The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Altar of the State

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, sharply criticizes the late Pope John Paul II. His criticism has three parts. The first is a grade-school complaint about the problem of pain, which can safely be ignored. The second, and weightiest, part is an attack of the Vatican's handling of Cardinal Bernard Law, who fled there when his involvement in his diocese's pedophilia scandal became apparent. This is a strong point, which Hitchens makes with his characteristic force. But in the followup and final part, he goes entirely off the rails:
A few weeks ago, when the Supreme Court ruled against the execution of minors and specified the need to conform to international consensus on this, the Christian Right was outraged at the idea of foreign governments influencing American courts. But Terri Schiavo's parents were in court only moments afterward, instructing their lawyer to ask a judge to consider the church's [sic] teaching on purgatory and hell, and the state of the late Ms. Schiavo's soul. The Vatican is actually a foreign government, recognized as such by an exchange of ambassadors. Are we expected to be complacent when its clerical supporters try to short-circuit the U.S. Constitution with pleas of this kind?
This nonsense rests on a peculiar conflation of ideas. To equate the influence of foreign courts with that of foreign theologians, Mr. Hitchens ignores the faith of Americans. The Church's teaching is not in itself important to the court; it is relevant because it codifies the beliefs of a significant part of the citizens from whose consent the court derives its just powers.

In fact, Mr. Hitchens has unwittingly laid bare precisely what is most repugnant about Justice Kennedy's opinion in Roper v. Simmons. Mr. Kennedy takes the moral advice of foreign dignitaries who prosetlyze "evolving standards of decency" -- this is fundamentally the same as taking the spiritual advice of foreign religious leaders, except that the religion in question is Progress rather than Christianity. His decision to impose moral leadership by the courts, rather than respect the beliefs of the citizenry, is deplorable for precisely the same reasons that the Schiavos' appeal is justified.

Mr. Hitchens concludes:
But let nobody confuse the undermining of a Stalinist bureaucracy in a majority Catholic nation [Poland] with the insidious attempt to thwart or bend the law in a secular democracy. And let nobody say that this is no problem.
Well, let me be the first to say that the exercise of power by the citizens of a nation, guided by their belief in what is right, wielded without the advocacy of coercion, is no problem.