Catholicism and Libertarianism


If there is one thing that the 2016 Presidential election taught me, it’s that, as a Catholic, I feel politically homeless.  As our two party system continues to become more polar, Catholics often straddle the line between the two in a gray area where neither party truly represents them.  Personally, I’ve always leaned to the conservative side of the spectrum, but I found myself losing faith in supposedly conservative political entities.  It is a sinking feeling to come to all of these realizations, because it feels like the current political structure has de facto placed a sign on its door that says “Catholics Need Not Apply.”  Something started to go missing, and I needed to take some time to reflect in order to put my finger on it.

After gathering my thoughts, and with the political turmoil engulfing the country, I realized that my views weren’t necessarily “conservative.”  Conservative, by its very nature, is a nebulous term, since any major change in law or policy technically changes who is the conservative.  As Hannah Arendt once said, and I’ve probably quoted multiple times throughout the years, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

On this most recent journey of introspection, I found that my views were actually better defined as libertarian.  After that revelation, I also found that both major political parties have essentially abandoned most notions of libertarianism, despite it being the core of this nation’s founding.  As most libertarians would agree, I realized my political leanings were not so much about left and right, but rather state and individual.  What truly surprised me, though, is how much libertarian principles can be seen in the teachings of the Catholic Church.


I think most, when asked, would not associate the Catholic Church with libertarianism.  Catholicism often gets associated with some form of strict legalism or moralism.  However, nothing can be further from the truth, and there is a great deal of detailed thought under the misunderstood surface.  Catholicism actually has a great deal to say about the concept of freedom, and this is born from the very root of its understanding of the human person.

The United States of America, from the moment of the Declaration of Independence, prefaced everything on defining the core concept of freedom and rights being innate in human beings.  Everything flows from first laying down that foundation, which was so elegantly laid out centuries ago:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The truth, which is self-evident by virtue of our very nature, is that we are endowed with certain rights.  While the “CREATOR” part can be left out for other debates, it is still important in understanding that rights are innate in our being and, therefore, NOT defined or granted by others.  If they were, then they would not be unalienable and would be rendered meaningless through relativism, since they could be changed or redefined on a whim based upon the views of whoever held power at the time.  Human beings intrinsically have, therefore, a right to freedom in their lives, most notably to pursue the ever elusive idea of happiness.

This freedom provided to us by our unalienable rights is actually at the very heart of the Catholic understanding of the human person through how Catholicism views man’s creation.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.”

“Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” –St. Irenaeus

This is rooted in Biblical teaching in Sirach 15:14, which reads:

When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice.

Again, leaving aside any debate about the existence of God, the Catholic Church clearly teaches man is free and has control over his own actions.  After establishing that mankind has freedom, the Catechism elaborates on it further by defining it:

1731 Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.

This was intended and desired, with man having the ability to freely choose his path in life.  There is, of course, the hope that we will seek the good with that freedom, in which the Catholic Church believes freedom can find its perfection, but if we were forced in that direction we could not then argue that we are free by nature.  Being free, then, leaves open the possibility of making right and wrong choices:

1732 As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.

Although expressed by the notions of good/evil and perfection/sin, this is no different than pointing out that, even though we are free to act, we are not free from the consequences of our actions.  Freedom is a necessity, but the ability to act or not within our will can (and is) abused when used in a way contrary to what is good.

So, there is a great deal in common between what has been expressed in the Catechism about the nature of freedom and libertarianism: man is, by its very nature, a free entity, and man has the natural right to freely act according to his will.  In other words, man has personal autonomy.  It is true that Catholicism takes that and applies it to what we should do with our freedom, but it never abandons the fact that true freedom of action to shape one’s own life, as opposed to force, is the key to our very being.


The above notions of personal autonomy establish a fundamental understanding of the human person in terms of our innate rights to life and freedom, but the world contains more than just one of us.  We work together, have relationships, and, unfortunately, we sometimes butt heads.  Inevitably, then, the conversation will turn to what role our human institutions and governments have in relation to the freedom of the individual.  Libertarian ideals seek to maximize the amount of personal autonomy and limit government power over the individual, so chief among government’s roles is the protection of our freedoms.  Again, the Catholic Church agrees:

1738 Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect.  The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.

Even with acknowledging the right to exercise our freedom and the necessity of recognizing it and protecting it, Catholicism largely doesn’t give a blueprint on how government should do so.  Different Popes at different times have railed against the wrongs they see in different systems, whether it was St. Pope John Paul II speaking about socialism or Pope Francis warning of the materialism that can come with an idolization of money.  The criticisms are for different reasons, whether it be a lack of protecting the right to exercise our freedom or the abuse of the freedom we do have protected.  Still, some of the greatest Catholic thinkers have pondered the limits of human laws, and there are, again, libertarian overtones when these issues arise.  St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, had the following to say about law and morality:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like…

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Proverbs 30:33): “He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood”; and (Matthew 9:17) that if “new wine,” i.e. precepts of a perfect life, “is put into old bottles,” i.e. into imperfect men, “the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,” i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.

The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law: while human law falls short of the eternal law. Now Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence. Nor, if this law does not attempt to do everything, is this a reason why it should be blamed for what it does.” Wherefore, too, human law does not prohibit everything that is forbidden by the natural law.

Limiting the scope of law, particularly when it applies to “victimless crimes,” is an ideal that many libertarians share.  Aquinas pointed out, succinctly, that human law is not designed to make man perfect and that it is also not necessary to legislate all of morality.  In fact, in man’s flawed existence, you couldn’t possibly legislate man into a state of virtue.  So, the real focus of the law should be for the most serious offenses, and should also be further focused on those offenses that harm others.  This is reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s definition of rights and liberty:

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

In essence, if each person is represented by a circle, we form a massive Venn diagram where the equal rights of others intersect.  In those intersecting areas is where you will find the most proper use of law to protect the public from, as Aquinas put it, the most grievous of vices or to adjudicate disputes.


Elaborating on the freedom of the individual and the importance of government to protect that freedom within a limited human law, it should be apparent that the Catholic Church views personal autonomy to be not only important, but integral to the very dignity of the human person.  Therefore, logically, any infringement upon man’s freedom robs him of his dignity, but there are many ways freedom can be attacked.  We often think of clear examples, such as slavery, but there are far more insidious ways freedom can be indirectly extinguished.  One such way is by usurping man’s activities and responsibilities.

Although not called by the name subsidiarity, Pope Leo XIII prepared the foundational principles of the concept in his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum.  Rerum is a direct commentary on socialism and its inevitable effects on man, where Leo XIII defends private property ownership and the importance of man’s labor.  Through that defense, he wrote the following:

The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop.

Forty years later, as the name literally states, the condemnation of a usurpation of man’s actions was expanded further by Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo anno:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

All of Quadragesimo is a very detailed piece about man and government, written at a time that saw the rise of Nazism and Communism on one hand and the entrenching and expansion of capitalism on the other.  In it, Pope Pius XI also warns against the reduction of all things into the two spheres of the individual and the state, making the case for multiple social units between them.  This includes everything from the family to local governments, non-profit organizations, and corporations.  This hierarchy of social order, between individuals and the State through various social structures that promotes “Industries and Professions” for man to exercise his freedom with others, strikes a balance between statism and complete individualism.  In more clear terms, subsidiarity as a concept presents a strong case for limited government.

Between the two documents, a picture of limited government is painted that places as much focus as possible on the smallest units of social life.  Government’s limited role, then, is only to support smaller units in those functions that they cannot handle on their own.  To take away a smaller social unit’s function is to rob the individuals of their usefulness and dignity.

The commitment to the concept of subsidiarity didn’t end there, as St. Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus annus on the 100th anniversary of Rerum.  The position remained the same, notably:

In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called “Welfare State”. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

The principle of subsidiarity has had a large effect on institutions outside of the Church as well.  The European Union uses subsidiarity as a core concept in its functionality as a governing body.  Also, the United Nations has even noted its usefulness, stating in its Development Programme’s 1999 report:

Decentralization, or decentralising governance, refers to the restructuring or reorganisation of authority so that there is a system of co-responsibility between institutions of governance at the central, regional and local levels according to the principle of subsidiarity, thus increasing the overall quality and effectiveness of the system of governance, while increasing the authority and capacities of sub-national levels.

Many libertarians hold that self-governance is an important principle, and subsidiarity is largely a parallel concept that guides how limited a government should be with its responsibilities.  It by no means ends with Papal encyclicals, either.  Many great Catholic writers and thinkers, from G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Day, have added their thoughts on the matter.  Unfortunately, even amongst modern Catholics, the idea of subsidiarity is not discussed much, but hopefully that will change as we continue to live under an ever-expanding bureaucracy.


It is, of course, difficult to reduce 2,000 years of thought into a single essay on the subject of man’s nature and social interactions.  However, what should emerge, from examining specifics, is that the Catholic Church does share many core values and teachings with the principles of libertarianism.  Both see the individual as a free entity, both see the government’s chief responsibility as the protection of those individual freedoms, and both desire that the protection of that freedom arises from a limited government that leaves man able to best express and utilize his freedom.

Libertarianism is a large umbrella with a diverse people underneath it, and although there may be disagreement on moral principles in the end, Catholicism undeniably agrees on the value of freedom to pursue the truth through man’s own rational thought as a means.  Many issues today are best left to that realm, through discussions between human beings in a more broadly social context rather than by the force of law.  Evangelization, at the end of the day, is based on that principle.  No one is mandated to be a Catholic, but Catholics believe we are to help others seek truth.  Whether it is a religious issue or a broader social discussion, reaching out to people on a personal level about what you believe and finding the truth toegether can only be truly preserved in a society where men are free to search themselves in order to decide on their own.  Catholics and other libertarians may disagree on where ultimate truth resides, but both support the mechanisms of freedom that allow us to have that conversation.

As a Catholic, I have come to the conclusion that I need to follow my conscious on the principles of the condition of the human person, on the law, and on the concept of subsidiarity in the greater context of Catholic social teaching.  I’m not sure that the current two party system presents an option for those ideals, nor could a binary system ever accomplish that.  In the end it is, of course, up to the individual, but I think the time is right for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to stop being politically homeless and search for another option that fits them more closely.  Considering what Catholicism has taught, and seeing how it is written on the very heart of the United States in its founding principles, perhaps libertarianism can provide the roof Catholics have been missing for so long within our political system.  I think the time is right for many groups of people, including Catholics, to start building their own custom homes rather than accepting the two cookie-cutter models.


The Diversity Paradox

During this past Independence Day, the Ad Council posted a video featuring John Cena about “true” patriotism.  During the three and a half minute spot, John Cena gives a seemingly stirring speech about what makes America great.


I’m particularly amazed at how cameramen can walk backwards while filiming like that.

While obviously not the intention, this video accurately summarizes one of the more misunderstood concepts in modern American culture: diversity.  Diversity is pushed hard in virtually every avenue of life, and diversity is extolled around every turn.  This video is a perfect example of that.  We push diversity so much that it is essentially viewed as a virtue.  However, is diversity really a virtue?  Is it something we should strive for or want for its own sake?  Where is its true value?


John Cena, in that short three minutes or so, utters two sentences that perfectly show the confusion surrounding diversity:

“We know that labels don’t devalue us, they help define us.”

“Love has no labels.”

There is an incongruity between those statements.  On the one hand, labels are fantastic and keep us “dialed in” to who we are.  That’s a good thing, right?  Yet, on the other hand, labels are something that should be absolutely ignored or overlooked when it comes to love and acceptance.  How can a label be simultaneously important and forgotten about?  How are they a positive on one hand and a negative on the other?  How can we call attention to our differences as defining principles but then complain when we notice them?

“Diverse” is simply a descriptive adjective.  By saying that something is diverse, you are simply saying that there are many differences present.  It describes something much like noting color, size, or location by pointing out that there are, in fact, many colors, sizes, and locations present.  These descriptive adjectives are all effectively means to an end for us to get a grasp on the substance of a person, place, or concept.  Diverse is, at its core, a label that tells you that there are many labels, so diversity is merely a state of being where there are many differences in your midst.


We have, somehow, gotten to a point where merely being in a state of diversity is something we strive for.  However, just being in such a state does nothing on its own.

By extolling the virtues of diversity as a thing to be desired as a state of being, it creates an atmosphere where it is considered good to be different for its own sake.  It creates an environment where, to maintain the good, we have to remain in a state of division.  If being different is good, then isn’t being the same bad?  If diversity is good, then is lacking diversity, by definition, bad and something to be avoided?  This constant desire to maintain diversity for its own sake has led to two things: segregation and division.  We group ourselves and bar entry to outsiders.  We constantly point out differences and place labels, while simultaneously lamenting the tribalism that it (naturally) creates.

The ironic thing about diversity for its own sake is that it creates social enclaves and pockets of conformity.  It attempts to paradoxically prove inclusiveness by showing the maximum amount of exclusive compartmentalization possible.  We all stand in our own circles surrounded by people that share the same label, creating an echo chamber around ourselves.  We can’t ever let our circles intersect, because finding common ground means that you are eliminating difference, and the less difference there is then the less diversity there is.  Likewise, finding common ground is one less label you can use to differentiate yourself from others.  Diversity for its own sake seeks to keep things apart.

It should be no surprise, then, that there is animosity amongst our fellow countrymen in this kind of state.  Unfortunately, that makes people easy prey.  Anger has a tendency to be the strongest glue in a crowd and the easiest emotion to exploit, so keeping people focused on their separation is a never ending source of grievances that can be smothered in promises by the powers that be.  It inevitably leads to groupthink, where group identity trumps rational thought and analysis.  In terms of influence, collective thought allows one to address a multitude of people in the same time it would take to reach just a single person of independent thought.  It is, of course, on its fullest display in America’s two party system, where we are consistently presented this false dichotomy of a never-ending state of red/blue difference every time we vote.

So, if desiring diversity for its own sake is not the way to go about it, what should we make of diversity?


The confusion comes from desiring diversity as an end and not a means.  It’s actually an easy mistake to make, because using diversity as a means creates a counterintuitive result when used properly.  What we should be using diversity for, and where its place is in terms of our culture, is precisely in finding the common ground or arriving at a common answer.  In essence, we need to use diversity with an eye towards how it unifies.

In Latin, the root word for diverse is divertere, “to turn in opposite directions.”  It’s the same root word for divert, which is very apt for this discussion.  It’s easy to visualize this as a fork in the road, with each new path going someplace different.  Celebrating diversity as an end praises the fork in the road itself rather than recognizing where you came from or where you are going.  If you stood at a fork in the road, looking at the paths ahead, and did an about face, you would recognize that the diverging roads actually both stem from a common point.  The reality is that divergence and convergence simply depends on which direction you are looking.  Diversity is a useful tool, then, when looking for a convergence from multiple angles.  A diversity of thought and backgrounds provides an array of perspectives into a possible problem with an eye towards finding a common answer.

By means of analogy, diversity as a tool is like a room full of people that have each brought a different puzzle piece with them.  Individually, the puzzle piece is unique to them in terms of size, shape, color, and a variety of other reasons.  If we left it at that, and celebrated that state of being, nothing would get accomplished.  Everyone would hold onto their own puzzle piece and compare it to others.  Some would feel their piece is inadequate, others that their piece is better than the rest.  However, if everyone used their unique piece to build the puzzle together, everyone would be able to partake not only in the final product, but their own unique contribution to it.  Each person could then see how their own portion fits into the bigger picture and then, oddly enough, they would be sitting in a room where there is one large idea in common rather than a bunch of small ones that are different.

People aren’t the best problem solvers when everything fits the same role.  No football team has eleven quarterbacks on the field at once, a person cannot be healthy by eating bread alone, and a worker cannot fix a wide variety of issues with hammers only.  Indeed, when looking at diversity, we should strive to build the biggest toolbox possible and recognize that the problem to be solved is a shared one.


So, we are still left with a paradox: unity through difference.  This concept, however, isn’t new.  It has a perfect representation in Christian thought through its depiction of the body of Christ.  1 Corinthians 12:12-27 presents this paradox poetically in how we stand with one another:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Despite a continuing confusion about how diversity should be treated and celebrated, and despite our current divisions, America provides great potential to act as one body through our diversity.  It is precisely the liberty America was founded upon that not only binds us together with common purpose, but also allows us the freedom to flourish in our differences.  So, in pursuing diversity, we should seek to emulate the example of the body of Christ.  We should not merely celebrate our differences or focus on them as an end, but rather recognize them as a means to see the bigger picture.  And, most importantly, we need to recognize that we’re all in this together, whether hand, foot, ear, or eye.

In the end, contrary to Mr. Cena’s take on things, love doesn’t necessarily ignore labels.  It does, however, recognize the importance of how our differences are necessary to the whole by seeing a body with parts, yet no divisions.

War of All Against All


So it finally happened. The build-up of an entire season, the tension, and every drop of sweat that came with it, all pointed to the moment where we would meet him: Negan, the man, the legend. The one with a pentient for words, ascots, and bats wrapped in barbed wire who possibly share a name with your grandmother.

Of course some people hated the cliffhanger. Someone was going to die, and God forbid Americans get denied their vicarious bloodshed. But, that’s beside the point. When Negan pointed Lucille at the camera after his pee pee pants city version of eeny meeny miney moe, he did something more than pick which actor was not getting their contract renewed. He was going to murder your very idea of morality with a handful of Hobbesian swings to its head.


Ok, so it’s possible that the writers weren’t thinking about any deep moral implications when they wrote any of it, but they are certainly there at a base level. Negan’s character was, by Robert Kirkman’s admission, supposed to present a kind of moral ambiguity:

Negan is kind. Negan is respectful. Negan is psychotic. Negan is ruthless. This is a very nuanced character that has a lot of different shades to him.

As Rick and Co. were trying to get Maggie to the Hilltop to potentially save her unborn child, most people recoiled and watched in horror as Negan’s Saviors slowly showed their size, cunning, and as Kirkman put it, ruthlessness. These are really, really bad people. I mean sure, Rick murdered a bunch of people in their sleep, but Negan is awful.

Look at Negan’s Saviors, though. Look at how many of them there are. Never before have we seen a group of survivors so large. He has assembled a large group of people under the same flag, and he seems to be able to take care of them all. Isn’t that good and noble? Arguably, up to this point, no one person in the entire show has “saved” as many people as Negan obviously has. If the end goal of a zombie apocalypse is to restart the human race, Negan seems to be fairing much better than anyone else.

So therein lies the greater questions. Is Negan truly bad? How can you tell? How do you know? Really, ask yourself if Negan is bad or wrong. It’s important because the interaction between the Saviors and Rick’s group are not only putting social contract theory on full display, but also because it’s calling into question the very origins of morality.


So, I’ve written a lot about The Walking Dead for the past month or so, and arguably that’s because this season has done for us what it has done for the characters: given us time to think. The viewers were in survival mode as much as the survivors as we watched them being funneled into what seemed like a whole lot of forced choices. Recently, the story has focused on the characters being able to catch their breath for stretches (between Wolves, hordes, and other assorted things) and actually think about what’s going on, allowing us to ponder some of the same things.

In those other musings, I discussed the family being the building block of society and how our fledgling Ricktatorship made its first societal decision to go to war. Inevitably, we now have societies interacting and not just individuals, but how are these societies forming? What is the glue that keeps these societies together that are starting to spring up all over the countryside?

While not explicit, we have seen the manifestation of social contract theory. Social contract theory has been around for a long time in one form or another, but they generally share the idea that societies are created when individuals, upon interacting with other individuals, cede some of their freedom to an authority in exchange for protection of their other freedoms. In essence, theories generally start off with an individual in nature, by himself or herself, and then try to describe why they would enter into society with other individuals. There has to be an original state of man before we can figure out why one would want to join with others.

Even though the roots are deep, the Enlightenment really brought social contract theory into its own, particularly through the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.


Thomas Hobbes was influential on social contract theory through his book, Leviathan.

Dude needs an ascot and some barbed wire around that scepter-thing.

Dude needs an ascot and some barbed wire around that scepter-thing.

In the writing, Hobbes tried to imagine man in his original state, or “state of nature” for the individual, with no government or controlling entity over him. To Hobbes, a person in the state of nature had the right to everything and anything in the world. While that might sound fantastic, it truly isn’t for Hobbes, considering that you probably aren’t alone. If others are out there in the state of nature, they, too, have a right to everything in the world. This ultimately leads to, as Hobbes put it, bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of all against all. It led to his famous description of life in this state:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

An individual, by himself, has no one to answer to but himself, but he is driven by the constant fear of being killed by others who likewise don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves. At some point, to remove the most fundamental fear of the individual, two or more people are driven to decide that they will accept not being killed in exchange for their ability to kill others. Society starts off, then, as a form of cold war through mutually assured destruction. Joe gives up his right to kill others without consequence if John also gives up his right to do the same. So, no one kills anyone else not because it is inherently wrong, but rather because they don’t want to be killed. The only way to make sure this rule stays in place is to have some form of governing body to monitor it, and voila, society is born.

Of course it gets more complicated once we get past not murdering each other, but we have to start somewhere. This actually evolved into the theory of realism in international politics, where societies then become like individuals in the state of nature when interacting with other societies in the infinite struggle of maintaining oneself in exchange for not offing your neighbor.


John Locke’s work, although still social contract theory, differed pretty substantially from Hobbes. Whereas they both agreed that people are inclined to form societies out of the state of nature, Locke essentially argued that there was morality to human action prior to the social contract as opposed to evolving from the social contract. To Locke, there was the Law of Nature that dictated action, and what people lacked was the power to protect their own rights from others who violated the Law of Nature. The State, then, would be mutually agreed upon by individuals seeking to protect themselves from those that would seek to injure them.

Natural Law is central to much of Western thought, from the ancient Greeks to Catholic theology. In discussing Natural Law, Cicero put it succinctly (as quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church):

For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense… To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely.

In essence, there is an inherent order to nature that is universal and unbreakable. This law exists above and beyond man and, although we may violate the law (and hence why we would want protection from its violation by forming society), it can never be legislated away. As I’ve written before, the idea of Natural Law is actually central to the very foundation of the United States of America.


Why social contract theory is so interesting when held up to The Walking Dead is because we have been witnessing man in the state of nature throughout most of the series. Think about it, if you were a lone survivor wandering through the wilderness (a la Enid eating a turtle), what possibly guides your actions? How can any modern notion of action apply to a situation where there is no actor but yourself? How can modern moral relativism, where we define morality simply by whether or not it hurts others, matter at all when there are no others to hurt?

This is the state that most all survivors are found in, and whether they started as a small group or they were an individual found by others, at some point they gave up a little bit of their freedom of action in that state of being in exchange for greater protection as a member of the group. In Negan’s case, he brokered this exchange under his own authority, as opposed to Rick’s more organic form of coming into a leadership role. Still, each new cast member on the show had, at some point, their social contract moment.

We are seeing, then, the most basic functional society possible in terms of being ostensibly one step removed from individuals in a state of nature. However, now we have the Hobbesian realism where we are simply trading single celled organisms in a state of nature for multi-celled organisms in a state of nature. Conflict may be averted between individuals, but now we have conflicts with societies. So, in a state of nature such as this, how is Negan the “bad guy” of the story?

What the conflict between the Saviors and our survivors is doing is putting the very root of our morality to the test by laying it bare. If morality is relative, if morality has no basis other than being a result of mutually assured destruction via social contract, then you cannot possibly argue that Negan is, in fact, bad. His Saviors are the new collective individual in the state of nature, and with their size, he has no reason to enter into a social contract with Rick’s group. Rick tried, he asked to talk it out, but why should Negan talk anything out? Rick had no power. The tables had turned from when Rick had the upper hand and refused to talk it out while he killed a few Saviors in their sleep. What Negan is showing you is the ultimate end of moral relativity, as this is exactly what it looks like. There is no authority higher than mankind and its social contracts, and Negan has no one to answer to but himself because he controls all of the contracts.

Does that sit well with you? Or do you still feel like Negan is bad, evil, wrong, or all of the above? To argue that individuals in the state of nature still have guiding principles, you would have to acknowledge that there is some authority higher than man. There would have to be some law than man could not alter. Like Aristotle, Cicero, and Locke, you would have to acknowledge a universal constant above our control. In essence, is murder wrong because it violates someone else’s right to life, or is it wrong because we’ve collectively agreed to not murder each other for fear of punishment from our mutually established authority above us? Is there a greater authority above someone like Negan, or is Negan the authority because there is no one higher than him? This is the very internal struggle Carol is now going through on the show as she begins to view her own actions through a different lens. For so long, she killed because there was no higher authority than her own survival. Now, she’s not so sure, and perhaps there is a morality above her own power that she has been flaunting for so long.

We are lucky that most of us already live in a fully functioning society. We don’t have to necessarily worry ourselves with how or why it formed and we can simply enjoy the protection it offers. However, we should never be immune from having to think about any of our actions, and whatever moral code we ascribe to our actions should hold true from the beginning and beyond. Hobbes was often accused of being an atheist for his theories, which he denied, but one can see why that label would hold weight. In a state of nature with free action, there is no right or wrong, and right and wrong are simply societal constructs to protect ourselves from others. For Locke, though, right and wrong are inherent and universal in nature itself, and you can certainly imply divinity there if you felt so inclined.

I won’t guide anyone one way or another, but Negan and the Saviors certainly are the most perfect demonstration of social contract theory and the very foundation of morality. So, is Negan wrong in his actions because his actions are inherently wrong, or is Negan right because there is no one to tell him he’s wrong? In our base state, is it truly a war of all against all, or are we called to be defenders of all against some? Whatever the answer, kudos to Robert Kirkman and The Walking Dead for providing us such a thought provoking character and story.

Thomas Aquinas and Zombies


Amazingly enough, The Walking Dead keeps spitting out those morals dilemmas faster than I can keep up with them.  For the second post in a row, I find myself pondering what the show is laying down.  And boy, is it laying it down hard.

In my last writing, I attempted to delve into The Walking Dead’s treatment of society by touching on both family and life as the building blocks of civilization.  So, now that we have civilization (or some proto-form of it), where do we go from there?  Of course it would be easy for everyone to kick back, start farming, and try to learn Latin, but you’d be a fool to think our favorite survivors would have an easy road.  Or you read the comics.  Either way, to quote our favorite mullet-coiffed character, we are now in “Phase 2” of society mode: how to deal with other societies.


Sweet hair not necessary, but helpful.


After Rick’s realization that he wants to truly build again through family, he and Daryl have an unexpected meeting with a “clean” gentleman on the road.  Through a bit of trickery, and quite a bit of slipperiness, the man who goes by the name of Jesus ends of getting away with the team’s large haul.  Not for long, though, as they chase him down, lose their supplies that they were trying to recover in the process, and (begrudgingly on Daryl’s part in a sort of role reversal) haul Jesus back to Alexandria.  Jesus, being part Houdini, breaks free and has some stunning news for our mostly clothed group, explaining that there are other groups of survivors out there.  The world got bigger instantaneously as Jesus explained that he is from the Hilltop community.

Now, not only is the world bigger, but it just got a whole lot more complicated.  Besides a misunderstanding and a long chase scene, Jesus committed no acts of violence, even though he could have on numerous occasions.  For the first time, Rick’s group can start a meeting with other human beings from a perspective of diplomacy instead of bullets.  Diplomacy offers some healthier options than blood, namely trade and possible mutual assistance.  For the first time in the show, a meeting can occur in relative peace.

That is, until blackmailed Hilltop members come back to kill Hilltop’s leader for another group of survivors with some issues.  Like the mob, the Saviors said they’d protect Hilltop if they gave them pretty much all of their stuff.  Hilltop of course agreed, albeit under a bit of duress and through the Saviors’ style of diplomacy via dead bodies.  Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha had their own meeting with a band of Saviors prior to meeting Hilltop, and it went poorly until a well-placed RPG hit some motorcycles.

So, Rick and the gang, who desperately need supplies, strike a deal.  Food for blood.  Peace and trade for war and death.  And make no bones about it, that’s what it is.  The survivors have had plenty of conflicts, but it’s different this time, because a conflict between two societies is war.


Rick holds a town meeting to finalize their trade arrangement.  Besides Morgan’s predictable disapproval, the Alexandrians are clearly in favor of defending themselves preemptively.  The plan is quick, decisive, and brutal.  Rick and the survivors find the Saviors’ compound and, in the middle of the night while most of them slept, pretty much slaughtered all of them like cattle.  It was gut-wrenching to watch as some of the characters take their first human life in such a cold manner, driving knives through the skulls of their unconscious enemies.

The big questions that I’m sure went through every viewer’s mind that night were simple.  Were they right?  Were they justified?  Again, whether they know it or not, the writers of The Walking Dead have now broached another philosophical concept in Just War Theory.

Like most philosophical topics, there are smart people throughout history that thought about this stuff long before we did.  Thomas Aquinas was just such a man, and he covered this very topic in his Summa Theologica.  In his writing, Aquinas stated that there are three things necessary for a war to be just, so let’s see how Alexandria stacks up.


Writing took an extra step back then.


First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged.

The first requirement for a just war derives from a sovereign authority.  Aquinas points this out because war must always be carried out for the common good of the people, so naturally those with authority over the common good need to be making the decision.  An individual cannot summon an army of the people to take care of his grievances, after all.

Does such a sovereign authority exist within our group of survivors?  Arguably, it does.  As funny as the “Ricktatorship” slogan is, there is a modicum of truth to it.  Prior to her death, Deanna was clearly running the show in Alexandria, and after bringing in Rick’s group, she also very clearly began the process of handing the reins over.  Even if he wasn’t clearly the leader, Rick called together all of Alexandria to essentially vote on whether or not war was the answer.  If Rick isn’t a sovereign authority over Alexandria, the entirety of Alexandria had a say in the matter.

So, this requirement seems to be met, although few likely had a problem with the actual decision to fight.

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.

Aquinas explains this point by simply quoting Augustine, who also opined on the subject.  “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

Whereas the survivors had little interaction with the people that led the Saviors, it’s hard to say that their first encounter with them was anything but belligerent.  The motorcycle gang of Saviors clearly wanted to take everything the survivors had at the moment, and it looked as if they were seconds away from killing one of them.  Most would say that the aforementioned RPG was fired in self-defense.

Furthermore, Rick witnessed firsthand that the Survivors’ diplomacy tactics were questionable.  Well, I think most would agree that blackmailing someone to murder someone else is questionable.

It seems as if there are plenty of wrongs to be avenged, and the Hilltop’s supplies were unjustly seized for the Saviors’ “protection.”  However, at the time, there was little actual contact with the group by anyone from Alexandria.  Can we be sure that they refused to make amends?  Has it ever been discussed?  Are we sure that these aren’t rogue groups?  Although there was no contact, it seemed on each occasion that the Saviors were doing it on behalf of their leader, Negan.  It’s safe to say that these weren’t isolated incidents, and that the continued use of such tactics is a refusal to make amends for wrongs committed.

I would say this requirement is met as well.

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.

Augustine is again quoted by Aquinas to further describe what is meant, further discussing right intention.  “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

Being viewers of a TV show, we often have clear views into the motivations of some characters.  Rick, in particular, seemingly turned a new leaf in wanting a new world for his son and newfound family.  It would be hard to imagine that he would immediately destroy that with a dangerous war.  He is not out for power, for vengeance (at that point there was nothing really to even avenge), or some kind of masochistic desire to cause others harm.  The war comes into focus through desiring peace with Alexandria’s neighbors and, to probably a greater extent, pure survival.  Although not entirely altruistic, there is a desire to see Hilltop at peace just as much as Alexandria, and the Saviors seem to be a threat to that peace.

So, it would appear that the criteria are met for Alexandria’s war with the Saviors.  However, that’s only half of the analysis, and it is what followed that caused the most pause.


The above section was mainly in regards to jus ad bellum, or right to war.  However, even if there is a just cause, what about the conduct during a just war?  This is a separate philosophy know as jus in bello, or law in war.

First, it is clear that Rick and his group are, in essence, ambushing the enemy.  Aquinas states that the purpose of an ambush is to deceive the enemy, but he makes a distinction between two types of deception: lying and not declaring purpose.  To Aquinas, lying is always wrong, whether it be saying something false or breaking a promise.  However, not declaring your purpose is not the same:

[A] man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him. Now we are not always bound to do this… Wherefore much more ought the plan of campaign to be hidden from the enemy. For this reason among other things that a soldier has to learn is the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy’s knowledge, as stated in the Book on Strategy by Frontinus. Such like concealment is what is meant by an ambush which may be lawfully employed in a just war.

Nor can these ambushes be properly called deceptions, nor are they contrary to justice or to a well-ordered will. For a man would have an inordinate will if he were unwilling that others should hide anything from him.

In war, much of the conduct, whether it be troop movements or battle strategy, has to be concealed from the enemy.  What is the alternative?  If, during war, the enemy knew all of your plans, surely it would come at the loss of both troops and, most likely, the war itself.  Likewise, an enemy shouldn’t expect their opponents to divulge that information.  So, ambushes aren’t necessarily unjust as a tactic.

Aquinas, unfortunately, doesn’t go much beyond that for conduct during war, and that is also where it becomes the most grey for our survivors.  First, it goes without saying, that the Saviors were never even aware of Alexandria’s existence, let alone that they were in a war.  However, with the way they conducted themselves, it would be difficult to say that they shouldn’t have expected retaliation at some point.

The real difficulty, though, lies in more modern principles of jus in bello as it pertains to civilians.  Military action needs to be 1.) directed towards enemy combatants, 2.) conducted so as to not excessively harm civilians, and 3.) a legitimate military objective.  In the world of The Walking Dead, it is virtually impossible to say who is a civilian and who is an enemy combatant, and unfortunately you don’t necessarily have time to sit and ask.  Rick’s group had a clear military objective in reaching the armory first, but how would you classify a man sleeping in his bunk?  Are you sure they are fighters?  Would they have surrendered if given the opportunity?


Back in Alexandria, Morgan began the construction of a prison cell while the assault was underway to give Rick “options.”  And, perhaps, that is a meaningful addition to Alexandria’s society.  In the ancient world, corporal punishment and executions were often used not as deterrents, but rather because there was no other meaningful way to protect society from those who sought to harm it.

In a world where every person is a potential threat, and there is no distinction between civilian and soldier (much like ongoing issues surrounding terrorism), it can leave one wondering what is right and wrong in conflict.  Still, Morgan may be right.  It isn’t enough for society to be born, it needs to be maintained as well.  Without options, without the ability to show mercy and to always punish, society may not be able to move past its first steps.  That’s why the assault on the Saviors’ compound was so difficult, because for once Rick and the group could decide.  They weren’t forced to kill and they weren’t acting on instinct.  Rather, they were making a conscious, societal decision on how to conduct themselves along blurred lines.

Alexandria might have been right in their decision to go to war, but their conduct during war was inching towards the gray.  It can be argued that their action was justified, and maybe it was, but the trouble with acting in the gray is that it can inch towards black or white.  It can always potentially lead down the wrong path as easily as it can move towards the right one.  Either way, most fans want Rick and his group to do the right thing, and that’s why it hurts to see them venture into the morally ambiguous.  They may be good by comparison to a group like the Saviors, but there is no guarantee that there will always be good guys in the end.

An American’s Guide to America for Americans

With each Presidential election cycle, it seems like the United States is becoming more divided. The old adage of “two Americas” always seems to ring true as we squabble from our opposite poles. Along with the inevitable squabbles comes the inevitable platitudes and slogans from the candidates, and this time around it is much of the same. Much like Obama’s “Hope and Change” mantra, we now have Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to echo across the hills and plains. Are we electing a president, or are we shopping for breakfast cereals?

Make America grrrRREAAT!

Make America grrrRREAAT!

Oddly enough, as we seemingly grow more distant from our fellow Americans, the slogans are converging into the same hollow meaninglessness: things are crap now and need to change.

As I’ve touched on before, discussions of change inherently have two pieces: what was it before, and what is it becoming? The United States finds itself in that odd place where its past is far enough away to become storybook tradition, but unlike other countries around the globe, there isn’t enough ingrained within the American psyche to provide some kind of unified experience as a foundation. This is a shame, because the United States truly holds a unique foundation that is slowly being forgotten.


When one thinks of revolution, it usually carries a certain political connotation because of the direction revolution has taken the globe in recent history. Marxist revolutions in China and Russia usually come to mind as historical reference points, particularly because of their temporal proximity and their philosophical roots. Revolutions can often take the form of fighting for political independence as well, which can be for any number of reasons, whether it is political, ethnic, or otherwise.

Even though it is called the Revolutionary War, the birth of the United States is rarely treated as a revolution anymore. We celebrate Independence Day every Fourth of July, we have a historical concept of the colonies fighting for independence from the British, and we have vague memories of mottos like “taxation without representation.” It is, however, a great disservice to only remember the Revolutionary War in terms of politics and independence. The truth is that the Revolutionary War was just as much a true philosophical revolution as its more modern counterparts, and its implications were the first of their kind.

Central to this philosophical revolution is, in a nutshell, the concept of the origination of rights. As basic as that concept may seem, it is one that people shed blood over and one that our Founding Fathers argued over centuries ago. And, strangely enough, it seems that we are reigniting that argument as we speak.


Essentially, the “old world” thinking of rights had them flowing directly from the monarchy, and that can be traced to concepts like the divine right of kings (when looking at England and France in particular). Rights and law were declared from the throne, by the will of God, and was something bestowed upon the masses. Kings could not be questioned because of this divine authority. The concept of centralized power certainly extends beyond that, but it usually shares the same top down approach.

The founding of the United States placed this whole way of thinking on its head. Starting with the Declaration of Independence, rights were something immutably granted to the masses directly by Natural Law, not through a king or government or other organization of mankind. This is enshrined in the language of the document:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This, in fact, was a direct repudiation of the ideology that all men derive their rights from their king or government, but rather received them directly from God.

Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence lists the following as a self-evident truth:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

All rights originate in the individual and flow upward, and they do not originate from a king and flow downward. The government does not exist by nature and bestow rights upon the people, but rather it exists as a creation of man to protect the rights inherent in the people. This very concept was later codified in the Constitution, where the main thrust of the document really can be summed up as “We the people allow the government to do x, y, and z on our behalf because we freely give it the authority to do so, not because the government has the inherent power to do so.”


During the creation of the Constitution, two distinct parties emerged: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Generally speaking, the Federalists supported the Constitution as written, advocating for a stronger national government to handle national affairs. On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists feared a strong national government and opposed the Constitution, seeing it as a threat to the states and, therefore, the individual.

When discussing the Constitution, inevitably one thinks about the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was not, however, included in the original Constitution and was later added as amendments. When the Constitution was being written, there was actually a lot of argument about incorporating a Bill of Rights. The reason for the debate wasn’t necessarily because any of the ideas presented were opposed, but more because of how the idea of a national government was viewed. One side (the Federalists) felt it was assumed that the rights mentioned were retained, as were all rights, by the people unless they expressly consented otherwise. The other side (the anti-Federalists) was afraid that a strong national government was a threat to individual rights, so rights therefore need to be more expressly stated.

The Federalists argument won the day in the end and a Bill of Rights was not originally incorporated. It was assumed that rights were retained by the people if not explicitly granted to government through the Constitution. Essentially, if the people say the government can only go straight, they don’t also have to say that the government can’t turn left or right. The issue continued, however, and shortly after a Bill of Rights was added via a series of amendments that James Madison famously noted as being “useful, not essential.” The compromise of adding them as amendments kept the Constitution in place and saved the new country from reopening the debate about its foundation.

The Bill of Rights was contentious because both arguments had merit. The reason for not including it centered on the fear that, if government is the source of defining or granting rights, then government ultimately can take them away or change them. Your rights are, therefore, nothing more than what the government wills under the control of their pen. Alexander Hamilton believed that the Constitution was inherently a Bill of Rights, arguing against a specific Bill of Rights by stating:

“Bills of rights are in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was “Magna Charta,” obtained by the Barons, swords in hand, from King John.”

On the other hand, could there really be harm in protecting as much as possible? Thomas Jefferson believed a Bill of Rights was better than nothing, stating:

“Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.”

No matter what side of the argument you look at, it is impossible to deny a common thread shared by both: the fear of government infringing the rights of the people. The idea of universal rights, or unalienable rights, can only exist if the source of those rights are above the control of man, and that philosophical idea from the revolution permeated the founding of the United States. You can infer divinity in the discussion of unalienable rights if you’d like, but in the very least they can only be unalienable if they are untouchable by the virtue of being granted by an authority higher than ourselves. The importance of the rights of the individual, endowed by their Creator, and the protection of them from tyranny define the very foundation of America. This American philosophy was perfectly summarized by Jefferson:

“Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”

Government should truly be limited to the intersection of our wills, and we should retain everything else.

So, with all of that on the table, how can we apply that to some of our modern debates?  It is vitally important to remember our philisophical history as we delve into recent topics, and there are a few poignant examples.


Unbeknownst to many, we are having some of the same debates on rights to this day. One presidential candidate in particular, Bernie Sanders, has made rights a central theme of his campaign, particularly when it comes to things like healthcare and housing. In a recent speech about his political philosophy, Sanders spoke candidly about his beliefs:

“In that remarkable speech this is what Roosevelt said, and I quote: ‘We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.’ In other words, real freedom must include economic security. That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. It is time we did…The right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies. The right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent health care. What Roosevelt was stating in 1944, what Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in similar terms 20 years later and what I believe today, is that true freedom does not occur without economic security.”

His statements resonate with many as we begin the election year, and he is pushing for much of his list as legal rights. But, how does it compare with the American philosophical idea of rights?

The issue with Bernie Sanders’s idea of rights is twofold: 1.) they are the very thing that the Federalists feared, which is the notion that the government legally enshrines rights much like a king grants them to his people from the throne, and 2.) the right to the service provided by another human being is something that should give us pause no matter the moral good we are trying to achieve. Thomas Jefferson explained the inherent problem in such declarations of positive rights:

“It is a principle that the right to a thing gives a right to the means without which it could not be used, that is to say, that the means follow their end.”

Healthcare, housing, college education, etc. are all ends, but it is unspoken that you must therefore have a right to the means as well, and those means are provided by others. The right to housing means you have the right to have someone build you a house. The right to education means you have the right to have someone teach you. The right to healthcare means you have the right to have a doctor treat you. You are going beyond just yourself with all of those and, by the Jeffersonian definition of liberty, you are crossing the limit of your rights that are drawn around you by the rights of others.

Anyone can sympathize with wanting our fellow man to be secure, but is returning to the idea that rights flow from the government, and are therefore things given to the people from the government, the proper route? Is this a return to America’s philosophical roots, or is this a fundamental change to them? Does true freedom depend on economic security given to us by government, or is true freedom our base state and economic insecurity exists because of roadblocks that possibly exist due to government? Whatever the answer, the base question is as old as the Revolutionary War.


Gun violence has been a hot topic recently, with widely reported stories of horrible violence occurring at what seems like a fantastic rate. Statistics are fired like bullets from the aforementioned guns, and there are passionate supporters on both sides of the argument. America’s “Gun Culture” is often referenced, but what is often lost in translation for both sides of the argument is the philosophical underpinnings to gun ownership that not only naturally flow from a discussion of rights, but are also protected in each of our founding documents.

Earlier, two self-evident truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence were referenced: the idea of unalienable rights and that government is instituted by man to secure them. There is, however, a third self-evident truth that naturally follows the first two in the Declaration of Independence:

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

If a government no longer secures the right of the people, and becomes destructive in regards to its role to do so, then the people can change it or get rid of it. It is powerful and frightening language, particularly because “abolishing” in the historical context involved a war, but it is there for a reason. Ultimately, if our goal as civilized society is to protect the liberty of all, we have to be able to defend it, particularly from an institution that has become derelict in its duty to secure liberty.

So, hypothetically speaking, how can the people protect themselves from tyranny if they have no power to do so? This was the reason for the Second Amendment and the ability to abolish government when it becomes tyranny. Gun ownership is not about hunting or protecting oneself from criminals. It is about a collective necessary evil to protect our liberty and that of our fellow man from the very forces that led to the Revolutionary War in the first place: a government that infringes the unalienable rights of the people. A disarmed populace can never protect itself from an armed tyrant.

This should be kept in mind when discussing guns in America. Of course there will still be debate if the philosophy is outdated, but it is only outdated until there is a boot on your neck. Fortunately, the United States has not suffered the tyranny that Europe has faced, most notably in the 20th century. In fact, the United States government has been in existence for longer than many of the governments of modern Europe. Quite possibly, the reason may be because of a self-evident truth.


Even abortion can be framed within this same argument about American philosophy and rights. Throughout, the very base starts with the unalienable rights of the individual and, ultimately, protecting them. We focus a lot on trying to define when life begins, but inherent in a new life is also the vesting of those unalienable rights we are endowed with by our Creator. On both sides of the coin, there is a common ground in focusing on rights and protecting them.

So, do you believe in universal human rights? Are they important to you? Then, regardless of your views on abortion, should we all be striving to protect those human rights? If the answer is yes, then how can we possibly do so without being able to define when a person gains those rights? Perhaps we need to stop thinking about ourselves and our own rights and start thinking about the possibility that we may have, over and over, violated the unalienable rights of others. Simply put, if you are not comfortable defining the exact moment when a person gains their human rights, then it is negligent to leave it to chance and it is tyrannical to legislatively allow it to be left to chance.

We should all endeavor to protect the rights of all, particularly those of that are the most vulnerable. As Americans, protecting those rights should be our top priority.


American philosophy was revolutionary, but that isn’t the only reason that America is unique. Truly, what makes America stand out is that the country IS its philosophy. Ultimately, there is no true American culture or people. We are a melting pot, but the thing that binds us together is the mold we are poured into. Anyone, anywhere can be as American as a person born and raised in the United States if they agree with the philosophy that this country was founded upon and desire to be a part of the experience. On the other hand, an American cannot turn himself into a Russian, with shared cultural experiences and centuries of historical legacies, no matter how hard they try.

That is the incredible success that is the United States: creating a nation state of individuals, without the bonds of a shared cultural experience, and threading it together entirely based upon a philosophy of liberty and freedom. It is why Americans are so passionate about their world view, because it truly defines who we are as a people more than family trees and shared histories. The fact that this country is divided, though, shows that we are getting further and further away from a shared understanding of the American philosophy. Instead of arguing about where we are going, we should be discussing who we are in the first place.

Finding the Peak of the Slippery Slope

I hesitated for a long time typing out my thoughts on the recent marriage debates after the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.   The topic is such an emotionally charged one, with such polarizing opinions, that to take a stance or have an opinion necessitates a reality whereupon you will find yourself in a trench with bullets flying in your general direction.  It was viewing the debate as such, reminiscent of World War I trench warfare, that made me change my mind in discussing the matter.  World War I is an analogy that is apt because it makes a person take defined sides and, even though it implies a person will be fired upon, it also assumes that they will be firing back.  I, however, plan on taking the madman’s course by waltzing between the trenches.

I sincerely believe we all need to take a step back and holster our emotions for just a moment to try and refocus our efforts in discussing the topic with some rationality.  I call it the madman’s course because, by finding out where we truly stand today and how we got here, it may involve being shot at by everyone.  However, if we look at things a little more objectively, we may find out that we’ve helped dig each other’s trenches before we open fired, and the goal is to get people to stop shooting and reevaluate.  With that in mind, I hope my thoughts can be read with an open mind and as a thought-provoking dialogue more than any kind of judgmental attack.


At the core of Obergefell is the dilemma presented by any discussion of tradition: is tradition set in stone, or is it one that evolves as society changes?  For the defender of tradition, Justice Kennedy succinctly sums up the position after discussing the history of marriage: “That history [of marriage] is the beginning of these cases. The re­spondents say it should be the end as well.”  Such is an argument for status quo.  Meanwhile, on the other side, Kennedy also sums the position up nicely: “Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities.  And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex mar­riage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”  Such is an argument for change of the status quo by including something new to the traditional understanding.

It may go without saying that the discussion revolves around possibly altering the tradition of marriage, but it is important to remember the absolute necessity of knowing what it is that we are seeking to change before we argue about whether or not to change it.  So, looking at marriage historically and philosophically is vitally important to frame the discussion.

There is a key difference between marriage in a philosophical sense (what I like to call capital-T “Tradition”) and marriage in a legal sense (what I like to call lowercase-t “tradition”), and it is imperative that we figure out which one we are talking about when we discuss change.  Justice Kennedy does, without outright acknowledging it, make a distinction between the two, by stating the revelation through history of the “transcendent importance of marriage.”  He then delves into his personal opinion of what that importance entails as a backdrop:

The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secu­lar realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.

Furthermore, he says that marriage acts by “binding families and societies together,” using examples from two culturally different historical perspectives.  First, from Confucius, in stating that marriage lies at the foundation of government, and then in a quote from Cicero, stating “The first bond of society is marriage; next, children; and then the family.”

Unfortunately, the discussion ends there on the philosophical side.  Justice Kennedy provides the smallest and most shallow framework possible before diving into the subject at hand.  In his writing, a philosophical look into marriage is almost completely glossed over.  This is problematic on multiple levels, but more seriously because the subject is so fundamental to human existence.  It deserves a lot more attention than it was given. While the language is flowery and the attempt to tie culturally diverse backgrounds together is intriguing, is it adequate in helping to define Traditional marriage?

Kennedy’s treatment of traditional marriage is not much better.  Essentially, a paragraph is devoted to examples of times laws and customs around marriage have changed over the years (in contrast with eight paragraphs detailing the recent history of the gay rights movement).  While the few references to changes in marriage customs and law are interesting individually, the reason for mentioning these changes is as a rationale that marriage can, and should, continue to change as society does.  Changing marriage is good in of itself, because:

These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understand­ings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new genera­tions, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.

So, with all of that on the table, how does Kennedy ultimately define marriage using this background?  It can be summarized most by his closing paragraph, which reads as follows:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embod­ies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people be­come something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.

That definition is a good parallel to the celebrations that broke out after the rulings and the slogan that came forth: love wins.  Marriage, in the end, is about love.  Fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family, but most of all, love.  How can one argue that, and isn’t that what Traditional marriage has always been, even if traditions around marriage have changed?  Are we changing Traditional marriage at all, and are we merely changing the laws to correct a flaw in our historical thinking in how to treat it?


Even though the sentences are literally right next to each other and there is an attempt to make them sound similar when discussing the philosophical roots of marriage, Kennedy’s take on marriage is actually quite different from the historical sources he quoted.  Kennedy, in his comment that marriage acts by “binding families and societies together,” presupposes the existence of family and society while marriage is essentially the glue.  It gives rise to a notion that marriage is a societal construct designed to keep itself whole, and I would venture that many today feel that way.

That is not, however, the way marriage is portrayed by Confucius and Cicero.  Later in Kennedy’s opinion, he also quotes de Tocqueville, who ironically contradicts the notion that Kennedy presents in succinct fashion:

[Marriage is] the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.

For each of them, even from backgrounds that span from China in 500 BC to more modern times, marriage is seen as the foundation of society itself and is the primary human relationship that society builds upon.  In fact, marriage is not just the foundation of society, but gives birth to it.  Each person quoted succinctly states that marriage is, in fact, needed for society to exist, and is not merely a construct to hold it together.

What is particularly stunning in Kennedy’s opinion is that Judeo-Christian thought, regardless of one’s opinion of it, was instrumental and vastly influential in regards to marriage in the Western world.  Yet, it is not even mentioned in Kennedy’s all-too-brief history of marriage as he skipped 2,000 years of thought and discussion that occurred during the time period between Cicero and himself with a brief mention of de Tocqueville in the middle.  That is not to say that Judeo-Christian thought needs to be used as a basis for any form of decision, but when exploring it and its influence on the philosophy of marriage, one would see great detail in the implications that are left out in the short statements of Confucius, Cicero, and de Tocqueville.

Let’s work our way backwards from an end point of a society that is already in existence.  Human beings are inherently social creatures, and with higher functioning, we group together and establish rules, both written and unwritten, that govern our interaction between one another.  In order for society to function, it requires a population of individuals who have been raised and socialized towards the end of maintaining society.  That population does not spring forth on its own, nor does it arrive at common societal norms and behaviors through its own devices.  That population needs to be birthed and raised by others.  And there, in its patently obvious yet blindingly forgotten form, is the implication of those earlier quotes: at the root of society, at its very foundation, is the formation of new human beings to take part in society.  Without them, there are no future generations to whom we can pass society and tradition down.

There is, furthermore, biological obviousness that seems to escape modern dialogue as well.  Only one relationship can produce offspring to add to society, and every single living person is the fruit of that natural relationship.  We are inherently sexual creatures, and not only that, we are complimentary.  We have entire systems devoted to the creation of new human beings that need to work together towards that end.  Furthermore, humans have an added dimension of not just working towards sexual maturity and biological adulthood, like the animal kingdom, but also emotional and societal maturity.  Apart from some longer lived species, human beings spend an inordinate amount of time working towards that holistic maturity (about a quarter of our entire lives, in fact).  This requires others for leadership and, coming full circle, to pass down the traditions and norms of the society that new human beings have been birthed into.  With our innate desire to know where we have come from, both physically and societally, the most logical and best suited individuals for that task are the ones that brought that person into the world.

This isn’t a new revelation.  This is the inherent implication of marriage as a foundation of society and the very substance of where its Tradition arises.  It is inherent in the word itself, which finds its roots not only in joining together, but also mating and impregnation.  It is found in the language that surrounds marriage, including husband and wife.  It is the first human relationship, and the relationship from which society continues to spring forth and to maintain itself.  It is not merely a binding together of societal participants.  And, beyond that, the reason that so many philosophers from such wide cultures came to that same understanding is because it is imprinted upon us as a part of natural law.  To use the definition used by the Catholic Church, which fills much of that 2,000 year gap in Western thought between Cicero and Justice Kennedy:

Marriage is that individual union through which man and woman by their reciprocal rights form one principle of generation. It is effected by their mutual consent to give and accept each other for the purpose of propagating the human race, of educating their offspring, of sharing life in common, of supporting each other in undivided conjugal affection by a lasting union.

That is why marriage is the foundation of society.  Society needs people, and the very relationship that is the ideal for bringing those people into society is marriage.  It is a natural order, and there is only one human relationship that can be ordered in that way.  This very notion is also at the heart of the treatment various philosophers have given it, as noted throughout the dissenting opinions of the court case, and is the basis for many religious views on the subject.

To go back to an earlier statement I made, there is no hatred or malice in stating that and it is not meant to elicit an emotional response.  Rather, it is a simple declaration of the order inherent in our very being, one that was seen by Confucius, Cicero, and de Tocqueville.  I have not ventured to state anything that falls outside of the natural order is immoral.  We, of course, don’t live in a perfect world, and some things do go askew.  Children lose parents, couples can struggle with infertility, some parents struggle with being a parent at all or are not capable of properly raising or caring for their own.  However, the existence of these things, as tragic as they are and worthy of empathy, do not invalidate the natural law in the same way that a broken rule doesn’t render a rule meaningless.  Even in the bleakest of situations we can still orient our actions towards their natural ends.

That is true Traditional marriage, the one which is imprinted upon humanity and which society, throughout history, has tried to promote.  However, this is not the basis that has been used in any of our current debates.  The situation is, unfortunately, much more complicated than that.


Many of the arguments proposed by those who oppose gay marriage center on three main notions: 1.) if the person who opposes gay marriage is religious, they often find that it violates the sanctity of the institution as they believe it to be, 2.) marriage is between a man and a woman, and 3.) gay marriage is a slippery slope towards other forms of relationships that may be morally unacceptable.  The trouble is, the Traditional marriage they are trying to defend has actually been changed long ago by the very people trying to defend it.

In terms of the holy nature of marriage in a religious sense, a counter argument often comes up in regards to things like divorce.  How holy can an institution be if divorce is acceptable?  This is a very valid point, but it actually goes much deeper than that.  Here are a few quotes that show this point:

“Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of Gregory regarded it as a sacrament. What man in his sober senses could so regard it? God’s ordinance is good and holy; so also are agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments.”

“No one indeed can deny that marriage is an external worldly thing, like clothes and food, house and home, subject to worldly authority, as shown by so many imperial laws governing it.”

“Not only is the sacramental character of matrimony without foundation in Scripture; but the very traditions, which claim such sacredness for it, are a mere jest.”

“Marriage may therefore be a figure of Christ and the Church; it is, however, no Divinely instituted sacrament, but the invention of men in the Church, arising from ignorance of the subject.”

The first quote is from John Calvin, the rest are from Martin Luther.  We like to think that reducing marriage to a societal or governmental construct is a modern invention, but in reality, a reduction of its religious character and placement in the hands of man truly began within the ranks of the very same people today who wish to now argue that marriage is of a special, holy nature.  It is the starting point of the thought that marriage Tradition, at the time, was a misunderstood facsimile of some other religious tenet, was entirely worldly, and was no different from other works such as agriculture and shoemaking.  Whereas the Catholic Church viewed and still views marriage as a sacrament, or an outward sign of inward grace instituted by Christ for our sanctification, the Reformation began the path of removing the sacramental nature of marriage and handing it over to the world.

Divorce follows along these same lines as marriage continued its journey from the ecclesiastical courts of the Middle Ages towards modern day.  Whereas marriages could not be dissolved without special declarations through the religious side of governance, we have seen more prevalence in divorce rates as they continue to trend towards the civil.  Whether it be Henry VIII breaking away from Rome and starting his own church because the Pope would not go along with his divorce or the institution of no fault divorce, recent history is full of examples of the dissolution of the institution of marriage that detracts from any kind of discussion of it as holy.  Even though divorce rates have declined recently, there is a strong correlation with the decline of people even getting married in the first place.  Marriage is not in a holy state, and people are right to dismiss that argument if they are being asked to hold their own view of marriage up to it.

The true turning point in modern marriage, though, was the widespread acceptance of birth control, particularly of a pharmaceutical nature.  Whereas there have been various more natural methods of birth control for longer periods of time, the ease and greater reliability of the pill created a large shift.  The Constitutional right to privacy, which came from overturning a law against contraceptive medication and instruments, didn’t become law of the land until 1965 in the Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut It wasn’t until years after that that the same rules were found to apply to unmarried couples.

Even though the current state of birth control is relatively modern, how have religious institutions treated it?  The first Christian denomination to accept it as permissible was the Anglican Communion in the 1930 Lambeth Council.  Since then, other Protestant denominations have mostly followed suit, either permitting its usage or staying silent on the matter.  The Catholic Church still actively opposes it and is usually lambasted by others in holding onto what is seen as an archaic belief.  Several encyclicals, including Pius XI’s Casti Connubii in 1930 and John Paul II’s Humane Vitae in 1968, have been written about the subject during that timeframe.

I bring up birth control and its history not as a moral argument here, but rather to show that we have as a society accepted not just divorce in a physical sense, but we have also philosophically divorced procreation from marriage.  It is no longer connected to it at all as a purpose of the institution in the modern mind, but is rather something that can or may happen during a marriage.  In fact, modern society doesn’t even associate it with marriage at all, as having children outside of marriage grows in acceptance.  Procreation has become a separate choice.  The dissenting opinions in the Obergefell case were quick to pick up on this as being the core of the Tradition that is being changed, but no one traces it back to a root cause nor realizes it has already been changed before they put pen to paper.  The root cause is that modern birth control options have simply allowed us to separate procreation from marriage, and it has facilitated the transformation of the nature of sex from procreation to recreation.

Kennedy’s decision is riddled with the assumption that procreation is separate from marriage, and he isn’t necessarily wrong in interpreting society’s modern stance in that regard.  Discussions of children permeate the document, but never in connection with the relationship that actually brings forth the children.  They almost appear as free flowing entities that deserve the dignity of having legally recognized parents, but are wholly disconnected from their own generation through biological ones.  However, it reflects that removal of procreation from the marriage discussion, which can be summed up in his passage in regards to it:

An ability, desire, or promise to procreate is not and has not been a prerequisite for a valid marriage in any State.  In light of precedent protecting the right of a married couple not to procreate, it cannot be said the Court or the States have conditioned the right to marry on the capacity or commit­ment to procreate. The constitutional marriage right has many aspects, of which childbearing is only one.

Again, childbearing is something that can spring forth from marriage, but is not a part of its core.  They are separate.  So separate, in fact, that you have a right to abstain from procreation entirely.

If you have no issue with the separation of procreation from Traditional marriage, but yet still believe marriage is between a man and a woman, then the question is this: why?  What special place does the relationship of a man and a woman hold if the natural order of marriage no longer has anything to do with procreation as a part of it?  What are you left with, besides sharing life in common and supporting each other?  What you are left with is virtually no different than what Kennedy has defined marriage as in his opinion.  What we are left with is defining marriage by the other things that are born from it, one of which is love.

In short, the definition of marriage changed decades before the civil rights movement, and modern Christianity is a part of those that did it.  And with that definition, the one which removes the nature of the relationship between man and woman from marriage entirely and merely tries to place a moral license on sexual activity, it is an untenable position to then say gay marriage is not acceptable.  Gay marriage, in this case, is a mirror for what we have already made marriage.  So, when arguing from that position and saying that gay marriage is a slippery slope, one must realize that they are already halfway down the hill.


Although gay marriage mirrors the concept of marriage that society has already changed, there is truth to the argument that it opens the door to further broadening.  Much of the focus has been placed on how “man and woman” is merely traditional, and traditions change.  However, with the changing of the traditional sense of that phrase, one must realize there are a number of other implicit traditions that can tumble with the same precedent.  And, according to Kennedy, can that not only strengthen marriage further?

It has already been discussed that modern society has entirely removed procreation from the concept of marriage, and therefore it is hard to argue that the distinction of “man and woman” should continue if that is the case.  However, if procreation is no longer any part of marriage, incestuous relationships should no longer give anyone pause.  Many of the arguments against incestuous relationships center on biological issues via procreation, but how can that be an argument when procreation is no longer in the picture?  What if they are two brothers or two sisters anyway?

And what about numbers?  Even though “man and woman” has been removed, the implication of marriage being between two people still exists.  Can multiple people not love each other, show fidelity, be devoted, sacrifice, or have a family?  Isn’t polygamy just a new dimension of freedom that will become apparent to new generations?

If we’ve moved beyond Traditional marriage and are beginning to reshape it using the traditional, let’s look at Kennedy’s four main points for allowing gay marriage:

The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.

If personal choice regarding marriage is inherent to individual autonomy, how can we possibly deny anyone their personal choices when marriage is involved, regardless of the number of people or family relation?

The right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.

Based upon all of Kennedy’s arguments, and how we are now acknowledging marriages ever-changing nature based upon how society views it, how is a two-person union a valid part of this argument?  Nowhere after he mentions two-person does he expound upon it.  It is an assumption.  And, through his other arguments and explanations, it is an assumption that can no longer hold water.

It safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and edu­cation.

After making this statement, Kennedy’s entire argument is based upon childrearing and the dignity that children deserve by having legally recognized parents.  Oddly enough, even though the right to procreate is mentioned, it is followed up with the notion that there is a right not to procreate.  Kennedy cancels the two out in short order by saying one necessitates the other which, again, already flows from modern society’s take on the matter where procreation is no longer an integral piece of marriage.

This Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order.

Kennedy goes on to say how marriage is something society blesses with a constellation of benefits to “protect and nourish the union.”  Not allowing access to those benefits, therefore, demeans gay couples and teaches that they are unequal in important respects.  Don’t we demean other forms of marriage between adults by blocking them from the same benefits?

Short of continuing to hang onto “two-person” marriage as a vestigial organ of the Traditional marriage, many other kinds of relationships fall under the same criteria Justice Kennedy outlined.  Furthermore, they fit into Kennedy’s definition of marriage.  There is often a bristling over the implied moral equivalence of certain relationships, but truly, they are a natural logical end to the path we are already treading regardless of anyone’s personal opinion on their morality.  And, truly, don’t they fit the modern view?  If love wins, then shouldn’t we open the door for all love?  If you deny other relationships the same rights, you are no different than those who oppose gay marriage.


The marriage debate has turned into the quintessential example of Matthew 7:3-5:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

On the one side, we refuse to acknowledge the changes to Traditional marriage we have already instituted and become complicit with, yet we yell at others who actually mirror what we’ve already changed it into.  On the other, we decry the hypocritical views of our opponents, yet refuse to acknowledge the door is now wide open.  The truth is, both sides are in the same trench, and that trench is a world where procreation, children, and the continuation of society are no longer at the heart of marriage and how it is ordered.

Hannah Arendt once said “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”  The revolution has occurred, and now Kennedy’s take on tradition reemerges.  This history of marriage is now the beginning of future cases.  Should it be the end as well?  If we are constantly finding new dimensions of freedom, will we eventually find them all and reach the TRUE definition of marriage, or is it always changing, amorphous, and has no definition at all?

To reiterate, I am writing not to preach or enforce a particular morality on those who are reading this.  I am endeavoring to refocus the debate, and I’m calling for a larger introspective look at how we treat marriage through recognizing the logical progression of how we got here today.  We all need to take a moment and reflect on recent events.  It is hard to argue that we are undergoing social change at a rate that has most likely never been seen before.  One thing we should reevaluate is our own lives, particularly before we point at others.  We need to stop shooting at each other and remove the planks from our own eyes.  Reevaluation is important because we, at some point, need to realize that it is other human beings we are shooting at in the trenches, and each human person should be afforded the same dignity regardless of their opinion or of their actions.

I’ve said to friends before, I hope that everyone can agree on one thing: the reason we argue about marriage is because we all feel marriage is important and that it has deep roots in the human soul. Both sides are, in fact, aiming for the same goal of solidifying that importance, albeit from different angles and for different reasons. We all feel it is important because, deep down, we know that marriage gave birth to society and was not created by it.

So, each of us are endeavoring to do that one thing, which is building a foundation on which our future society will rest upon. Let’s all continue to come to an answer together and recognize that the vast majority of people are not arguing from a position of malice, but are instead trying to solidify a society that they feel is ordered towards the good of man, for ourselves and for our future.  We simply need to realize that we can never accomplish that without deep reflection, a proper understanding of all sides, and most importantly and regardless of the outcome, a common notion that everyone deserves the dignity of the human person.

Laudato Si, Carbon Dioxide as Pollution, and Moral Pitfalls

Last week saw the newest papal encyclical, Laudato Si, reach our doorsteps (or computer monitors), surrounded by months of buzz and days of speculation following a leaked early release.  Encyclicals are important documents, as they guide the Church and its teaching.  Nothing about an encyclical makes it infallible teaching on faith and morals simply because it was written by the Pope, but its words can carry considerable weight depending on the context and circumstances.  It has been said and confirmed numerous times that this document was supposed to help sway the upcoming UN conference on the subject of climate change, so there is some physical weight to it in the very least.

It pains me to say this, but after reading the document, it has left me more confused than edified.  It isn’t because there isn’t solid teaching about stewardship and the interrelationship with nature that comes as a part of human existence, which has always been a part of the Catholic faith, but rather that the picture painted in the document is one that is hard to square with the vision of humanity as I have been taught to see it on very specific grounds.

In the spirit of discussion, which is supposedly encouraged by Laudato Si, I felt at least compelled to explain some of my confusion in the hopes that it will further the conversation.  I obviously cannot discuss the entire thing, but I do want to bring up a few points.


Fr. George W. Rutler wrote an intriguing piece at Crisis Magazine regarding the perils of blending science with moral teaching from the Papal office, noting particularly the debacle of Pope Alexander VI when he attempted to establish a meridian dividing the world between Portugal and Castile as well as the events surrounding Galileo.  Later, of particular note, are the statements from Fr. Georges Lemaître, the author of the Big Bang Theory (yes, it was first theorized by a Catholic priest), to the pope:

As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.

He also had this to say to his fellow scientist, Albert Einstein:

The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

Fr. Lemaître’s statements were beautiful in their simplicity in regards to the intersection of science and religion.  Science is, at its core, humanity’s attempt to understand the order inherent in creation.  The truth is out there, from the dawn of the universe, as we attempt to discover it, and it doesn’t contradict the very nature of God.  However, it stands apart from the questions regarding creation itself and the greater mysteries of the universe.  For those issues, the issues that relate to our eternal lives, we have had the truth revealed to us.  It’s a stark contrast: the truth is handed to us through revelation and is undeniable when it comes to our faith and morals, yet we are left to discover the wonders of the universe on our own.

The trouble, then, is mixing the divinely immutable with the gradual process of uncovering scientific truth.  Although the ultimate truth of science will never change, our understanding of it does frequently as each new piece is discovered.  So, there is great peril in elevating any scientific theory towards the level of faith and morals, because the vision of scientific theory is only as good as our modern ability to see.


In an article by George Weigel, he attempts to give meaning to the encyclical with the title “The Pope’s Encyclical, at Heart, Is About Us, Not Trees and Snail Darters.”  He goes on to explain, after listing some very specific questions that come to mind:

What does Francis write in this complex and inevitably controversial document that might speak, as a good pastor should, to the flaws in humanity’s understanding of itself today, and that might point us in a more noble direction? A lot, it turns out — if you read Laudato Si’ as an encyclical primarily about us, and not primarily about trees, plankton, and the Tennessee snail darter.

The main thrust is that the encyclical is not really about specific scientific and economics topics, but is really a cultural piece about humanity.  In essence, don’t get bogged down by the specifics and concentrate on the general.  I could understand this line of thinking (Pope Francis is, in fact, trying to speak of a holistic human ecology that goes beyond just the environment), if it weren’t for the fact that Pope Francis spends so much time and goes into so much detail about very, very specific scientific and economic topics.  At least half, if not more, of the 246 paragraphs in Laudato Si arguably address such modern scientific and economic topics.  I don’t think we should give those a pass when discussing the entirety of the document as if it is mostly a metaphysical discussion.

Still, I agree that it is “about us” in the end.  However, there is a particular thing “about us” that leads to some contradictory points of view.


Amongst several such cases, there is an apparent contradiction in approach to many of the topics in the encyclical.  There are things said with relative certainty, yet are later stated to be open for discussion.  Most notably, in paragraph 14, Pope Francis has this to say:

Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.

There are two key concepts here, and they form the basis of much of the thinking throughout: a.) there is a human made crisis, and in this case, it’s environmental, and b.) you are an obstructionist (or a “powerful interest” with ulterior motives) if you do not agree.  In fact, you are not only an obstructionist, you may very well be sinning because of it as he quotes Patriarch Bartholomew in Paragraph 8:

For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins.

Part of the problem is defining “environmental crisis.”  Pope Francis goes into specifics about what he thinks that entails, which include general pollution (paragraphs 20-22), climate change (paragraphs 23-26), water (paragraphs 27-31), and biodiversity (paragraphs 32-42).  One of these four topics, however, is not like the others.  Pollution, water quality, and biodiversity are general topics with multiple contributing factors.  Climate change, however, is a very specific scientific theory in of itself, and can affect any of the other three topics at hand.  It’s also a specific scientific theory that is still up for debate.

Pope Francis ultimately tries to point out that he is not out to settle science in paragraph 61, but still gives the same grave warning throughout:

On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation.

Besides debate about the frequency of natural disasters, I think one ultimately can draw the conclusion from all of this that 1.) there is an environmental crisis, 2.) it is human caused, 3.) part of that crisis is climate change, 4.) you are an obstructionist if you do not agree, 5.) climate change is a sin, and 6.) even though the Church is not going to settle science, the previous statements are predicated on the science being settled.  If the science was NOT settled, if debate must still be encouraged by experts, then the label of obstructionist is not appropriate to describe someone with honest disagreements.

It is personally hard to mesh all of this together and it leaves a sense of contradiction.  Honest debate, respect divergent views, yet there are “facts” (facts being not up for debate or divergent views) that cannot be disputed.  So, the hope isn’t for finding an honest answer to questions revolving around the science stated or finding an appropriate response.  The facts are real, and the hope is that you recognize that.


I have my disagreements with catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory.  I disagree with most of the statements made by Pope Francis in paragraph 23, whether it be the claims of “disturbing warming” or “increase of extreme weather events” or the claim that humans are mainly responsible for the variation in temperatures as of late. But, those are up for debate.  I don’t mind debating it, and I’m open to hearing the other side of the discussion.  That’s not the reason I’m singling the topic out, though.

I harp on climate change for a reason.  General discussions of pollution and water quality inherently have local connotations: because there is pollution in the Amazon River does not necessarily mean there is the same pollution in Lake Erie.  They are general in discussion but specific in effect.  Dumping a chemical in the water specifically has the result of the chemical generally being present in the water, and that has specific results no matter where it happens.  It is labeled pollution for a reason, since we are talking about contaminants in the natural environment, and contaminant connotes an impurity or rendering something unsuitable or unusable.  There is also a hint that these activities aren’t inherently necessary and can, hopefully, be eliminated.

Whereas water pollution can mean any number of things depending on the pollutant, climate change is different.  Climate change is specific in discussion and specific in effect, and it has global connotations.  We are talking specifically about carbon dioxide as a result of human activity, it is aggregate amongst all humans, and it affects the entire world.  The main thrust is treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant like any of those nasty chemicals that get dumped into a river.  However, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.  It doesn’t contaminate or make things impure.  It is naturally occurring and a part of the carbon cycle.  It is plant food.  The presence of carbon dioxide does not harm life on this planet, but actually sustains it as plants breathe it in, fix it as biomass, and breathe out oxygen.  It is VITAL to life on earth, not something that makes life unsuitable, it’s inherently necessary, and can’t be simply eliminated.  It stands in contrast as a part of this discussion, because part of being a pollutant is that it should not be there at all for the sake of the purity of whatever system we are talking about.

Labeling carbon dioxide a pollutant creates an inherent moral dilemma, because humans, by their very existence, produce carbon dioxide. Virtually every economic activity, or any activity for that matter, that humans undertake, from building hospitals to having camp fires to simply breathing, produces carbon dioxide.  If carbon dioxide contaminates, then human existence, at the very end of that logic, is toxic to the planet.  Particularly because, at the top of the food chain, we only consume and don’t truly produce for anything else.

Even if one only considers it a pollutant above a certain level (which possibly violates the definition of pollutant), and there is a certain threshold or capacity of atmospheric carbon dioxide that we should not pass, then there is a de facto limit on activity that can be undertaken before we hit that limit. We can cut emissions and limit activity as much as we can, and that is considered good under this encyclical as a reduction in greenhouse gasses is the end goal of changing our paradigms of production and consumption (such as eliminating fossil fuels in paragraph 165). However, that is only “sustainable” in a stable population. Each additional person lessens the amount of activity allowed by others and adds to the toxicity that humans bring. If I cut my emissions in half, but have a child who can also maintain the now reduced level I have reached, that has brought us right back to the level we started with (which was declared dangerous and caused me to reduce my activity in the first place).

A good analogy is the weight limit of an elevator.  Let’s say an elevator can only hold 2,000 lbs., and 10 people that are 200 lbs. each want to board the elevator.  This is dangerous, because you are pushing the operational capacity of the elevator.  The 10 people then decide they need to change and get healthy, and each of them loses 50 lbs.  Now, totaling 1,500 lbs. between the 10 of them, they can board the elevator without risk and have all become healthier in the process.  This is, in essence, what we are being asked to strive for.  To become healthier for the sake of the elevator, because we are called to maintain the elevator.

There is a catch, though.  What happens when the population changes?  What if four more people want to board the elevator?  Let’s say that each of these four new people are of the same healthy weight as the other ten.  The new total weight is 2,100 lbs., and you are now worse than when you started even though all 14 people are doing what was originally considered healthy and good.  Now, each person has to lose over 7 more pounds to get under the weight limit of the elevator, and if they hope to get back to the 1,500 lbs. they were at previously, each person would have to weigh about 107 lbs. instead of 150 lbs.  The original 25% reduction in weight now has to be closer to 50% per person to maintain the same level of comfortable safety.

Humans inherently have weight.  It’s a part of who they are.  They can’t weigh nothing.  If we value the elevator system in of itself, and we need the elevator for transportation, then human presence can do nothing other than bring it closer to the tipping point of breakdown if we all need to ride it at once.  That, unfortunately, is the exact role of humans when we commoditize ourselves as carbon footprints.  There is a limit, and our existence only gets us closer to that limit.  We are a burden, literally, and the elevator needs stability to sustainably operate.


How, then, can anyone view that picture and not come to the conclusion that controlling the population numbers is a legitimate way to make that system work?  If it is true that, in paragraph 23, “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity,” there are only two answers to the problem.  Either you control activity, or you control the number of active participants.  The end goal is “sustainability,” a word used in some form 27 times throughout Laudato Si.  Sustainable means being able to maintain something at a certain level.  The only way you can maintain emissions at a certain level is by, as I said earlier, stabilizing the population or stabilizing the level of activity regardless of the active members of the population.

Whichever way it goes, the ceiling doesn’t change, only the contributions underneath it.  Laudato Si really aims at activity, notably changes in production and consumption.  However, unless you can change things to the point where a near endless number of system participants can be supported, you will always inevitably run the risk of eventually hitting the ceiling (albeit slower than before, perhaps).

The reality is, for every percentage point reduction in activity you can muster, you can only add a certain number in population before you are right back where you started.  If the 7 billion people on this planet reduced their emissions by 25%, to the point where they impacted the planet as if only 5.25 billion people were here, then you’ll be back to square one by the time there is 9.33 billion people (a number most believe we’ll hit by the middle of this century).  Considering people, including Pope Francis, believe we are at the “breaking point” if not even beyond that, as if the carrying capacity of the earth has been well established, then we are in a constant struggle to stave off destruction.  How can population control not be considered as a solution to always stay under the ceiling?

Population control stands in contrast to Catholic social teaching and theological issues, which Pope Francis cursorily reaffirms, after already painting the global warming picture, in paragraph 50:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.

In essence, population growth is fine and the real problem is activity.  But then, look at the friends the Church is keeping on this subject.  For most environmental groups, population control is the main solution to the problem.  If you look at the core beliefs of most environmental groups, I believe you will see population control in some form because, again, human existence is the core problem and the easiest path to sustainability is to maintain numbers.  The UN, which the Church is courting and trying to persuade in this effort, has many documented cases and references in terms of its support of population control.  It’s not exactly a secret.  Just take the recent statements of Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief:

“So is nine billion a forgone conclusion?” Dalton asked. “That’s like baked in, done, no way to change that?”

“We can definitely change those numbers and really should make every effort to change those numbers because we are already, today, already exceeding the planet’s planetary carrying capacity, today,” Figueres responded. “To say nothing of adding more population that is really going to overextend our capacity. So yes we should do everything possible.”

You will find a long list of supporters of population control amongst the advocates of sustainable development.  The two go pretty much hand in hand.  Yet, the Catholic Church is one of the staunchest opponents of population control, through its messages of protecting life from the earliest stages onward.  Whether it be opposing abortion, sterilization, or contraception, the Church has maintained a firm belief in the sanctity of life, and it stands in stark contrast to the very people the Church is now trying to court.  Again, it’s a contradiction in terms.  We are being taught through this encyclical that human activity, through carbon dioxide, is a pollutant to this planet, but are being told to ignore the solution to it that is readily apparent from that line of thinking.  I don’t think you can have both.  Yet, there is some form of acknowledgment of both in paragraph 60:

Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.

Should we generate a solution between those two extremes?  Is the extreme that human existence is inherently a threat to the planet be something we even want to consider?  When you suggest that that is one extreme and we need to find a middle ground, are we to admit that humanity is half of a scourge to the planet?  Yet the people of that extreme, or close to that extreme, are those with whom we are now seeking an alliance with in the end.  Population control cannot exist along side free demographic growth, so there is a conflict here in Laudato Si.  Unless married couples are now supposed to keep carbon footprints in mind as an added dimension to discerning whether they should be open to bringing new life into the world, it’s hard to separate the painting from the paint that is being used.


I agree with the theological core that Pope Francis presents in terms of stewardship and God’s creation, even of a notion of a shared human ecology.  There is not much to debate there, and he does a good job at stating the need for stewardship.  However, I completely disagree with the polar view that this brand of environmentalism presents, including how it has been framed by Pope Francis.

It is presented that you can fall under one of two categories.  You are either a proponent of things like global warming and want to save the environment (since they are conflated together as the same concept), or you are a Captain Planet villain that enjoys dumping toxic waste in the rain forest for no other reason than the fun of it. I, myself, am a conservationist. I think we should do everything within our power to conduct our lives in accord with the natural world, but the natural world should never take precedence over human dignity.  So, my life stands in stark contrast to this paradigm of being either A or B. I disagree with global warming, AND I think we need to do a better job of being responsible for our common home.  This document ends up making me feel confused and guilty that I am not doing enough.  Perhaps I’m not doing enough, but I’d rather that stand on its own with theological backing than be linked to a scientific theory that has the potential of being wrong and/or aligns itself with interests contrary to my faith.

I think my feelings are best summed up by a close look at a Bible verse used in paragraph 96:

In talking with his disciples, Jesus would invite them to recognize the paternal relationship God has with all his creatures. With moving tenderness he would remind them that each one of them is important in God’s eyes: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God” (Lk 12:6).

The call is to see the importance of creation.  However, we would do well to look at the very next verse and read them together.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

I’m sure many will see this as making a mountain out of a molehill by putting too much emphasis on the climate change portion of Laudato Si.  However, we are, indeed, worth more than sparrows in the eyes of God.  Laudato Si doesn’t make me question being Catholic or make me want to turn my back on the Pope.  I’m just afraid that the Church, by going beyond its call for stewardship and into the realm of human toxicity that goes along with much of anthropogenic global warming theory, is aligning itself with the wrong people.

In the end, the question is this: have we bruised God’s creations by our actions, or do all of our actions, by their very nature, bruise God’s creation?