Shifting Sands


Reading a commentary from Prof. Mark Weston Janis on Hugo Grotius (17th century Dutch jurist considered by some to be the “Father of International Law”), I was struck by the following line:

That Grotius in particular and Protestants in general should put faith in law as a means to moderate the cruelties affecting the relations of states should come as no surprise, for a respect for law runs deep in the Protestant tradition.

This led me to thinking about the Catholic versus Protestant views on law, ethics and morality.  I would argue that Catholics tend to view moral standards as “ideals” with the result that extremely high standards can be set, knowing they will generally not be attained.  Those who do attain these ideal standards are often canonized.  We strive to be like the Saints, but there is little stigma from the community in failing to achieve that level of perfection.  This helps explain from an earthly perspective why Catholic moral teaching has survived intact, despite centuries of cultural change and incorporation into divergent cultures.

On the flip side, Protestants historically have develop less strict moral codes, but expect more exacting compliance.  An example would be not requiring priestly celibacy, but driving out pastors who are caught in adultery.  Instead of looking to “saints” for inspiration, a Protestant is more likely to look for a community where the more moderate standard (which often changes from community to community) is closely adhered to.

I recognize that this narrative has been flipped a bit in modern times, particularly in the United States.  There are a number of reasons for this I’m sure, but I have often perceived that many commentators advocating the strictest adherence to Catholic morals are Protestant converts.  Over the past few decades, many mainline Protestant churches found it increasingly difficult to maintain the community standard of behavior, so they did what came naturally to them and adjusted the baseline (think divorce, gay marriage, contraception, etc.). This allowed those communities to stay compliant with a  standard that matched the current thinking of the community.

The Catholic church, facing the same broad cultural forces, stayed true to form and kept the high, ideal standard and accepted that many of their adherents would fail to live up to that standard.  It was great if a select few could stay celibate before marriage, remain married for life,  and never use birth-control, but it was understandable if not everyone could.  (This may be what rankles church liberals so much about the debate on Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried: it is a visible stigma of non-compliance.)  Many Protestants who resisted the lowered standards in their own church, saw the maintained ideal of the Catholic Church attractive and converted.

This also helps explain the current consternation over Pope Francis and his emphasis on mercy.  It can easily be argued that the Holy Father is doing nothing more than taking the traditional Catholic  understanding on adherence to moral standards and articulating it.  To my understanding, no change in actual doctrine has occurred under Pope Francis, though his tone has caused many to think that he eventually might.

Pivoting a bit to civil (non-religious) law, these understandings of law and morality have played out in national legal systems as well.  When we think of states that more strictly adhere to the rule of law, we tend to think of northern Europe, Britain, and North America, traditionally Protestant countries.  Southern Europe and South America, on the other hand, might be considered countries where law is more of an ideal, tolerating a looser adherence to the standard.  No accident that these are traditionally Catholic countries.

The question going forward is how will the transient, migratory nature of modern society affect these traditional views of law and will this produce internal conflict? A great example in the United States is the immigration debate.  Should the United States strictly adhere to immigration laws through border control and deportation, or accept a more relaxed enforcement of immigration laws?  Are Catholics more inclined to accept a more relaxed enforcement than Protestants?  Are Protestants more inclined to change the laws to match reality, as opposed to allowing a disparity between law and practice?

It is easy to say that religion and civil law should be entirely separate, but the two have become so intertwined over the centuries that it cannot be that simple. However, with so much global movement of people and ideas, both between religions and between nations, our traditional notions of law, ethics, and morality are certain to shift.



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