Nov 5, 2020
If you were wondering what became of moral legalism, wonder no more – legalistic thinking has found its home in the media. Coverage and commentary regarding Pope Francis’s recent remarks about civil unions for homosexuals abounded in it, making it sound as if Catholic moral doctrine were a product of papal decree.
Legalism is the erroneous view that moral norms are rules – a legal code of do’s and don’ts forever subject to change by a ruler-maker. This makes it a handy device for dismissing norms one doesn’t like – the “rule” against contraception, for instance, or the “law” forbidding remarriage after divorce. Authentic norms like these are not rules, however, but statements of moral truth.
Which brings us to the hubbub that greeted the Pope’s remark.
For anyone who may have missed it, a new documentary film about Francis quotes him as favoring legally recognized civil unions as a way to give legal shelter to same-sex couples. The Pope said this: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”
Leave aside whether civil unions for homosexuals are or aren’t a good idea. A strong case can be made on both sides of that argument. In the United States, however, the question itself is beside the point, since the Supreme Court, in a moralistic exercise of judicial legislating five years ago, went beyond civil unions and imposed same-sex marriage – something the Pope has repeatedly opposed – on the entire country.