The sexual conduct of two congressmen tells us what it is.

This tear’s dog days have summoned forth two splendid examples of human moral imperfection: Rep. Daniel Crane (R-Ill.) and Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.). The world knows their story. Both were censured by the House for sexual misconduct, Crane for a 1980 relationship with a 17-year-old female page, Studds for a 1973 liaison with a 17-year-old male page. Since the legal age of consent in the District of Columbia is 16, neither Studds nor Crane was charged with a crime.

Being censured is the only thing Crane and Studds have in common. The nation got a glimmer of their philosophical differences when Crane admitted tearfully to his district, then to the full House, that he “broke the laws of God and man,” casting a vote for his own censure, facing the House as the Speaker announced the tally. That’s nineteenth-century style.

Studds, in contrast, acknowledged he was gay in a dramatic speech to the House, stated he had made a “very serious error in judgment,” but then defended the relationship with the page as “mutual and voluntary.” He noted that he had abided by the age of consent, and said the relationship didn’t warrant the “attention or action” of the House. Studds voted “present” on the censure and heard the verdict from the speaker with his back to the House.

That’s the essence of twentieth-century rationale.

Crane and Studds slipped back to relative obscurity after their humiliation; but such wide disparity begs that we examine their ideologies, which—on a national scale—are tearing America apart.

Crane’s is the old way. It says that regardless of secular law, there is an objective moral order to which human societies are in conscience bound to conform, and upon which personal, national, and international stability depends. This natural law is a rule of reason promulgated by God in man’s nature, whereby man can discern how he should act. Can discern: given the flaccid nature of man’s will, he may determine to do evil, which Crane did. Thus it’s possible to intellectually recognize virtue but do the opposite. Hypocrisy is the tribute that shamed vice pays to virtue; Crane was hypocritical when, before he was implicated, he denounced a bill lowering statutory consent in the District of Columbia because “it would legalize the seduction of children.”

Studds’s is the new way. It is called positivism. It says that the positive law is fixed by the state without reference to any higher standard. Moral judgments beyond the law are matters of private preference without relevance to the public life of the nation. It affirms, contrary to natural law, that one cannot know absolutely the essences of things; thus there is no objective rightness or wrongness that we can know beyond the secular law. So, by not recognizing the natural law, Studds need not support his own censure—and avoids taint of hypocrisy.

Surprisingly, the usually positivistic House decided to apply natural law standards to the Studds-Crane offense. Why? As with all things involving Congress, the controlling element is personal political survival. “There is no reason why,” said Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), “we should have to serve with someone who had a child entrusted to him who seduced that child.” That’s about as old-fashioned an appeal to natural law as one can make.

Crane and Studds, one a traditionalist, one a positivist, both having been censured under traditionalist law, are truly an incongruous congressional duo. Studds is a product of Yale, a former Foreign Service officer, a late-sixties critic of the Vietnam War, an opponent of military aid to Central America, and one who comingles these liberal views with shrewd casework pragmatism that extended New England fishing rights and won praise from his district’s powerful fisheries industry. That mixture has been popular in blue-collar New Bedford, where they toast him with schooners of beer for saving jobs, and on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, haven for well-educated, postindustrial, affluent society that idolizes the newest liberal trends.

Compared with Studds, Danville dentist Crane appears to be a clod, who, visceral traditionalism aside. gives the impression he knows not much more than the details of orthodontics, prosthodontics, pedodontics and porcelain inlays. His career apex has been his bills to repeal the 55 m.p.h. speed limit, to allow the gold standard to rival Federal Reserve notes, and to end the torture of dogs in the Philippines.

Do they both deserve equal censure? Of course. But, intriguingly, a $5,000,000-a-year Chicago TV comentator condemned only Crane, calling him a “bum.” What about Studds? Is he absolved because he owns no traditional moral code and hence could not have been unfaithful to it? Or was he spared because his sexual preference boasts a fast-growing group that has been strong enough to send politicians scurrying to its defense in major cities around the country, and to which perceptive perspective-writers defer to be popular? We cannot know.

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All we know is that there are no liberation crusades for heterosexuals, no apologists for traditionalists who, betrayed by their weak wills, agonizingly still support the system by which they stand condemned.

But there’s one consolation for Crane. His natural-law philosophy teaches that there is one thing worse than sin. That is denial of sin, which makes forgiveness impossible.

THOMAS F. ROESERDr. Roeser, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is president of the City Club of Chicago. The article is reprinted from the Chicago Sun-Times (Aug. 22, 1983) and used by permission.

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