November 23, 2009
President Obama is just returning from China having gently mentioned to the butchers of Beijing that human rights are important. The witness for human dignity will continue in China, but it will not be the soft approach of kowtowing to dictators while speaking softly to them.
How do we know?
The Chinese Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders do not have the luxury of fleeing to the West. It is their nation, their people, and their divine mission to stand for human rights. The Bible links the gospel to basic decency in this life when it says a hungry man needs more than cheering up and a sermon.
In China Catholic bishops face persecution for standing up to the totalitarian and wicked government. All Christians suffer daily persecution and some end their days in horrific reeducation and work camps. It is no longer fashionable to mention these things, but they are true.
Every culture has blind spots and fashions in morality come and go. The teachings of the Church founded on natural reason and divine revelation do not change, though they can adapt to different circumstances. It was not fashionable to believe in God or morality in Russia in 1918. The "youth" appeared to be heading in the same direction, but the true Orthodox Church maintained a persistent and silent witness against the grave injustices perpetuated by the government.
There is nothing new about Christians witnessing for human rights. Even in this great land it has sometimes been necessary for the Catholic Church to stand against a wicked temporary consensus to do evil. As a result, Catholics were viciously assaulted, caricatured, and entire political movements were formed around bigotry against Catholic teachings.
The United States is a great nation with a great history. Like China and Russia, we have much to make us proud as we survey our history, but we have also been guilty of some very bad actions. Slavery and the slave trade were two such abuses. Our frequently abusive treatment of Native Americans was another. Sometimes the church went along with the political majority or was silent.
Fortunately there was always a Christian voice decrying these injustices, though sadly no particular group of Christians has ever been perfect in this area.
Some would have the bishops be silent when they see evils. They would have them stick to "spiritual" issues and leave their morality within the pews, but this tactic has been tried and found wanting. On those occasions when individual Catholic bishops have not stood for human rights and dignity, they have shamed themselves and the Church.
There is, at least, in Christianity a standard by which to judge the actions of even the most powerful. Popes condemned slavery numerous times long before the Civil War, but American bishops before the Civil War often were silent, preferring to cater to local parish opinions. This was wrong and a scandal to Christian conscience. They did not interfere and it cost them moral authority.
Protestant ministers took up the task of abolition instead and were the main leaders in the movement. They defended the Pope's position, but received too little help from the Pope's American bishops! By catering to the religious right of his day using Evangelical language Lincoln was elected and shaped the early Republicans.
At the time many of the fashionable elite, even amongst Christians, would attack those Christians who would not accept the abuses of human dignity. They warned darkly of theocracy. Abolitionists were accused of undue mixing of religion and politics and the religious Republicans were used to scare voters in other areas.
The good news for Christians is that there was never a time when there was not an active Christian witness. Those who stood against the fear mongers and spoke prophetically are honored today. Power corrupts even churchmen, but by the grace of God never absolutely, and Jesus is never left without a voice in human affairs.
The voice of Jesus Christ always rises above the changing temper of the times. Sometimes men will justify libertine ways and call it liberty. Others will abuse human right in the name of order while still more will call their decay progress.
The voice of reason and revelation, the voice of Jesus, stands against all of it and calls men to rationality and moral sanity. It is the constant in changing times.
Fortunately in our Republic, just as a man does not lose his right to influence public policy when he becomes an atheist, so he does not lose his right to speak when he puts on a bishop's robes. Atheist leaders will stir up those that agree with them and bishops are free to do the same.
It is, therefore, normal for our Republic and highly commendable that the Catholic bishops have taken a stand for health care. They are committed to health care for all as the numerous Catholic hospitals and charities demonstrate. These institutions have been devoted to serving the poor for decades, but they will not compromise their moral values to do it. You cannot help the poor by killing the weak. While the Catholic bishops have also consistently pressed for help for the poor and the right of men to dignity in their labor, they know a man must first be born in order to have rights.
You cannot solve the problem of poverty by killing children and expect to be anything other than a monstrous nation. Abortion is not health care, but the taking of a human life.
All Christians, including those of us who are not Catholic, must be thankful for the present stand of the bishops against this abuse. They favor health care for all, but they do not favor death for any.
Their moral witness is an important aspect of the Christian message and is consistent with their stands in other nations, including nations far more brutal such as China. In a republic it is a message that we can freely heed if we are wise.