Profiles in conscientious objection

One politician standing firm on his conscience is a miracle. Fifty-five standing firm on their consciences is a publicity stunt. That may seem a bit harsh, but it is the only explanation for why 55 Catholic Democrats in the US House of Representatives have issued what they described as an historic statement of principles.

“We are proud to be part of the living Catholic tradition -- a tradition that promotes the common good, expresses a consistent moral framework for life and highlights the need to provide a collective safety net to those individuals in society who are most in need,” they said in their manifesto. “As legislators... we work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being. We believe that government has moral purpose.”

Since every one of the 435 members of the House would surely subscribe to these principles, Catholic, Calathumpian, Muslim or atheist, this can’t explain why the 55 needed to invoke their religious affiliation. Surely they did not feel that Catholics have a monopoly on motherhood statements.

What prompted the statement was a potential confrontation with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church over abortion. Repudiation of abortion which is “legal, safe and rare”, in Bill Clinton’s memorable phrase, would lose them votes. But an open break with their Church would lose them votes as well.

Hence their bold proclamation that they cherish human life, recognise that abortion is undesirable, and want to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Sotto voce they support every woman’s right to abortion: Catholic intransigence, they imply, does not reflect “the depth and complexity of these issues”. Americans share “a rich diversity of faiths” and accept the separation of church and state. Support for legalised abortion is part and parcel of life in a democratic society. Therefore, while seeking “the Church’s guidance and assistance” they appeal to “the primacy of conscience” to make a principled stand for abortion rights.

What can we make of this?

Abortion is a critical issue -- one million American children aborted each year is a personal and demographic tragedy. But let’s leave to one side this controversy and focus on how these 55 congressmen and women reached their decision. The kindest conclusion is that their reasoning is a muddle, an intellectual house of cards which collapses with a puff of logic.  

First of all, they claim that their commitment to helping the poor, protecting the vulnerable, reducing poverty and so on is inspired by Catholic social teaching. But on a vital strand of this teaching, they disagree vehemently. What does this say about the authority of their church’s teaching? If it is wrong about abortion, what guarantee is there that it is right about championing the cause of the disadvantaged and holding out collective safety nets?

The views of the 55 on the primacy of conscience make even less sense. Conscience is a judgement made on principles. Conscience does not make actions right and wrong; it applies a law to a particular case. It does not look within to find this law, but above and in the objective reality of things. This is not a uniquely Christian point of view. It was held by the ancient Greeks as well, pagans all of them. Here is Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s famous play, explaining why she defied an edict of the king:

That order did not come from God. Justice,
That dwells with the gods below, know no such law.
I did not think your edicts strong enough
To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws
Of God and heaven, you being only a man.
They are not of yesterday or to-day, but everlasting.1
Antigone is not appealing to her gut feeling, but to a higher law. If conscience is purely an interior intuition of right and wrong, as the Congressmen appear to think, it is irrational, and therefore quite indefensible in a public forum.

And rather than exalting the rights of conscience, their endorsement of an autonomous, irrational view of right and wrong is debasing the currency of moral discourse. An egregious example of this took place last year in Illinois. Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich used emergency powers to force pharmacists to sell contraceptives despite their qualms of conscience. “The pharmacy is not allowed to discriminate who they sell it to and who they don’t,” he declared. “No delays. No hassles. No lectures. Just fill the prescription.”

No doubt Mr Blagojevich felt, like the Congressmen, that decisions of conscience were purely subjective, and he acted accordingly by dismissing the pharmacists’ qualms as mere prejudice.

This contempt for conscientious objection is not mere political expediency. It has philosophers who defend it. In a recent issue of the British Medical Journal, for instance, Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu dismissed doctors’ conscientious objection as “a door to a Pandora’s box of idiosyncratic, bigoted, discriminatory medicine”. In his view, “conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care”.

“If people are not prepared to offer legally permitted, efficient, and beneficial care to a patient because it conflicts with their values, they should not be doctors,” he argues, sounding very much like a speechwriter for Governor Blagojevich. This is a point of view which is bound to spread if more public figures invoke conscience as a cone of silence to shield their views from reasoned debate.

Fifty years ago, in 1956, the junior senator from Massachusetts, Democrat John F. Kennedy, published Profiles in Courage, sketches of eight American senators who had defied public opinion to follow their conscience. Whether or not Kennedy actually wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book (there are suspicions that his aide Ted Sorenson ghosted it for him), its esteem for integrity, courage and clear moral reasoning inspired a generation of Americans.

The Gang of 55’s appeal to the primacy of conscience is something altogether different. Instead of standing alone, naked before the anger of their enemies, like Kennedy’s heroes, they huddle together using conscience as a talisman to ward off criticism. They risk little as they settle into their comfy bean bags on the moral high ground.  

In his introduction to Profiles in Courage, Kennedy cited these words about the moral purpose of political life from the doyen of American political commentators, Walter Lippman: 
With exceptions so rare they are regarded as miracles of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demand threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular -- not whether it will work well and prove itself, but whether the active-talking constituents like it immediately.2
Cynical? No doubt, but it is an apt description of politicians who gild their speeches with religion and conscience to dazzle constituents with an ethical son et lumière.

Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.

(1) Sophocles. “Antigone”. The Theban Plays. Trans. E.F. Watling. Penguin, 1947.
(2) Walter Lippman. The Public Philosophy. 1955. Chapter 2.


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