Must Catholic Politicians Disown Their Faith?

There are 150 Catholics in the 108th U.S. Congress, double the number of Baptists, the second-largest group. Three candidates who vied for the Democratic Party presidential nomination are Catholic.

All three are pro-abortion. The American Life League counts 71 Catholic members of Congress as reliable pro-abortion votes and an additional 415 Catholics in state legislatures in the same category.

Pro-abortion Catholic politicians justify their rejection of the moral teachings of the Church in various ways.

1) “We represent the wishes of our voters and not the moral law of the Church.”

What does a legislator do? A good politician does not simply reflect the mood of the electorate. Since a law is instructive and applies sanctions to violators of the law, the law must point to the true and the good. If laws are purely pragmatic, then they sacrifice the common good for political favors paid back to supporters. If a law-maker is guided in his decisions primarily by what will get him re-elected, then he is not serving the common good of the community but rather his own political future.

A good politician crafts legislation that is just — that is, laws that foster the common good. The legislator is chosen for his perceived ability to fashion just laws, which are fair to everyone. A just law does not discriminate unfairly among various groupings in a society. A just law respects the rights of all citizens, especially the most innocent and the vulnerable.

We choose our candidates according to how well we think they can serve the nation (or state or county). This implies that we think they understand the best values that are enshrined in our nation and that they will struggle mightily to preserve them. They will not betray these values with compromises, pandering to gratification or convenience, or by selling favors.

But all these terms (e.g., the common good, values, justice, fairness, the true and the good) are connected to morality. And morality deals with making good choices and performing good human acts. It means knowing what enhances human flourishing and what restricts it. It requires a true understanding of a human person, a correct anthropology.

There are basic human goods that any valid moral system must respect. For example, basic human dignity is a value that is meaningful to everyone regardless of his culture, race or religion.

We all share this in common. And if we want to examine the contents of this dignity, we can do so in terms of human rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights promoted by the United Nations is a very good listing of human rights. The world paid a huge price for this wisdom.

Morality applies to everyone. Human dignity belongs to every person. It is an endowment, not an acquisition. It is God-given, not something we earn or receive from peers. Human rights are the same for everyone. The common good of a society includes everyone. Justice does not discriminate.

The Church is a teacher of morality. Her competence is in the areas of faith and morals. The Church teaches not her own plan for the human universe but rather God's plan. God does have a plan for human persons, the apex of his material universe. He has a plan for human life, for human love, marriage, family and peace among the nations. That plan can be known by anyone searching for the truth. That plan takes the shape of moral principles.

The Ten Commandments are examples of these. God's plan — which is the sum of “the laws of God and nature's God,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it — is always in our best interests. That plan embraces all the values that make life worth living. These values are found in the New Testament, which preserves the teaching of Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate Son of God.

The Church's teaching about the social order is laid out in her Catholic social teaching. This body of teaching has been developed over many centuries, drawing upon the Church's experience throughout the world.

The Catholic Church does not discriminate against other religions. In Vatican II's Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom), she teaches that every person must search for the truth about God, the truth about the human condition (morality) and the truth about our destiny. We must pursue this search for truth as best we know how, according to our own lights. As long as the public order is protected, no one is to be denied the right to worship as they choose, nor to be forced to worship contrary to their wishes. Everyone has a right to search for moral truth and thus also a duty to hold firmly to the truth they have discovered.

A Catholic politician should have a keen sense of morality. He or she naturally looks to the Church for moral guidance. The Church is a universal teacher and proclaims the truth about human dignity and human rights everywhere in the world. She only proposes the truth; she does not impose it.

But when dealing with her own sons and daughters, she expects that basic moral truths are firmly grasped and that basic human values are respected. She has a right to insist that any politician who claims to be a Catholic to both know sound moral principles and to be convinced of their truthfulness. She expects them to have the courage of their convictions.

If any Catholic doubts the moral principles taught by the Church, then let him challenge the Church to answer his objections. If he is still unconvinced, then let him dis-avow being a son or daughter of the Church and follow his own lights.

2) “Legislation affects people of all religions, not just Catholics, and my vote must reflect all their views.”

It is impossible to vote in such a way that all views are represented. You cannot both be for slavery and against slavery. The same applies to abortion and euthanasia. Where there is a plurality of views on a basic human value, then the task of the politician is to first understand and then explain to his constituents why he is voting in favor of the value. Politicians justify their choice in voting all of the time.

They attempt to give good reasons for their decisions and hope to persuade others of the reasonableness of their decision. People with open minds will at least consider his arguments.

Every age has its own controversial issues, e.g., slavery, abortion or same-sex marriages. Their task is to come to grips with the issue, discover the moral truth of the matter and then act in a principled manner. A true political leader helps to facilitate this process. Abraham Lincoln helped the citizens of his day discern the moral evil of chattel slavery. He took a clear position, presented cogent reasons in defense of his position and answered objections.

The moral issue of slavery was wrenching the nation apart. The Civil War was one of our darkest hours as a nation. Today President Lincoln is generally regarded as one of our greatest leaders. Moral truths transcend all denominational differences. They bind us together as a people. A Catholic politician must help people understand them.

3) “In politics there is a separation between church and state. The Church is only one lobbying group among many others. She holds no privileged position.”

It is true that there is a clear distinction between the role of the Church and the role of the state within any society. The Church attends to the eternal welfare of mankind while the state attends to the temporal welfare of her citizens. The Church deals with faith and morals, God's plan for the human universe, helping people to achieve their final destiny. The state deals with more immediate needs: taxes, security, potholes and our material needs. The Church does not do the work of the state and vice versa.

The Church must fulfill her mission of teaching true values, which are rooted in the Gospel, to every society in which she is found (Gaudium et Spes, Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 1965, No. 76). She appeals to good reason and to conscience. She can only use methods that accord with the Gospels. She can only propose good moral principles; she cannot impose them. In a pluralist society, she is one voice among many others.

But in dealing with her own people, especially those who hold responsible positions in society, she rightly expects that the faithful have a firm grasp of good moral principles and that they are committed to pursue what is right and what builds up the common good.

When exerting her influence to shape public policy, the Church has a very indirect role. The Church must raise her voice in defense of the unborn, the vulnerable, the poor and the refugee. She must be a champion of human dignity, especially when others are denying it to certain segments of society. She must be a prophetic voice that announces God's plan for the human universe. In a democratic society, the Church has every right to bring her voice into the pubic square.

Father Matthew Habiger, OSB, PhD