Society's Guiding Principles

The Errors of Pragmatism and Relativism

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Some laws are just and others are not, but how do we determine the difference? In her latest book Sheila Liaugminas outlines what she upholds as the first principles that should guide us.

The Chicago-based journalist has many years of experience in the print media and also in both TV and radio. In “Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture” (Ignatius Press), she commenced by observing that we are losing our ability to think and reason.

The erosion of a common Christian basis for ethics makes it difficult to maintain the ideals of modern democracy, which are founded on Christian principles, she explained.

Nevertheless, she affirmed that “certain truths are so foundational for our life and flourishing that they are simply not open to debate or mitigations – they are non-negotiable.”

The book’s chapters revolve around the theme of human dignity and what this means on topics ranging from the right to life, euthanasia, cloning, religious liberty and conscience.

Liaugminas opened her consideration of these topics by noting that various foundational documents make reference to fundamental rights. The American Declaration of Independence included phrases such as “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Then, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes in its preamble a reference to “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

Yet, she added, both the United States and the United Nations have gone on to adopt policies that contradict the affirmations in these declarations.

This has come about, she explained, due to the triumph of a view of the person based on relativism and utilitarianism. Only too often, she lamented, today’s shifting cultural ideology has prevailed over Church teaching.

Changed by culture

“We have been changed by our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough,” she said, quoting from a document published by the U.S. bishops.

The moral confusion created by losing sight of the principles that should govern society threatens freedom and justice, Liaugminas warned.

“We can’t claim to be Catholic and publicly contradict, reject, or betray the teachings of the faith,” she continued. Moreover, the claim that we are being guided by our conscience when rejecting such truths should not be used as a mere excuse for decisions that are irrational or immoral.

The “personally opposed but…” excuse, she affirmed, is simply intellectually dishonest. Laws that permit abortion or euthanasia are gravely immoral and should never be accepted, Liaugminas argued.

She later compared abortion to slavery, saying that Abraham Lincoln, who fought so hard to end slavery, could not have imagined that a future decision by the Supreme Court would leave an entire class of human beings unworthy of constitutional protection.

Every innocent person has a right to life and no person or government has a right to take that life, she said.

Turning to the end of life issues Liaugminas commented that assisted suicide and euthanasia have now become “rights” issues. She then went on to quote Catholic teaching on these issues, demonstrating the need to uphold human dignity by caring for the sick and elderly, instead of facilitating their death.

The false premise, she warned, at the center of the “right to die” movement is the concept of a radical personal autonomy, which, however, ignores the dignity of human life. And, at no point does a person lose or outgrow that innate dignity and worth.

Everyone has a right to the ordinary and proportional means of preserving life, she argued, and those involved with the care of a patient are obliged to administer these basic means of life support.

“Hastening the end of a person’s life is not compassionate; it is cruel,” she added.

The role of families

On another much-debated topic, marriage, Liaugminas started by pointing out the important role that families play in society and the economy.

Re-defining marriage to allow it to be extended to same-sex couples is not a question of “marriage equality” she affirmed. The nature of marriage as a union between a man and a woman predates both the Church and the state. Therefore, the definition of marriage is not a religious matter but one founded in human nature.

“Those who propose that the purpose of marriage is only the emotional satisfaction of the couple are missing the point of marriage,” Liaugiminas stated.

She then went on to consider freedom of religion and conscience. A large part of the chapter is a description of the conflict over the regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Nobody has the right to force another person to violate his conscience,” she said. As well, the American Constitution guarantees not just freedom of worship, but freedom of religion.

In concluding Liaugiminas urged people to fight to uphold the non-negotiables and to fight for a just society for all.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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