Reverend Martin Luther King vs. a Catholic Jesuit Priest

Two men of God quoted St. Thomas Aquinas as a guide to making moral decisions. Reverend Martin Luther King, whose legacy we honor today, wrote from a Birmingham jail the following in 1963:

A Baptist quotes St. Thomas Aquinas

“One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

A Jesuit quotes St. Thomas Aquinas

In contrast, Fr. Pat Conroy, a Jesuit priest and former chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, quotes St. Thomas Aquinas to rationalize an unjust law:

“How do we, within our constitutional system, how do we get to our Catholic value in this case, [when women have] the right to choose. By the way, I want to know the American who thinks the government should take away their choice in any area of their life — any area of their life. It’s an American value that each one of us can choose where our life is going. That happens to be a Catholic value, too. That we should all use our gifts and our talents and our intelligence as best we can to make the best choices we have the freedom to make.

Sometimes we don’t have the freedom to make really important choices because of fear, because of oppression, because of poverty, because of all kinds of things. Choice is a highly American value and it’s a church value. [Twelfth-century Italian priest and Catholic philosophical giant] Thomas Aquinas says if your conscience says to do something the church says is a sin, you are bound to follow your conscience. That’s Thomas Aquinas!

A good Catholic in our system could be saying: Given women in our system have this constitutional right, our task as fellow Christians, or as Catholics, is to make it possible for her to optimize her ability to make the choice.”

These are profoundly different takes on Aquinas’ teachings.

Clarification and corrections

John Huynh, Director of the Catechetical Institute for the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines (and a member of Pulse Life Advocate’s board), weighed in with some clarifications and corrections directed at Fr. Conroy’s interpretation of Aquinas:

John Huynh

John Huynh, Director of the Catechetical Institute for the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines

“Aquinas sees the goal of government legitimate only if it works to promote the common good in accordance with natural, divine, and eternal law.

We make many good laws that constrict people’s freedom to protect them and the common good.  For instance, seat belt laws take away one’s choice to whether or not to put on a seatbelt when one drives.

Closer to the point about “this is my body and my freedom” are current laws prohibiting prostitution. In this sense, one of the government’s important goals is to protect and promote human life for the sake of the common good.  Thus, the government does not diminish an individual’s freedom by promulgating laws which protect human life; in fact, it is doing the exact opposite: it promotes human flourishing for the human person in his/her journey towards a relationship with Jesus Christ who is Truth and who will set him/her free.”

Eternal and Natural Law have been violated

Clearly, laws that discriminated against people on the basis of race violated “eternal and natural” law, as King states. (These laws were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thanks in part to Reverend King’s social activism.)

Clearly, laws that discriminate against the unborn person in the womb also violate these same eternal and natural laws. And yet Fr. Conroy stakes out a slippery position, as Huynh points out:

“I should observe that Father Conroy seems to argue here that even if abortion is a sinful choice that we should still let the woman make it since it’s her right.

So it seems like he is conceding to the position that the choice to abort is a wrong one, but that we should still allow people to make the wrong choices.

Yet, when it comes to matters of life and death, I do not think most people take lightly a choice that leads to murder, even if the choice was made in ignorance (hence involuntary manslaughter is still a felony).”

To reiterate Reverend King:

“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

The principle applies to the abortion debate. Although King didn’t directly address the issue of abortion, he acknowledged that sacrificing black children was self-defeating:

“The Negro cannot win if he is willing to sacrifice the futures of his children for immediate personal comfort and safety.”

Sounds pretty pro-life, doesn’t it? St. Thomas Aquinas would approve.

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