By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them "to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they] live." The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church. Christians are called to be the light of the world. Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies.

This is not to say that we cannot legislate on Catholic principles even today.  In areas where we would do more good than harm by doing so, we have an obligation to work for the promotion of just laws in every area of social concern.  There are many areas where the conscience of society is not so confused that it is impossible to conceive even today of making and enforcing laws and policies that promote goodness and justice.  Of course, this is the case with laws against murder and theft and other things about which we Catholics are generally in agreement with others in society, but it is also true in more controversial matters--like abortion and euthanasia--where it is still feasible to expect justice to be done.  Even when it comes to expressions of religious falsehood and especially blasphemy, there is, I think, still opportunity to more immediately influence laws towards greater justice and public decency in some particular cases and ways.  (See the Catechism's discussion of the relationship between civil law and the observance of the Lord's Day--#2187-2188--for another example of this.)  And, of course, even when it would be wrong or futile to try to apply immediate civil coercion in some particular area, our long-term goal should always include (among other things) working towards establishing as much justice in civil law and policy as possible.

In short, the balancing of competing values often calls for a limited tolerance of certain evils.  Pope Leo XIII put it this way in Libertas:

33. Yet, with the discernment of a true mother, the Church weighs the great burden of human weakness, and well knows the course down which the minds and actions of men are in this our age being borne. For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. God Himself in His providence, though infinitely good and powerful, permits evil to exist in the world, partly that greater good may not be impeded, and partly that greater evil may not ensue. In the government of States it is not forbidden to imitate the Ruler of the world; and, as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence.(10) But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. In this, human law must endeavor to imitate God, who, as St. Thomas teaches, in allowing evil to exist in the world, "neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills only to permit it to be done; and this is good."(11) This saying of the Angelic Doctor contains briefly the whole doctrine of the permission of evil. 
34. But, to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires. Wherefore, if such tolerance would be injurious to the public welfare, and entail greater evils on the State, it would not be lawful; for in such case the motive of good is wanting. And although in the extraordinary condition of these times the Church usually acquiesces in certain modern liberties, not because she prefers them in themselves, but because she judges it expedient to permit them, she would in happier times exercise her own liberty; and, by persuasion, exhortation, and entreaty would endeavor, as she is bound, to fulfill the duty assigned to her by God of providing for the eternal salvation of mankind. One thing, however, remains always true - that the liberty which is claimed for all to do all things is not, as We have often said, of itself desirable, inasmuch as it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights.

Note that a limited toleration of certain evils for the sake of the overall common good is not at all the same as the modern secular notion that religious pluralism is itself a good thing, that false religion is equal to true religion, that it doesn't matter what religion people practice, or that there is some kind of right people have to practice false religion, to blaspheme God, etc.  The Catechism puts it this way (#2108--footnotes removed):

The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities.

The state, while it must sometimes tolerate evil, can never condone or grant any right or permission to practice it.

Published on the feast of St. Narcissus of Jerusalem