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So What Are Catholics to Do After the Trial?

BY Mary Ellen Bork

February 21-27, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/21/99 at 2:00 AM

 

Many commentators thought the House managers did a good job “connecting the dots” during the closing arguments of President Clinton's trial. The managers skillfully pieced together witness testimony into a coherent case that the president obstructed justice. Defenders of the president see only isolated events involving Monica, Betty, and Vernon, events lacking a pattern, and therefore no case against Clinton.

The Senate set the scene for a final vote on impeachment that will not be satisfying because not enough people “connected the dots.” Lack of political will or moral courage by many senators reflects and reinforces a culture uncomfortable with determining “what is truth,” and then defending it. This case is an episode in the on-going cultural creep toward cynicism.

Prosecutors and senators are not the only people who need to make connections where important principles are at stake. Catholic laity, who see the trampling of truths they thought were commonly held, need to rise in their defense. They need to “connect the dots” between their Catholic identity and their role as citizens. In a culture that sees truth as malleable, a strong and vocal Catholic citizenry would make a positive contribution to renewing a basic element of our common life.

The fourteen-month exercise in political theater now at an end leaves us with questions about the quality and character of our leaders and about the formation of the consciences of the young about matters of truth. It should also raise questions for Catholic laity about their own involvement in the controversies in the public square. Are we content to be oblivious to the questions and arguments involved in this impeachment trial? How many of us are among the 37% who read nothing about impeachment in the past year? Do we still think the bishops alone should deal with questions that affect national life?

Or do we see a connection between our commitment to the Gospel of Life and our lives as citizens?

Living in a household with Robert Bork, one cannot ignore questions about the direction in which our country is slouching. My husband has been involved in the public debates on impeachment, defending constitutional principles where they were being ignored. We even had the TV cameras in our living room.

We have to exert ourselves to be better-informed Catholics and better-informed citizens in order to be part of the renewal of our society.

I have been impressed with his diligence in studying the issues, which he already understood very well, and in writing to defend the law and its roots in the Constitution and in truth. Even an expert can always learn more. It's time for all of us to summon up more courage for defending the truth.

We cannot all be experts on the complicated questions of constitutional law, but do we have a responsibility to try to understand these questions? The answer is “yes.” Our common sense, life experience, and basic moral reasoning can take us a long way toward understanding questions that affect the common good, not only about the character of our leaders but about issues such as abortion, educational choice, and better healthcare for the poor.

This unique Senate trial has revealed again the nature of public debate today. Instead of straightforward honest argument we heard evasive language and ethical gymnastics similar to that found in the abortion debates. As Catholics we can find our way through this maze by holding on to the principles of Catholic social teaching given by the Pope and the bishops. We have to exert ourselves to be better-informed Catholics and better-informed citizens in order to be part of the renewal of our society. We now have a serious moral obligation to “connect the dots” between our life as citizens and our life as Catholics. That is the only way can we bring the Gospel of Life into public debate and reaffirm that truth is crucial to public life.

As Catholic citizens we are not imposing our views on others; we are defending the principles on which our country was founded: respect for the rights of each person and acceptance of the moral law placed in our hearts by God. In the present cultural climate it takes courage to insist that these principles are not out of date or irrelevant and that we, as Catholics, have the right, indeed the obligation, to defend them. We are, as the bishops have said, missionaries to our own society that has had great economic success but is losing its moral moorings.

When principles are trashed in our culture there should be Catholic groups speaking out and taking action to give the country pause. The response might be, “We have never heard this argument before. Who are these people? Maybe they are right.” That would be an excellent start.

Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.