What Moral Rules Bind the State?

By advancing high moral ideals, Christianity has always made itself a target for criticism on grounds of hypocrisy. After all, we are dealing with a religion that makes three hard-and-fast claims concerning morality: moral rules are unchanging, people must adhere to them or face judgment, we all fall short of the ideal, which is why we all must depend on the mercy of God.

How much easier if the Catholic Church held to more common notions of right and wrong. If the church, for example, claimed that the meaning of morality changes with the times and circumstances, it would be easier to wriggle out of the claims of hypocrisy.

What’s more, the church has never attempted to claim that one set of moral standards are right for the laity but another applies to the clergy. If stealing, laziness, gluttony, lust, or what have you, is wrong, it is wrong for everyone, including bishops and cardinals.

The state, on the other hand, advances no clear principle by which its effectiveness, honesty, and usefulness can be judged. No moral rule binds the state, not even those it enforces against us.

We are shocked to read that Archbishop Weakland shelled out half a million to an old boyfriend as hush money. We agree that archdiocesan funds should not be used in that way. But the federal government shells out $2 trillion per year, most of it in the form of bribes, payoffs, graft, and quid pro quos. The money wasn’t given voluntarily but extracted from the public using coercion: if you do not pay, you go to jail. But very little is said about this because people have long since adopted the view that normal standards of right and wrong do not apply to the state.

This is especially true in wartime. Even when the people the US kills are clearly innocent, the state says, "mistakes were made," and we are all supposed to get on with our lives and not harp on the point. The only iron-clad rule of the state is that there are no iron-clad rules by which it is to be bound or judged. It is infallible in judgment and impeccable in moral character.

Yet, as measured by common standards of morality, the state fails by its very nature. It is the greatest thief, the biggest murderer, the most notorious counterfeiter, the most brazen liar — and in every case, it can depend on a class of intellectuals to say that there is nothing wrong with this.

Think about this when you hear that congress will hold hearings on what the government knew before September 11. The only real power that congress has is to embarrass administration officials. They won’t go to jail. They won’t resign. They won’t even admit wrongdoing. There is nothing approaching the standards of accountability that exist in the private sector.

Why isn’t the state subject to a similar level of grilling? There are all the usual biases: the media love the state (but not the church). There is the sheer ubiquity of government outrages: it is the great white noise of life. But the real problem goes much deeper. Because of the philosophy of government that dominates the culture, the state is always given a break. To hold it to any standard is to be anti-government, unpatriotic, un-American, paranoid.

The framers set up a written constitution, hoping to bind the state. But they made an error. They put the government in charge of judging itself, and over time, it watered down the rules until it made them disappear.

It’s hard to know for sure when we all first realized this. It was long before Waco. It might have been Hiroshima, or perhaps the bombing of Dresden. Or maybe when FDR stole everyone’s gold. Perhaps the income tax was the breaking point, or maybe it was Sherman’s march to the sea. All of these were and remain officially approved acts, gross immoralities rechristened as public policy.

What bothers many Catholics about the current troubles in the church is how much they resemble the goings-on of the state, and the extent to which the bishops have come to believe that they could get away with anything in the same manner that politicians do.

Because the state does not believe that it is subject to any law, it is unscrupulous at its very heart, it never finds itself guilty, interprets all failures as a case for more money and power, and becomes increasingly severe in its judgment of the rest of us.

Some libertarians, like some of the old-style classical liberals, claim to see a similarity between church and state. But there is a radical difference, besides the obvious one that the former is a voluntary institution and the latter is a coercive one. As the recent scandals have shown, the church has not fundamentally changed the moral rule by which it is willing to be judged. It is restrained by something outside itself. The state believes that it is not.

Because we are willing to accept this, we are all outraged that an archbishop had an affair with a seminarian and paid him off — heads should roll! — but we are not upset that thousands of people have been killed by the state in the course of a few months, to make Afghanistan a more secure route for oil from the Caspian Sea.