Monday, May 21, 2007

Public vs. Private Morality - Civil Law vs. Moral Law

I've been reading lately on secularism. I came across this interesting memo written by American Catholic Theologian John Courtney Murray to the Cardinal of Boston about the stance that the Catholic Church take on the proposed law in the 60's which would make the sale of female contraceptive drugs legal. It is interesting to read a voice from the Catholic church which stood for the law, while keeping his beliefs against the use of contraceptives. Catholics in USA are, unlike in most other parts of the world, are religious minority and benefited from the secular principles in the USA.

To summarize he makes the difference between public and private morality. He defends that civil laws are to protect public morality, not private morality. In this sense banning contraceptives would be dealing with private morality, which is not in the scope of civil law.

He further holds that even if it is against Catholic "moral law", the fact that many religious and non religious groups are backing contraceptives is a indication that "generally accepted standards" which are required for civil laws are not there against the use of contraceptives.

But most important of all he makes a clear distinction between law making and church:

"The final prudential question is the most difficult: What shall the authorities of the Church say publicly about the proposed amendment? In a sense, it is a pity that they should have to say anything. The authority of the Church declares the moral law—that contraception is contrary to the moral law.But the authority of the church does not decide what the civil law should be. This decision rests with the civil community, its jurists and legislators."

In the end he proposes that Catholic church should still oppose contraceptives on a personal level, by lecturing its members about their perils, because their members have trusted their private morality to the church, but should not press for a civil ban on contraceptives. This would be forcing their own private morality on other individuals, through a distorted use of civil law. I invite all interested in secularism and the line between public and private morality to read this memo.

No comments: