It has been a common tactic by those dissatisfied with how the bishops are handling the case of the judicial diktats against our religious obligations is to accuse them of retreating from the moral teaching of the Church to the issue of religious freedom. The argument basically runs along the line of saying that the point of religious freedom has failed so far to persuade people and uses the hypothesis contrary to fact to claim that things would be different if the bishops would just make their case to the morality of the issue.
I think that such an argument, while it recognizes that we need to keep in mind the big picture of the culture war we are in, tends to miss the point about the current battle we are in, assuming a “one size fits all” approach to our opponents. The problem is, as I see it, we are facing an opponent who believes that our moral beliefs are rooted in ignorance and intolerance. In other words, they believe our religious beliefs themselves are “immoral.” As a result, they will not listen to explanations about why certain actions are always wrong—if we don’t share their views, we are just seen as trying to “explain away our bigotry."
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, wrote about the problem of disputing with groups who reject our sources of authority for assessing the truth, pointing out that we need to start by appealing to where we agree:
it is difficult to refute the errors of each individual, for two reasons. First, because the sacrilegious assertions of each erring individual are not so well known to us, that we are able from what they say to find arguments to refute their errors. For the Doctors of old used this method in order to confute the errors of the heathens, whose opinions they were able to know, since either they had been heathens themselves, or had lived among heathens and were conversant with their teachings. Secondly, because some of them, like the Mohammedans and pagans, do not agree with us as to the authority of any Scripture whereby they may be convinced, in the same way as we are able to dispute with the Jews by means of the Old Testament, and with heretics by means of the New: whereas the former accept neither. Wherefore it is necessary to have recourse to natural reason, to which all are compelled to assent. And yet this is deficient in the things of God. [Sum. Cont. Gent. 1.2]
We are dealing with a Court of Law which seems bent on denying that laws based on the Judaeo-Christian moral beliefs have any constitutional standing—and therefore such laws affirming the nature of marriage as between one man and one woman are considered a violation of the so-called “separation of church and state.” Under such (spurious) principles, government employees and business owners are denied the right to refuse to do what is contrary to their moral obligations in the eyes of God.
So, we have to start with a common reference. Because the Constitution is being held up as the standard to which these attacks are being made. The argument is that laws against “same sex marriage” violate the rights of a segment of the population, so that is where this particular battle has begun, and we have to address the attacks being made there. It does make sense to appeal to the people of good will who may not recognize the truth about sexual morality but do want to seek the right thing. Of course, we cannot stop there. We have to show why our teachings are true. But first we have to get them to listen.
St. Justin Martyr recognized this concept when he wrote his First Apology. In writing to the Emperor, he started by appealing to the shared value between Christianity and the Stoics—justice and doing right:
Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless. For not only does sound reason direct us to refuse the guidance of those who did or taught anything wrong, but it is incumbent on the lover of truth, by all means, and if death be threatened, even before his own life, to choose to do and say what is right. Do you, then, since ye are called pious and philosophers, guardians of justice and lovers of learning, give good heed, and hearken to my address; and if ye are indeed such, it will be manifested. For we have come, not to flatter you by this writing, nor please you by our address, but to beg that you pass judgment, after an accurate and searching investigation, not flattered by prejudice or by a desire of pleasing superstitious men, nor induced by irrational impulse or evil rumours which have long been prevalent, to give a decision which will prove to be against yourselves. For as for us, we reckon that no evil can be done us, unless we be convicted as evil-doers, or be proved to be wicked men; and you, you can kill, but not hurt us.
[Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin” Chapter II, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 163.]
However, just because we have to start there, in this battle, does not mean we have to remain there. St. Justin Martyr started his defense of Christianity by pointing out that justice forbids punishing a man just because he is a Christian, pointing out that punishment must only be meted out for the wrongdoing. He establishes this point before attempting to show the righteousness of the Christian faith. He knows that Christianity, as a persecuted religion, has no standing in the eyes of the rulers of the empire.
I think it is safe to say that in the eyes of lawmakers and judges, Christianity has no standing, and its teachings—or, rather, the misinterpretations of Christian teachings—are seen as repugnant. So, we must start with the values they claim to recognize (in this case, the Constitution) and show that the actions they are taking go against these values. St. Justin Martyr would point out that if those who he addressed refused to do what was just, they would betray what they stand for. Ultimately, that is what we must do when those in authority are hostile to us. We must point out that if they truly value the Constitution, they must respect it when it comes to the freedom of religion, and not treat our religious obligations as contrary to the Constitution.
As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out when it came to using reason, this is deficient in the things of God. Likewise, merely reaching out to them at the level of the Constitution is deficient. We do need to go beyond the issue of the Constitution when it comes to preaching the Gospel and explaining why we must avoid certain acts. The Church does do this. But I think that the people who charge that the bishops are “retreating,” need to realize that those who refuse to listen to our teachings must be reached out to in ways where they might listen.
If they don’t (and it happens—there’s a reason that we refer to St. Justin as “St. Justin Martyr”), then it means we will have the harder task of evangelizing under a soft persecution, where the courts and lawmakers determine that they can set aside their laws arbitrarily. But, we certainly should reach out to people of good will beginning with the grounds they have in common with us. If we don’t, then we will be retreating.