In 1992, the Supreme Court was confronted with the growing restrictions that States were placing upon access to abortion. The State of Pennsylvania required informed consent after a 24-hour period of waiting prior to the abortion. It also required a minor to have the consent of one parent and a married woman to notify her husband of her intention to abort their child.
The United States Supreme Court dealt with these restrictions in its Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. The Court allowed some restrictions as long as they did not place an undue burden on a mother. But, tragically, the Court re-affirmed the abortion license of Roe v. Wade. Bypassing its fundamental duty of acknowledging when human life begins, the Court chose instead to emphasize freedom of choice unimpeded by any troublesome restrictions.
In a statement more poetry than prose — something rare for the Supreme Court — Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Kennedy was actually reiterating an opinion stated by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter 50 years earlier. Justice Frankfurter had said, “Certainly the affirmative pursuit of one's convictions about the ultimate mystery of the universe and man's relation to it is placed beyond the reach of law” (cf. Clifford R. Goldstein, “Justice Kennedy's Notorious Mystery Passage,” Editorial Liberty, July/August 1997).
At first hearing, Kennedy’s renowned “right to liberty clause” in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey strikes a chord dear to Americans. Everyone holds that freedom is a valued right. Our country is founded on freedom. However, Justice Kennedy’s dictum actually undermines the very rule of law itself. It canonizes a subjectivism that opens the door not only for abortion, but for prostitution, assisted suicide, euthanasia and whatever else someone wishes to define as meaningful for his or her life. It is a recipe for chaos.
If freedom is the liberty to choose what to treat as real and meaningful, what happens when your choice of what is real and meaningful conflicts with mine? What happens when a citizen’s choice radically differs from what the state chooses? What happens when a mother’s freedom to choose an abortion conflicts with a father’s freedom of choice to bring another child into the family?
Today’s secular society exalts human choice above all else. But is there not something more fundamental than choice? Do we not need to choose what is good and not what is evil? Do we not need to choose what helps us reach our full human potential, physical, emotional and moral? Can we simply ignore how our choices will affect others in society?
What is the basis for any choice? If it is just our will, then we are deceiving ourselves into thinking that we create reality. Pope Benedict XVI has said, “Taking into account the fact that human freedom is a freedom always shared with others, it is clear that the harmony of freedom can be found in what is common to all: the truth of the human being…”(“Address to Participants in the International Congress on the Natural Law,” Rome, February 12, 2007).
Murder, theft, lying and adultery — these are listed as sins in the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But, there is nothing peculiarly Christian or even Jewish about these norms. They are universal. That is why the Old Testament prophets Amos and Isaiah could inveigh against the Gentiles who did not have the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets. They had them already inscribed in their hearts. This is what we call the natural law.
No contemporary cultural current can convert a moral evil into a moral good. As Blessed John Paul II once wrote, “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church” (“Evangelium Vitae,” 62).
A secular state may choose to ignore truth as the authentic foundation of man’s ethical behavior. But truth still stands as the ground for judging between good and evil. If, instead of making individual choice the basis of our laws, we make truth, the truth of the human person as given in the natural law, the basis of our laws, then we would be guaranteeing true freedom for all (cf. James Kalb, “The Tyranny of Misunderstood Freedom,” Ecclesia et Civitas, February 14, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese.
Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.