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Manhattan Declaration

Charles Rice | Thursday, January 14, 2010

 One hundred fifty-two Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical leaders recently issued the Manhattan Declaration (MD) in defense of “the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion.” MD was drafted by Princeton Professor Robert George, Dean Timothy George of Samford University and Chuck Colson, founder of the Center for Christian Worldview. Online signers of MD exceed 400,000.

MD tells it like it is: “[I]n our nation … the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are … threatened; … the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is … redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; … the rights of conscience are … jeopardized by those who would … compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.” MD relies on reasoned argument, consistent with Benedict XVI’s view that the Church contributes to “discussion of the … questions shaping America’s future by proposing respectful and reasonable arguments grounded in the natural law and confirmed by the perspective of faith” (Oct. 2, 2009).

MD spares neither political party: “[S]ince Roe v. Wade, … both … parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to what Pope John Paul II described as ‘the culture of death.'” MD presents a bill of particulars: “[H]uman embryo-destructive research and its public funding are promoted … The President and many in Congress favor … funding of … ‘therapeutic cloning’ … the … mass production of human embryos to be killed [to produce] … customized stem cell lines and tissues. At the other end of life, [a] movement to promote assisted suicide and ‘voluntary’ euthanasia threatens the lives of vulnerable … persons.”

MD, unfortunately, misreads the origins of the “culture of death.” MD describes “the cheapening of life that began with abortion” and “the license to kill that began with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion.” Legalized abortion, however, and the other evils denounced by MD, are not origins, but rather symptoms of the contraceptive ethic that dominates our secularist, relativist and individualist culture. 

Until the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930, no Christian denomination had ever held that contraception could ever be objectively right. Contraception requires abortion as a backup. And the declining number of young is a factor in promoting euthanasia. If you make yourself the arbiter of whether and when life shall begin, you will predictably make yourself the arbiter of when, as in abortion or euthanasia, life shall end. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II noted that “contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree … [I]n very many … instances such practices … imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to contraception” (No. 13).

MD eloquently affirms that “the marital relationship is shaped and structured by its intrinsic orientation to … procreation.” But it mentions neither contraception nor the defining aggression by which the federal government intruded itself, on the side of preventing life, into private reproductive decisions especially among the poor. During the 1960s, federal funding of family planning was limited. In 1970, Title X of the Family Planning and Population Services Act authorized grants and contracts to provide, in President Nixon’s words, “family planning services … to all those who want them but cannot afford them.” Abortifacients that prevent implantation of the embryo in the womb can be defined and funded as contraceptives under Title X and under Medicaid which, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, is now “the primary source of public funding for contraceptive services.” Federal subsidies of birth control are directed primarily toward low-income persons in the United States, and abroad in foreign aid programs. Pending health care and other programs are likely to increase such funding.

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI predicted that the acceptance of contraception would place “a dangerous weapon … in the hands of … public authorities ….  for applying to … problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples … Who will stop rulers from … imposing upon their peoples … the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious? In such a way men would [place] at the mercy of … public authorities the most personal … sector of conjugal intimacy” (No. 17).

The failure of MD, in its catalogue of legalized promotions of the “culture of death,” even to mention the entry by government into the business of subsidizing by contraception the rejection of new life, is inexcusable. Once that role of government was conceded, the other evils denounced by MD were predictable. Perhaps the purpose of MD was to put together a coalition of signers that would include proponents of public funding of contraception. If so, MD politicized and trivialized itself.

On another concern of MD, same-sex marriage, the impact of contraception was spelled out by Methodist Pastor Donald Sensing of Franklin, Tenn: “Since the invention of the Pill … human beings have … been able to control reproduction … The … acceptance of these changes is impelling the move toward homosexual marriage. Men and women living together … became … the dominant lifestyle in the under-30 demographic …  Because they … control their reproductive abilities — that is, have sex without sex’s results — the arguments against homosexual consanguinity began to wilt.

“When society decided — and we have decided, this fight is over — that society would no longer decide the legitimacy of sexual relations between particular men and women, weddings became … symbolic rather than substantive … the shortcut way to make the legal compact regarding property rights, inheritance and … other … benefits … Sex, childbearing and marriage now have no necessary connection to one another, because the biological connection between sex and childbearing is controllable … If society has abandoned regulating heterosexual conduct of men and women, what right does it have to regulate homosexual conduct, including the regulation of their legal and property relationship with one another to mirror exactly that of hetero, married couples? I believe that this … is contrary to the will of God. But … same-sex marriage, if it comes about, will not cause the degeneration of … marriage; it is the result of it” (Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2004).

The signers of MD commendably pledge, in accord with St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King, to disobey any edict that would compel them or their institutions to participate in “any … anti-life act,” treat “immoral sexual partnerships … as marriages or … refrain from proclaiming the truth.” They also voice a prayer for their own perseverance: “May God help us not to fail in [our] duty” to proclaim the Gospel. Regrettably, MD did not go further and call upon the American people to pray for their country. 

MD forthrightly calls attention to evils that transcend the political as a challenge to reason, nature and God himself. MD itself would have transcended the political if it had called on the American people to put their primary reliance on prayer. Without a confrontation of contraception and its promotion by government, and without a serious call to prayer, MD invites dismissal as just another syncretistic manifesto cast in powerful prose that misses the point. 


Professor Emeritus Charles Rice is on the law school faculty. He can be reached at [email protected] or 574-633-4415.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.