National Catholic Register


Clinton Crisis Grips Washington and Nation


BY Joseph Esposito

September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON—For more than a week the nation's capital has been roiled by the Starr report and the reaction to it. While many political questions are involved, the crisis also squarely deals with such Catholic concerns as forgiveness, mercy, justice, and moral leadership.

It seems providential that the Gospel reading for Sept. 13 was St. Luke's account of the Prodigal Son. Newspaper stories indicate that many parishes throughout the country heard homilies related to this theme and the travails of President Clinton.

Church teaching, of course, is clear that repentance and forgiveness are essential. But is the issue more complex when the sins involved are attributable to the world's most powerful political leader, who has been given a unique position of trust by the American people?

Perhaps this matter of trust is most central to understanding what should be the proper Christian response. Many commentators have recently cited the secular position advanced in The Federalist — the 1788 apologia for the U.S. Constitution — which best articulates the views of the Founding Fathers.

The germane Federalist 65, for example, notes: “The delicacy and magnitude of a trust, which so deeply concerns the political regulation and existence of every man engaged in the administration of public affairs, speak for themselves.”

But, while this venerable treatise and others like it give insight into the political remedies — most notably, impeachment — they fail to provide sufficient religious guidance. Here is where the Catechism of the Catholic Church is instructive.

Keith Fournier, head of the Catholic Alliance, told the Register, “The Catechism has much to say about scandal. Every informed Catholic citizen should examine these passages in the light of the recent tragedy we face as a people in this nation we so dearly love.”

One section of this key Church document notes: “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing.”

Fournier, who also is an attorney and a permanent Catholic deacon, added, “When sincere repentance is present in the life of an individual, we as Christians should welcome it. But repentance is directly connected to reparation and restitution — in other words what is called “a change of behavior” in biblical texts.”

There is disagreement over what Clinton's response should be to his wrongdoing. Some have suggested that sincere contrition might be sufficient; that is the course he pursued at a White House prayer breakfast Sept. 11.

Others believe censure or the more extreme punishment, impeachment and possible removal from office, is appropriate. And, of course, there is the option of resignation.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, publisher of the influential magazine First Things, argues that when the true extent of Clinton's misconduct becomes apparent, there will be a “rapid and momentous shift” against the President among the American public.

Arguing that “the man is now reaping the whirlwind,” he believes that resignation is inevitable. The only question is “when, rather than if.” That, he says, will be desirable because it will occasion a cleansing of the American constitutional order and body politic.

While the issue of Clinton's fate and the stability of the nation are of central concern to us, there also exists the broader issue of what kind of moral leadership we can or should expect from our public officials. Among the questions raised throughout this whole affair is whether character matters and whether there is a distinction between public and private morality.

“Character makes all the difference in the world,” says Dr. Stephen Krason, president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He adds, “We have to avoid disparagement, because that's a sin. But Catholics in the future need to examine character” more closely.

There has been some disappointment that more members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy haven't spoken more forcefully on this issue in recent days. However, one who has provided direction is Bishop James McHugh of the Camden, N.J. diocese.

He wrote in the Catholic Star-Herald on Sept. 4: “My purpose is not to judge the president, much less punish him. My deeper and more fearsome concern is the prevailing public reaction and what that says of the moral fiber of the country.”

He is referring, of course, to the notion that one's sexual life is private and irrelevant in the public realm. This is the point Clinton made in August. Opinion polls seem to indicate that many Americans agree with this position.

But Bishop McHugh counters by saying that “sex is never private. It always has social implications. That is why all societies try to control it by laws, customs, and social restrictions.” He adds that this “dilemma should be a lesson to the nation that our national sexual mores and attitudes need refashioning.”

According to Benedictine Father Matthew Habinger of Human Life International, “There can be no split between one's private morality and one's public morality. The same person operates in both spheres.

“We have only one conscience, which we take with us wherever we go. There is no area in our lives which is exempt from the demands of morality,” he said.

The White House's aggressive attempt to discredit the Starr report — while the President continues to offer public contrition — seems to indicate the political crisis will envelop the nation for some time. At this point, there seems no evidence that Clinton will resign.

But regardless of the President's fate, many Christians believe that there is now an opportunity to demand higher moral accountability for our public officials. With prayer, reliance on church teachings, and perhaps some renewed reliance on common sense, we can start to reclaim a culture which, according to Crisis publisher Deal Hudson, has “a skin-deep level of conviction.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.