Seeking Moral Coherence in American Political Life

EDITORIAL: Pope Francis said in 2015, when asked if politics is martyrdom, ‘Yes. It is a kind of martyrdom. But it is a daily martyrdom: seeking the common good without letting yourself be corrupted.’

(photo: Shutterstock)

When the 116th Congress opened Jan. 3, the first piece of legislation voted on by the new Democrat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives sent a clear message to the pro-life movement: Prepare for another long struggle to defend the unborn. 

Elections, as the saying goes, have consequences. The November 2018 midterm elections ended with a divided government. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party retained control of the U.S. Senate, while the Democrats won some 40 seats and swung back the majority in the House of Representatives. That meant the return of California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House for the first time since 2011, a hard leftward turn for the chamber, and at least two more years of intensified partisan warfare.

Moments after the installation of the new leadership in the House, the Democrat majority introduced the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 that proclaimed unmistakably the resurgent power of the abortion industry. 

The spending bill, ostensibly intended to end the partial government shutdown, also enumerated the spending priorities of the new Democrat majority. Among the provisions: abandoning the Mexico City Policy that prohibits the funding of foreign nongovernmental organizations that promote or perform abortions and that was significantly strengthened under President Trump as the “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” policy.

It also added funding to the United Nations, including the restoration of money for the U.N. Population Fund, with its support for China’s brutal policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization.

Pro-life leaders condemned the provisions. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the largest pro-life organizations in America, said in a statement, “A strong majority of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortion. … The House’s spending bill would repeal this successful pro-life policy, making taxpayers complicit in the exportation of abortion and destruction of countless unborn children around the world.”

The bill passed the Democrat-controlled House, but it was declared dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to bring the legislation to the Senate floor. Trump also declared he would veto the bill if it reached his desk.

The passage of the bill all took place on the very day that Pelosi, a Catholic, delivered a speech in which she said — without any apparent sense of irony — that “America’s heart is full of love” and then quoted the well-known Prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace.”

The wild contradictions continued the very next day, when a new member of Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, proclaimed publicly that the House majority would fight Trump. She then added a promise to impeach the president, made in front of children in shockingly crude language.

The comments caused understandable anger from members of both parties, but equally striking was how many commentators and politicians rushed to her defense. Pelosi — who has condemned the president’s bare-knuckle rhetoric, refused to denounce Tlaib, saying, “I’m not in the censorship business.”

All of this was immediately dispiriting to many Americans — Catholics in particular — who had hoped that a new Congress might mark a chance for civility and working for the common good.

The partial government shutdown over funding of one of Trump’s signature promises in 2016, the border wall, has only added to the rancor and encouraged further a tragic amnesia in political culture that is weakening authentic society and well-functioning democratic systems.

Everyone, Christian and non-Christian, has a responsibility to participate in public life. All citizens, whether in public service or not, must work together to find political solutions that will benefit the common good. The 116th Congress is the most religiously diverse in history. Christians, of course, recognize that a pluralistic society and functioning democracy cannot flourish without the active involvement of every citizen.

However, the 2002 “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, called on Catholics “to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism.”

While many Catholics disagree over the many and complicated prudential judgments surrounding important issues of immigration, there should be no disagreement over abortion and the need for all Catholic politicians and all leaders of good conscience to speak out in defense of life from conception to natural death.

Cardinal Ratzinger urged that “those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.”

Stressing anew the inviolable dignity of the human person, from conception to natural death, Cardinal Ratzinger added, “Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle, for otherwise the witness of the Christian faith in the world, as well as the unity and interior coherence of the faithful, would be non-existent.”

We are increasingly seeing a diminishment of Christianity in culture and in political life. That is reflected in the makeup of Congress, as well. According to the Pew Research Center, the new Congress is 88.2% Christian — the lowest on record. It is also 30.5% Catholic, a small decline from last year. In all, there are 163 Catholics, 141 (87 Democrats and 54 Republicans) in the House and 22 (12 Democrats and 10 Republicans) in the Senate.

Of course, as Nancy Pelosi and many other Catholic politicians of both major parties demonstrate, Catholics in political life very often do not adhere to Church teaching on a variety of issues. Some assert the oft-quoted but morally dangerous stance that while they are personally opposed to abortion they cannot impose their religious beliefs, while others, like Pelosi, quote great saints moments before introducing legislation to promote the destruction of the unborn.

In the midst of this crisis, Catholic political leaders must not contribute to that diminishing and to the general decline of authentic society and political life. Catholics in politics must accept the demands of the faith and the price that might bring. As Pope Francis said in 2015, when asked if politics is martyrdom, “Yes. It is a kind of martyrdom. But it is a daily martyrdom: seeking the common good without letting yourself be corrupted.”

Moral coherence is not unattainable, nor is it a relic of the past. It is, in fact, a clear path to ensuring a merciful and just future for the American people.