In his great encyclical preaching the Gospel of Life, St. John Paul II recognized the important role that politics plays in building a culture of life. Civil laws are closely tied to an individual’s awareness of the moral law and therefore always act as a great moral teacher. Unfortunately, especially from within a democratic ethos, there can be great difficulty in overturning unjust laws without widespread support and a moral catch-22 often arises. This is the experience of many pro-life politicians who find themselves trapped and unable to avoid being complicit with evil. It was in this light that the saintly Pontiff articulated an important principle encouraging those politicians to exercise what he would later call the “art of the possible.”
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects (Evangelium Vitae, 74).
In truth, John Paul II was not introducing anything novel but simply applying some long-held principles within the Church’s social doctrine to the scourge of abortion. It is well worth our time to examine these principles in depth because they have application in other arenas of social justice as well.
Morality and Legislation
There are those who contend that “you cannot legislate morality.” While this is quite obviously false, they do have a point, even if they do not realize it. While we can, should and do legislate morality, one cannot use civil law to create a utopia in which all moral evil is eliminated. This is one of the serious errors (although certainly not the only) that totalitarian regimes, especially those that are Marxist in their roots, readily make in thinking they can absolutely enforce a complete moral code from above. Even the best regimes, that is those that result in the most virtuous people, will have to exercise tolerance towards certain evils.
How do we know which ones should be tolerated and which ones should be legislated against? The logic is relatively simple—you tolerate those for which outlawing would do more harm to the common good than the evil itself does. This is why John Paul II doesn’t encourage those legislators to start a revolution and overthrow the existing government. The chaos that would ensue would do great harm to all members of society, including those most vulnerable, the very ones you are trying to protect. Relative peace and stability are part of the common good and thus cannot be tossed aside lightly.
This is not to suggest however that you must sit idly by and allow the evil to continue. Instead you should seek ways in which to limit the evil and its effects on the common good. All too often tolerance turns into acceptance which then turns into promotion and even provision. The just politician must seek solutions to limit the evil and keep it from spreading. This takes a fair amount of prudence because it always requires some accommodation with those who are bent on its continuation. Prudence should not be confused with expediency. The means of bringing about the reduction of evil should not create further evils.
Abortion is not the only application of the “art of the possible.” In fact, there is a historical example from the founding of the United States that still gets much airplay today—slavery.
The “Art of the Possible” and Slavery
Slavery, like abortion, is gravely evil and something that no society should ever have to tolerate. Nevertheless, our country had to confront this great evil during its Founding. A grave distortion, animated by political correctness, revisionist history and chronological myopia, has occurred and left blinded us to the true dilemma that the Founders faced, casting a dark cloud over what could rightly be judged as a glorious achievement.
Like the pro-life politicians of today, the Founders were in no position to outlaw slavery outright. It had become an institution upon which a number of the states had become so dependent that they would rather form their own country than to give it up. The truth is that the Union of the Thirteen Colonies was extremely fragile with very little to bind them together. In order to “form a more perfect union” they gathered in 1789 in order to re-constitute this Union with stronger ties among the states. In order for the experiment in liberty to work, they would need to band together.
As the Constitutional Congress met it became very obvious that many of the southern delegates would not bend on their support of slavery. Most of the Constitution’s framers condemned slavery, but there were powerful interests who still supported it, making those delegates demand concessions. So divisive was this issue that James Madison himself said, “the real difference of interests, lay, not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination.”
Faced with the prospect of no union at all and a union where slavery was tolerated, the Framers chose the latter. Many have asked “why didn’t the North just form their own country and leave the South to its own devices?” There is a sort of intellectual dishonesty in the question itself, because the South then would have never eliminated slavery. Even the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized this saying, “[M]y argument against the dissolution of the American Union is this: It would place the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding states, and withdraw it from the power of the Northern states, which is opposed to slavery…I am therefore, for drawing the bond of the union more closely, and bringing the Slave States more completely under the power of the free states.” Even so, the North was not strong enough to stand on its own, especially without Virginia. The greatest problem facing the new Nation was its collapse under its own weight.
The Framers decided to exercise the “art of the possible” so that the founding principle “that all men are created equal” could eventually shine forth. They did this by instituting three measures. First, they agreed that Congress could make no laws forbidding slave importation until 1808 (at which point they outlawed it). Second, they instituted the 3/5 compromise by which each slave only counted as 3/5 of a person when determining congressional representation and electoral votes. Finally, it outlawed the spread of slavery to new states and the Western territories (although not the Southern), and gave Congress regulation power over inter-state commerce, including in the commerce of slaves. In short, the framers thought that, while not eliminating it completely, they were choking it out.
Chronological myopia also creates another blind spot—what would it actually look like to free the slaves? There is the assumption that one day they would simply say, you are “free to go” and off the slaves went to live free. Most were not educated and would not have been able to take care of themselves. You could help to train them and give them the means to get started, but where was the funding to come from for this from a country that was begging other countries for loans? Most of the slaves, once freed would end up worse off than they were currently.
There was also the historical problem that no two races had ever lived together peacefully. This was foremost on the mind of Jefferson himself who said, “many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” This is exactly what happened in Haiti from 1791-1804 when every white person on the island was killed. This is why many favored colonization (a solution also supported by Lincoln) rather than citizenship.
As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, the great Civil Rights reformer, it is important that we set the record straight. The Framers may not have been prudent in their accommodations, but accusations of racism go too far, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and division. When Jefferson penned the phrase “all men are created equal,” he and his compatriots believed this included slaves as well. His further writings and those of the other founders support this. In his book Vindicating the Founders, Thomas West furnishes primary sources—writings from the Founders themselves—to, well, vindicate the founders against the accusation of racism. He thoroughly treats the subject, but five quotes in particular are noteworthy:
- Washington—“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
- John Adams—“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for he eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…I have through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in…abhorrence.”
- Franklin—“Slavery is…an atrocious debasement of human nature.”
- Madison—“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
- Jefferson–“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
In short, to use the language of Evangelium Vitae, their “personal opposition was well known.” There may have been some personal weakness in resolve, but their condemnation of it was clear. They knew that a change in the law would strengthen their personal resolve. In any regard, West’s book should be required reading for any American, especially American Catholics, if for no other reason than its clear presentation of John Paul II’s “art of the possible” in action.