Constitutional rights and wrongs (The Sunday Tribune, Dublin, October 1993)

An article and Editorial of your issue of September 19th have just come to my notice.  Commenting on a recent High Court Judgment of Mr. Justice Rory O'Hanlon, you take me to task for a negative view of contraception given in my book "Covenanted Happiness" (which Justice O'Hanlon quotes in his judgment).  The implication, it would seem, is that I offer an outdated theological understanding of conjugal sexuality, unacceptable to modern concepts of human freedom and rights.

Rights and wrongs

It is commonplace today to speak of the "right" to contraception, the "right" to abortion, to divorce, etc.  Each person certainly has the power to follow such practices; but he or she does not have not the right to do so.  Human rights derive from what is truly due to the human person.  If a State legislates "rights" which are not so due, their effect is to dehumanise persons and society.  This is a process only too well exemplified in many parts of the world; a fact that still leaves Ireland time to reflect.

           Whoever exercises such a "right", is almost certain to do wrong to others (the children, and very often the other spouse, in divorce; the unborn child in abortion, etc.).  But, besides, he or she does wrong to himself or herself, by undermining his or her possibilities of achieving personal fulfilment or happiness, even here on earth.  Contraceptive spouses deny the intrinsic meaning of sexual intercourse, depriving it precisely of what makes it a unique expression of conjugal love.  As a result, they do wrong to themselves, to their marriage, and to the likelihood that their relationship will prove lasting and happy.

Happiness versus selfishness

           I would invite those who propose "rights" favouring contraception, abortion or divorce, to state if they consider that these contribute to the happiness of persons; and, if they do, to give reasons in support of their stance.  My reasons - not based on any dogma - for holding that they are destructive of human happiness and personal fulfilment, are given in my book.

           Everyone wants happiness; but it is not come by automatically or without an effort; it has to be earned.  Life in general, and human relationships in particular, have their own in-built laws of happiness.  If you follow these laws, you can be happy; if you don't, you certainly won't.  If you demand happiness on your own conditions, life may not deliver it.

           "Covenanted Happiness" seeks to present arguments, based on natural reasoning, showing how this applies to marriage.  It is not a work of theology, but a reflection on some of the vital choices - for or against personal happiness - facing married people today.  The thesis of the book is simple: a very particular promise of happiness attaches to marriage, a promise that can be fulfilled by trying to live the married relationship in its natural integrity.  Live marriage according to its laws, and it can bring happiness.  Violate these laws - as is done through contraception, divorce, and (on a broader level) abortion - and happiness falls more and more under the threat of selfishness, and can be completely lost.  This is no doubt a debatable thesis; but, I repeat, it is not based on any dogma, Catholic or otherwise, and it certainly is not theological.

           If the debate is about rights, I maintain that the "rights" in question are wrongs - also to the person exercising them.  It seems to me however that the more fundamental debate is about happiness.  Those who exercise "rights" that are wrongs, also make themselves unhappy.  Not everyone will agree; but then I think the public is entitled to hear their arguments showing that contraception, divorce, abortion, make people happier.

           No couple marrying wants their marriage to be a failure.  As a Judge of the Roman Rota, I have unfortunately had to examine thousands of broken-down marriage cases.  Practically all of these have been marked by the use of contraceptives.  It is a point worth reflecting on.  For me, it simply confirmed what I had learned from pastoral work, over the thirty years before coming to Rome: that the use of contraceptives works as a major factor leading to the progressive loss of marital esteem between the spouses.

The Irish Constitution and a 'Catholic' God

           Your Editorial raises much broader issues in questioning the basis to the Irish Constitution, and calling for its revision.  May I, also as a member of the Irish Bar, be allowed a few comments on this.

           The Constitution is not a peculiarly Catholic document.  Those who drafted it were not all Catholics.  Nor were they bigots (the first President under the Constitution was a Protestant).  As well as a great love for Ireland, they had a keen sense of the basic principles on which a free and human society can be built.  Along with religious tolerance, fundamental values set forth in the Constitution include respect for life, for marriage, for the family.  All of these are essential if both personal and social life are to retain their human character.

           Your Editorial regrets that God appears in our Constitution.  What percentage of the Irish people, I wonder, would accompany you in that sentiment?  For that matter, what proportion of the people of the North of Ireland would prefer to live under a State that acknowledges no God?

           I am not sure what you mean by saying that "the God of our Constitution is very much a Catholic God".  I think He is the God of all of us, who wants us to be happy (with the relative but real happiness possible here on earth), and whose law - designed precisely for our happiness and fulfilment - is deeply and legibly written into our human nature.  It can be read there.

The Natural Law and human rights

           Your Editorial is critical of the concept of the Natural Law, suggesting that this is an outdated and purely Catholic notion.  The Natural Law is not defended just by Catholics, and it certainly is not outdated.  The whole modern human rights movement, as must be evident, is based on a natural law philosophy.  If there is no law of human nature - prior to and above the law of the State - then no one has any basis on which to invoke a right which the State itself chooses not to recognize.  No one has any ground to appeal against the wisdom, or lack of it, of those who govern and hold power.  For it should not be forgotten that a Constitution (certainly our Constitution) is intended not only to prevent individuals - but also to stop the State - from actions or laws that violate the human rights and dignity of each citizen.

           While my book on marriage makes little or no mention of the Natural Law, I certainly believe that its observance is the key to married happiness.  But I would go further and say that the Natural Law is the safeguard of human fulfilment and happiness in all aspects of personal and social life - a thesis which I argue in another book, "Authority and Freedom".

           The abandonment of the Natural Law as the basis for legislation, is a major factor explaining why modern societies seem to be generating more and more isolated and unhappy people.  If The Sunday Tribune holds otherwise, I look forward to reading an Editorial where you give evidence that people in countries with "liberal" abortion and divorce laws, live happier and more fulfilled human lives.

Legitimizing violence?

           No doubt one can draw up a sizeable list of problems and deficiencies besetting Ireland.  Having lived in (not just visited) all the major countries of the Western world during the last forty years, I would comment: and which country does not have problems and defects?  My visits home leave me nevertheless with the impression that people in Ireland, despite everything, are by and large happier than in other Western countries.  If Irish society still holds together, I have no doubt that this is because it is supported by good fundamental laws.  Introduce bad laws, and you create all the conditions for growing personal isolation and unhappiness, and for social disintegration.

           Abortion is certainly a major example, though not the only one.  Once abortion is "liberalised", then, for no other reason than that someone considers another's existence to be "unwanted", a principle of violence has been legitimised in society, and made a commonplace in everyday living.  It will not stop there; other sorts of violence too become commonplace.  The newspapers give daily confirmation of this.

           You call for a change in the Irish Constitution.  The day may certainly come when it will be up to the people of Ireland to choose whether they want themselves - and their legislators - to be guided by that natural law which is inscribed in the human heart (and is easily read there by those who choose to look); or whether they prefer to enter the ranks of modern states whose laws, grounded on no coherent philosophy of man and tending therefore to hold nothing sacred, seem every day less capable of holding society together, in dignity, mutual respect and peace.


           As a postscript may I strongly protest your editorial suggestion that my book runs counter to church teaching on natural family planning.  This is quite untrue.  In fact, the topic of natural family planning does not enter into my book, but I have written about it at some length in the International Review of Natural Family Planning, vol. 13 (1989), pp. 189-203.  Natural family planning, whenever called for, remains a great benefit to married couples.