Laws are morality


If we deny that moral thought has a role in government, we are left with only the cold calculus of utilitarianism, or simple power politics, to guide our decisions.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

Editor's note: The text below is adapted from an address given at the interfaith prayer breakfast, a non-partisan occasion of prayer at the recent national convention of the Conservative Party of Canada.

The old John Diefenbaker wrote to the young Sean O'Sullivan, upon hearing the news that the latter intended to run for Parliament: "It is the greatest form of service, outside of the Christian ministry."

I esteem the political vocation, but I am not a member of your party, nor any political party. I am grateful for your invitation to join you in this alien – but I trust friendly! – territory. I congratulate you on your election victory and pray that it might be used not for partisan advancement but principled service. Fools and knaves can win power; it is the wise and the noble who are worthy of it.

Last Oct. 1, the Right Honourable David Johnston was installed as our governor-general, and in his installation address he quoted his most illustrious predecessor in the viceregal office: "I recall the closing lines of my predecessor, General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier's inaugural address: 'In our march forward in material happiness, let us not neglect the spiritual threads in the weaving of our lives. If Canada is to attain the greatness worthy of it, each of us must say, 'I ask only to serve.'"

The spiritual threads of which General Vanier spoke are essential in the weaving of our common life together. Material prosperity is a good and noble pursuit, but it actually animates the lesser part of the lives of most Canadians. What we earn is the product of our own creativity and industriousness – our material goods are the product of our being made creative in the image of God and our virtues, both of which belong to the realm of the spirit. What we do with our goods is animated by our vision of the good life; that vision too belongs to the realm of the spirit. The purposes to which we put our service – these too are given not by a crude materialism, but are discovered in the realm of the spirit. In short, without spiritual threads we might have the makings of a tapestry, but it would be without design, without beauty, without purpose.

General Vanier, a statesman learned in both philosophy as well as theology, would acknowledge that the realm of the spirit is not exhausted by the world of religious faith. But without the great religious traditions, both present in Canada and around the world, the realm of the spirit is greatly impoverished. Our common life together needs the threads of the spirit, which is to say that it needs the contribution of religious faith – not only religious faith, but essentially religious faith.

Let me make the point more boldly. The claims of religious faith – namely that there is something, or someone, beyond the power of the state, and that the state must adhere to the truth about the human person – are what prevent democracies from descending into simple contests over power. History and our contemporary circumstance teach the same thing. It is not the broader horizon, the deeper conversation which religious faith brings that weakens our common life and threatens our liberties, but precisely the opposite. The drive to remove faith from public life means declaring that the deepest convictions of Canadians, and their corresponding freedoms to act in accord with them are somehow suspect; it is this that narrows and coarsens our common life, and threatens our liberties.

It is an electoral fact that religiously observant voters found a home in the Conservative party. They are an important part of what produced this election result. Whether their judgment was a wise one remains to be tested. But it places upon your party at this time a special responsibility to defend the positive role of faith in public life, and to promote the full participation of Canadians of faith in our common life together.

In the Throne Speech – not the recent one but the very first one, delivered by Viscount Monck in 1867 – it was said: "Within your own borders peace, security and prosperity prevail, and I fervently pray that your aspirations may be directed to such high and patriotic objects, and that you may be endowed with such a spirit of moderation and wisdom as will cause you to render the great work of Union which has been achieved, a blessing to yourselves and your posterity, and a fresh starting point in the moral, political and material advancement of the people of Canada."

Notice the order there – moral, political, and material. One might rephrase that to say that culture is primary for it shapes politics, which in turn provides the framework for the economy. The peace, security and prosperity of Canada, already evident in 1867, and more abundantly so in the almost 150 years since, is a product of our moral choices.

It is also incorrect to set up a false category of so-called "moral issues" – as if all political choices were not just that – and bestow on them a special untouchable status. This is in fact impossible, for in the realm of moral choices, not to choose is itself a choice.

The plain fact is that all choices freely made are moral choices. We speak about moral issues today, and we mean the protection of innocent life at all stages, or the definition of marriage. Those are moral issues to be sure, but all laws make moral choices – every law is a moral issue. Care for the poor is a moral issue. Protection of the environment is a moral issue. The defence of liberty is a moral issue. Criminal justice is a moral issue, as is the temperate and fair use of the prosecutorial powers of the state. Politics, as Aristotle defined it, is our deliberation on how we ought to order our common life together. As soon as we say "ought" we are in the realm of morality. To pretend otherwise is simply false.

To say that morality should be excluded from this deliberation, or that religiously-inspired morality should be singled out for special exclusion, is to say, in effect, that the great traditions of moral reflection have no bearing on our moral and political choices today. We are left then with only the cold calculus of utilitarianism, or simple power politics.

It is also incorrect to set up a false category of so-called "moral issues" – as if all political choices were not just that – and bestow on them a special untouchable status. This is in fact impossible, for in the realm of moral choices, not to choose is itself a choice. Morality shapes politics, and to choose not to choose is a political choice. The magistrate is not permitted to wash his hands as if it were possible to remain neutral between good and evil, right and wrong.

A political party is called to serve a people. To be successful it must recognize who those people are in their full breadth and depth. It also, as a vehicle of ideas and a wielder of power, shapes that people. It has therefore not only a political goal, but a moral and cultural vocation. Vocation is not too strong a word. To exercise it well is indeed to praise God, a noble task and a worthy service. To exercise it poorly is a great betrayal. May you, for the praise of God and the service of this most blessed of all His nations, exercise that duty well.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Laws are morality." National Post, (Canada) June 15, 2011.

Reprinted with permission of Father de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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