Thursday, December 11, 2008

Religion as Contract


I was sitting yesterday morning in a review session for one of my law school exams. We were analyzing a hypothetical problem (based on a real-life case) in which a Catholic priest delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon at the funeral of a young homosexual man who died in a tragic accident. The priest seems to have restated the Catholic Church’s position on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, albeit in rather stark and indelicate terms. The parents then sue the priest for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

I don’t want to discuss the legal issues, because I simply don’t know enough about the 1st Amendment (freedom of speech and free exercise of religion) at this point to give an adequate answer. I also don’t want to discuss the priest’s behavior. Rather, I want to discuss the reactions of some of my classmates for what it reveals about their attitude toward religion. Some of them, in order to find the priest liable, analyzed the case not from the perspective of tort law, but of contract law. Their basic argument was that the family had hired the Catholic Church to hold a funeral Mass for their son and that the priest, the Church’s agent, had breached the contract by delivering a sermon critical of their son’s conduct. My classmates, however, failed to make clear what the essential terms of such a contract are. The contract would look something like the following:

“We, the bereaved parents, pay the Church/priest valuable consideration of X in exchange for the service of saying nice things about our son in front of our friends and family at his funeral Mass. Furthermore, the views of the Church with regard to our son’s conduct are irrelevant and therefore not to be mentioned.”

I find such a contract, and the underlying view of religion, disturbing for two reasons. First, this contract reduces religion to a matter of mere personal choice. Joining the Church (or any other religion, for that matter) has no ontological effect on the individual which would make leaving problematic. Baptism, in this scheme, means just getting wet, and Confirmation is just getting some nasty oil rubbed on one’s forehead.

Second, according to this contract, the Church has absolutely no right to speak on important moral issues. If a member of the Church says he disagrees with certain teachings, no priest could present the Church’s teaching in a forceful manner for fear of a lawsuit. At the same time, the Church would be required to be at the beck and call of all her members. The Church bears all the obligations of the contract, and the individual member bears none.

I think the root problem of this “contractual” view of religion is that it doesn’t even rise to the level of a real contract. Any other contract this one-sided would be voided by a court for unconscionability. The individual demands complete autonomy and freedom, and the Church is told to recognize that. The Church cannot demand anything of the individual, but the individual can demand everything of the church.

Even a real contract, however, between man and Church/God would not be enough. The ancient Romans were said to regard religion as a matter of do ut des: I give so that you give. This at least is a contract; both sides are required to do something for the other party. Such an attitude, though, should strike any Catholic as somehow vulgar, at the very least. Who am I to demand anything from God, if He made me? Can I take Him to court if He doesn’t perform as I expect?

Such a contractual view of religion appears even in the Old Testament, in some misguided understandings of covenant, and still crops up today. It is for some reason extremely hard to avoid. I am referring to the so-called Deuteronomic theory of history, which views all evil as a direct punishment from God for failing to live up to the terms of the covenant. This theory was refuted first in the Book of Job, and later in the death of Jesus. Jesus taught that the sun rises for the just as well as the unjust man. Loving God in this life must be something more than a mere contractual duty, because God makes no guarantee that life will go as we wish, if we love Him.

Some may raise the objection that belief in the afterlife is merely a postponed performance. Yes, it is true that we believe that evil cannot conquer forever. However, the proper response is that we are to love God for His own sake, and not for our sake.

Anyway, I’ve gone on longer than I meant to. Just a few thoughts on contractual views of religion.
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