San Francisco archbishop’s abortion letter rooted in this ancient tradition

Written by William C. Duncan

June 4, 2021

On May 1, 2021, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco issued a pastoral letter “on the human dignity of the unborn, holy Communion, and Catholics in public life.” He says “anyone who actively works to promote abortion shares some of the guilt for the abortions performed because of their actions.” The letter continues: “Because we are dealing with public figures and public examples of cooperation in moral evil, this correction [of those who support abortion] can also take the public form of exclusion from the reception of Holy Communion.”

Sutherland Institute takes no position on the Catholic Church denying communion to any elected official (or any other religious accountability for elected officials). But this letter illustrates a way in which religious teachings and people of faith have contributed to core elements of our system of ordered liberty.

The letter is in the tradition of past religious leaders who called political leaders to account for failure to respect moral teachings, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas More. This tradition is linked with a core element of constitutional government in the United States – the principle of the rule of law.

When John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, he included an explicit reference to the rule of law, which he linked to the principle of separation of powers:

In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them; to the end it may be a government of laws, and not of men.

The linkage makes good sense. The concept of the rule of law is one of orderly, established, just, stable and open lawmaking and enforcement. It stands in opposition to arbitrary and unjust government. Thus, separating established sources of authority among different parts of the government helps prevent rule by a single person or group that sees itself as above the law.

The World Justice Project explains that a government operating in accordance with principles of the rule of law will deliver accountability, justice, openness, and accessible and impartial administration. The principle of accountability means: “The government as well as private actors are accountable under the law.”

This idea grows from an idea with ancient religious roots, that there is an essential equality of all people. This idea is commonplace in political thought today but as a Jewish scholar noted: “Ancient Israel was the first significant social order of any size to recognize this basic human equality.” An economics scholar said that as time went on, “the theological claim of Judaism and Christianity, that all humans are God’s image bearers, [was] important for developing the concept of human equality.”

Additionally, the religious belief in human sinfulness informed the idea of a “necessity of limits on the sovereign” that was key to the concept of separation of powers.

A Biblical story powerfully illustrates the theological underpinning of the rule of law. When King David had arranged for a murder to cover up his own sin, he was confronted by the prophet Nathan, who posed a hypothetical that was really a thinly veiled comparison to the king’s actions: A rich man took a beloved lamb from a poor shepherd so he would not have to use one of his own to feed a guest.

The king “burned with anger” at the rich man in the story and demanded retribution only to be confronted by the prophet’s courageous denunciation: “You are the man! … Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own” (2 Kings 12:7 NIV).

The idea that political leaders are just people, after all, and are accountable to principles higher than their own wills or interests is critical to a just society. In our constitutional order, the accountability is to the “higher law” of the Constitution itself. In the religious context, the accountability is to God or to religious principles.

Archbishop Cordileone’s letter is a modern application of the religious principle.

Even if we do not agree with a particular religious claim made on a political leader, the invocation of a religious accountability is an important reminder of the great achievement that constitutional accountability is in our political system. It reminds us that we owe much to religious concepts and their acceptance by nonreligious and religious people alike for the freedom and justice we enjoy.

(Photo: CNS/Archdiocese of San Francisco/Dennis Callahan)

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