Questions Answered

  • Is there some Catholic teaching on the morality of the nanny state and its tendency to try to control all of life through federal law?
  • Can you give me some guidance as to the use of the media? We used to have a Legion of Decency which rated films based on their moral content. Without this, is there some principle I can use to guide my viewing?

Question: Is there some Catholic teaching on the morality of the nanny state and its tendency to try to control all of life through federal law?

Answer: There is an excellent book written during the Great Depression by Fulton Sheen, now again available in print, called Freedom Under God, which addresses this very timely question. In this book, Sheen makes use of the papal sources available at that time on social teachings of the Church on a variety of subjects, including the idea that our freedom and truth come solely from the state. This was a question very current in his time because of the ascendancy of Nazism, Fascism, and Marxism, all of which result from an uncontrolled idea that the state is the sole determiner of rights, justice, and morality.

The state, of course, is a natural society to which all human beings must belong, because man is naturally a social animal. However, when the state oversteps its bounds, it does not encourage liberty and freedom, but dependence and collectivism. Man is no longer an individual with inalienable rights, but a cipher of the collective. In this view, the collective must determine and control every facet of man’s life.

Sheen writes:

The rights of the person are derived from the good, in the sense that every being is directed to that which is good. The proximate source of human rights, then, is not the state (Hegel), not the social contract of individual wills (Rousseau), not the emergence of new biological factors (Spencer), not the will of the majority, not the socially useful, not a Constitution, not a Dictator, nor a Parliament, but a person made to the image and likeness of God, endowed with the power of self-determination, and therefore, the right of self-realization, both in this world and in the next. (p. 148)

He then goes on to recount that many think, that though the U.S. Constitution was derived from Enlightenment ideas, in fact, its emphasis on inalienable rights can be traced more to Catholic sources, especially a work of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, De Laicis. The principal English theorist of the divine right of kings, Robert Filmer, wrote a work in which he disputed Bellarmine. Interestingly, Jefferson had this book in his library, and the only passage underlined in it, is that of Cardinal Bellarmine, which reads:

Secular or civil power is instituted by man; it is in the people unless they bestow it on a prince. This power is immediately in the whole multitude, as in the subject for it; for this power is in divine law, but the divine law has given the power to no particular man. … Power is given by the multitude to one man, or to more, by the same law of nature; for the commonwealth cannot exercise this power, therefore, it is bound to bestow it upon some one man or some few. It depends upon the consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a king, or a consul, or other magistrates; and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or a democracy. (p. 152)

Sheen’s thesis, reflected by some secular writers of the time, is that this is the origin of the ideal of liberty and inalienable rights in the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. He also quotes Washington, who stated: “But let there be no change by usurpation; for though, this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed” (p. 153, quoting Washington, Farewell Address to the People of the United States, 1796).

The government of the United States has always recognized many checks and balances in both the rights of the states and the rights of individuals to preclude the kind of overarching attempt to create a government which controls and enters every area of human life, even in the name of the welfare of the people. No central authority can effectively implement or control family, education, business, and many other facets of human life. This is to guarantee individual liberties, but it is also based on the recognition that the central government cannot, and should not, control every aspect of the life of its citizens.

The “nanny state” is a contemporary expression of the idea that our rights do not have their origin in God, or our reasoning souls as individuals, or in any source other than state control. It is, therefore, morally destructive and, constitutionally, cannot be justified.


Question: Can you give me some guidance as to the use of the media? We used to have a Legion of Decency which rated films based on their moral content. Without this, is there some principle I can use to guide my viewing?

Answer: Though the Legion of Decency does not exist, as such, anymore, and though Hollywood itself abandoned official censorship in films in the 60s (the Motion Picture Association still has a rating system which is seen at the beginning of each film), there are still some sources one can use to guide one’s use of entertainment media. The United States Conferences of Catholic Bishops provides movie reviews from the Catholic Film Service which rate movies much in the same way that the old codes used to. The link is: Of course, this site is only for movies. Television and the internet, in general, are more difficult to rate. It would seem, therefore, that some principles need to be stated to guide viewership. Sex, violence, and the general desertion of ethical values seem to be the key areas where the use of the media needs to be controlled.

As to sex, it is important to distinguish between pornography and art. The artistic representation of the human body, such as one finds in Michelangelo’s David is meant to emphasize the nobility of man. This nobility is rooted in his spiritual nature. As a result, an artistic representation of the human body should underline the nobility of man and encourage people to self-control in sexuality. Pope John Paul II emphasized that authentic sex education is not about bodily organs, but communion of spirits. The body is an essential part of man, and a good part. But the body realizes its true human value only when it expresses a disinterested self-giving to affirm the good of another person. This is the cornerstone of the development of chastity.

The pornographic representation of the human body only emphasizes the inflaming of the passions, which look on the other person as an object for use, and not as a subject of love to which one gives oneself completely in an outpouring of truth and love. Pornography encourages the depersonalization of sex and utilitarianism in the relationship. It decries any sort of personal responsibility in the use of sex. Such depersonalization calls forth from the one who experiences it a constant yearning without any self-control or resistance to concupiscence. Coupled with omnipresent media offering powerful graphic pictures, it assaults a person’s interior life until it becomes like a crowded marketplace, in which there is no spiritual peace. This makes it difficult to cultivate any decent interior life of prayer, where a person can listen to God, and equally difficult to cultivate any ordered relationship with others in society.

This condition was originally spawned by the contraceptive mentality. John Paul II states that the lustful look spoken of by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount changes the value of a person. The person should say: “You are good because you exist.” But this is now transformed into: “You are good because you make me feel good.” This has other implications as well.

The wholesale embrace of gratuitous violence in the media is also a direct fruit of this. The right to life is denied unless the other actually is useful to the subject. This also alters the judgment of conscience, so that, in justice, for example, one can only be solicitous to gaining his rights, but without the corresponding duties. The devaluing of the person attacks every human relationship, and especially undercuts the recognition of the rights we owe to others, which should be the proper viewpoint of justice. Whether in business, marriage, family, politics, or war, the other is reduced to someone we use. Ethics becomes relative, and there are no absolute values.

Any media presentation which encourages this mentality must be controlled and resisted. The media advisory organs listed above, which are interested in pointing this out, are good, but only go so far. There is no substitute for the person freely and courageously choosing to not expose himself or his family to such influences. A healthy interest in what is being presented is truly essential and perhaps, today, one of the principal places where prudence or discretion is necessary to guard the Christian soul.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Father Mullady has written his usual precise and logical answers to these two questions . Relativism must not exist in a government or entertainment where it can disregard objective truth. Truth about God where man is made in the image and likeness of God helps the state to govern properly.