The thorny issue of politicians and conscience

One of the most controversial aspects of recent electoral campaigns in
the United States has been the influence of religion on the political
positions of candidates and voters. In the year leading up to the 2004
election, this issue received unprecedented attention, especially among
Catholics, because of the presidential candidacy of John Kerry, a
Democratic senator from Massachusetts who made a point of emphasizing
his Catholic roots.

Because Kerry’s pronounced views on life-related topics clashed with
Catholic doctrine, his candidacy placed the American bishops, priests,
and the lay faithful in a delicate position. Over the course of several
months numerous public statements issued from bishops attempting to
help Catholic candidates and voters deal with party loyalties and the
moral teachings of the church. What should be done should a clear
conflict arise between adherence to a party platform and obedience to
the Church?

Rarely have the responses to this question been sharper than they were
in the public statements of Catholic politicians and Catholic bishops
during the months of May and June, 2004. Consider these select examples:

On May 20, 48 Catholic members of the US House of Representatives, all
of them members of the Democratic Party, took it upon themselves to
issue a statement in the form of a letter to the Cardinal Archbishop of
Washington, Theodore McCarrick in his capacity as Chairman of a task
force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic politicians. (1)

“All of us firmly believe,” the politicians declared, “that…each of us
has the responsibility and the right to balance public morality with
private morality without pressure from certain bishops… In public life
distinctions must be made between public and private morality. Because
we represent all of our constituents we must… separate our public
actions from our personal beliefs [when] the views of our constituents…
conflict with some of our personal views.”

Such a statement is in clear conflict not only with Catholic moral
theology but also with the classical moral philosophy on which it
rests. It also conflicts with the tradition of American democratic
statesmanship, which includes the principle that elected
representatives of the people have an obligation to educate their
constituents, especially in matters so fundamental to the common good
as the life issues at stake in the electoral debate. The vast majority
of American citizens have always expected the persons they place in
high office to lead and to enlighten public opinion, not simply to
passively reflect it.

It is the apparent ignorance or indifference to that tradition and to
fundamental principles of Catholic moral theology that was primarily
exposed by this statement and by the campaign speeches of nearly all
Catholic Democrats.

Now consider some select responses from members of the Catholic
hierarchy who felt keenly an obligation to instruct their flocks—a
majority of them affiliated by long family and working-class traditions
with the Democratic Party:

On May 28, a week after the Catholic Democrats made their statement,
Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, made a statement to
Pope John Paul II at the conclusion of a visit to Rome lamenting the
scandal of “Catholics shaped by [secularized American] culture more
than by [the Catholic] faith” who have made the Church “an arena of
ideological warfare rather than a way of discipleship.”

He briefly explained to the Pope how “the public conversation in the
United States… fundamentally distorts Catholicism and any other
institution regarded as ‘foreign’ to the secular individualist ethos”
with its insistence upon a private or personal morality that may
conflict with the objective moral order. (2)

Catholic politicians often justified their understanding of the faith
and its “value system” (meaning its implications for matters of public
morality and policy with respect to human life) without realizing that
the sources of their instruction in the faith had been badly corrupted
when they had came of age by moral fallout from the cultural revolution
of 1968.

As a consequence of this malformation, many politicians viewed their
public life not as “a way of discipleship”, but as a service to
constituents whose “values” might be inconsistent with their own
Catholic beliefs. A statement issued by the US Catholic Bishops in June
2004 addressed that erroneous view (3):

“Those who formulate law have an obligation in conscience to work
toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of
cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good…. Catholics
who bring their moral convictions into public life do not threaten
democracy or pluralism but enrich them and the nation. The
[institutional] separation of church and state does not require a
division between [private] belief and public action... It is the
particular vocation of the laity to transform the world,” not to
succumb to its mistaken understanding of human life.

Besides misunderstanding fundamental elements of the Catholic faith and
this essential element of democratic politics, the politicians were
also ignorant of the distinction between the moral law common to all
humans and the moral components of the Catholic faith. As Cardinal
Avery Dulles put it in the human life issues debated in the electoral
campaign “are not just ‘Church’ issues but are governed by the natural
law of God, which is binding upon all human beings.” (4)

John Kerry’s defeat in November spared the Catholic leadership of the
spectacle of a President so ill-informed about his faith and even about
the responsibilities of that high office. The bishops have been given a
reprieve. It remains to be seen whether their June 2004 pledge will, in
fact, be fulfilled:

“With pastoral solicitude for everyone involved in the political
process…we will persist in [our] duty to counsel in the hope that the
scandal of [Catholic public officials] cooperating in evil can be
resolved by the proper formation of their consciences”.

For as Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha stated in his diocesan
newspaper: “By publicly supporting immoral acts [a politician] has to
be acting against his conscience if it is formed by [authentic]
Catholic teaching. [Those who] take public stands against church
teaching on essential issues… are no longer faithful to the Church.” (5)

“The proper formation of consciences” and re-education in the basics of
elementary moral philosophy and of the democratic political process —
this is the course now incumbent upon Catholics who aspire to serve in
high office in the United States in a manner that is consistent with
their faith and common humanity. To follow that course would, however,
require a readiness to challenge a secularized culture, and therefore a
measure of heroic courage not commonly observed in the history of
American politics.

John A. Gueguen, Jr. is professor emeritus, political science,
Illinois State University. He taught classical and modern political
philosophy, modern ideologies, and American political thought from 1958
to 1996.

 1 Letter from 48 Democratic Congressmen to Cardinal McCarrick. May 10, 2004.
 2 “Church’s Ability to Evangelize Is Diminished”. June 1, 2004.
 3 “Catholics in Political Life”. June 2004.
 4 “Cardinal Dulles on Communion and Pro-Abortion Politicians”. June 29, 2004.
 5 “More bishops weigh in on politicians and Communion”. Catholic Post. May 13, 2004.


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  • John A. Gueguen Jr