Yesterday an article at Barbwire.com caught my attention with the headline “Liberal Academic says America’s Founding Document Outmoded.” The article reported that “Top Vatican adviser Jeffrey Sachs says that when Pope Francis visits the United States in September, he will directly challenge the “America idea” of God-given rights embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
If Pope Francis bases his discussion of unalienable right on the intellectually depleted nonsense in Jeffrey Sachs’ article he will seriously embarrass himself and the Catholic Church. Ignoring the actual language and logic of the Declaration of Independence, Sachs pretends that it promulgates the view of rights which illogically conflates right and freedom, in the absence of God, as leftists and God-rejecting Ayn Rand libertarians commonly do. This pretense is plainly false to the logic of the Declaration as well as the facts of America’s history.
The Declaration of Independence promulgates a straightforward natural law understanding of right. Far from assuming that being just (the disposition to do right) and charitable (the disposition to preserve ourselves and others, rooted in God’s law for our nature) are no part of political right, the Declaration applies the understanding of government Madison asserts as he explains the aim of the U.S. Constitution (in Federalist #51), to wit:
Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.
This is the purpose of government also cited, for example, in the Chapter II of John Locke’s Second Treatise, widely known for its influence on the thinking of America’s founding generation.
As employed in the Declaration of Independence, the term ‘unalienable right’ does not refer to some arbitrary freedom to act. Rather it refers to the right of liberty, which is the species of freedom that arises in connection with the choice to act rightly, i.e., to act in accord with right as substantiated (endowed) by the provisions of the Creator’s goodwill toward humankind, wherein He conceived, enacted and determined what is supposed to be the nature of our existence as human beings.
Leftists conflate right and freedom because they implicitly deny that the root of all Creation is the enacting and enacted Word of God. This leads to a conception of things in which what happens, happens with no arbiter of events except their material outcome, which goes by the name history. But where this is the only source and standard of right, the name of history is just an alias of power. So the supposedly new, progressive, liberating leftist dogma comes down to the same old degenerate, oppressive condition for human affairs, i.e., “Might makes right.”
The Declaration of Independence precisely breaks with this degenerate understanding of the human condition. It explicitly subjects history (including the historic action the American colonists were taking) to the standard and judgment of God. That is a standard known and applied a priori, in order to justify intended acts in a way that remains true to the permanent moral and spiritual standard of right whether, in any given instance, the material outcome is success or failure, victory or defeat.
This acknowledgment of the transcendent standard of rightful human activity gives rise to the positive connotation of progress. Apart from such a standard, the word progress has no more positive significance, when applied to history, than it does when used in phrases like “the progress of the blight” or “the progress of the hurricane.” (Ironically, though they deny its transcendent basis, leftists constantly exploit the positive connotation of “progress” because it serves their material ambitions.)
Contrary to Sachs’ contention, the Declaration’s understanding of right has everything to do with virtue. In Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth derides her husband’s wavering will to commit regicide, Macbeth aptly summarizes the meaning of virtue (a word that ultimately takes root from the Latin vir meaning man) when he says “I dare do all that may become a man.” The unalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence are precisely virtues in this sense of the term- activities and actions by which we manifest and preserve our humanity, our humanness. Without them we become estranged (alien) from our God-endowed nature. We fall into a way of being other than we are supposed to be. Supposed by whom? By our Creator, the one whose will substantiates and informs what we truly are.
It’s simply malicious, therefore, to pretend, as Sachs does, that the American preoccupation with unalienable right is somehow at odds with the pursuit of virtue. But since, according to the Declaration, God endows all human beings with certain unalienable rights, the virtues involved are accessible to all human beings who are willing to act according to God-endowed right. This equal access is especially true in light of the example of God’s Word made flesh.
Christ’s historic revelation that through him God offers a path of virtue easily accessible, by God’s grace, to all people of goodwill, is the key to the Christian understanding of virtue. Because it is egalitarian in principle, the Christian understanding radically differs from the more elitist and exclusionary views of Aristotle, Buddha or Confucius.
Christ teaches us to look beyond the outward appearance of action for the state or condition of the heart from which it arises. This means that the ordinary vocations of human nature (like accepting the natural vocation of parenthood, caring for our parents and other family members, or serving the needs of other human beings, including the human community as a whole) can rise to the highest level of virtue. Done with a heart that conforms to the heart of Christ, they arise from our voluntary decision to be the instrument of God’s benevolent will for human nature.
In Christ God opens the path of highest virtue to common folk willing to have their eyes opened to Christ’s relation to God, and willing therefore to live through him in order to make that relationship their own. The lowly are thereby lifted up to a place of sovereign responsibility and king-becoming graciousness; they are filled with sense and understanding that surpasses and confounds the worldly wise.
The Declaration of Independence translates this Christian understanding of virtue into political terms. In countless sermons, preachers like John Witherspoon espoused the Christian logic of this translation. On its account, the vocation of citizenship becomes a commitment to practice the virtues required to do justice and serve the common good. Citizens, alike in this commitment, form societies and institute governments in order to stand together in their firmness to do right as God gives them to see the right.
I seriously doubt that Pope Francis will ignore the profound consistency between the Declaration’s logic and the Christian understanding of our God-instructed human vocation. I seriously doubt that he will come to the United States to deride the principles of America’s Constitutional self-government, of by and for the people. I seriously doubt that he is at all likely to do so on the basis of a palpable misunderstanding of those principles that misses the mark precisely because it is blind to the Christian root of America’s basic premises of right and justice.
Aside from being intellectually careless and logically bankrupt, such ill-informed, malicious criticism would be the worst kind of bad manners- the kind that is most objectionable because it defames the rightly inclined hearts and good character of people striving, though with childlike imperfection, to conform to God’s righteousness.
This scandal-mongering behavior would be tantamount be to practicing the politics of personal destruction against the decent personality of a whole nation. That is the Marxist, Machiavellian way to worldly power, which the Roman Catholic Church has consistently recognized as a work of iniquity. To those who practice it Christ promises to say (Matthew 7:23) “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Surely no such malicious practice will ever be the way of the Vicar of Christ on earth, whatever such as Jeffrey Sachs pretend.