Catholics and Government’s Moral Purpose

Several weeks ago, 55 Catholic Democrat members of the House of Representatives released a self-described “Historic Catholic Statement of Principles.” It asserted their identity as Catholics and their commitment to working towards realization of basic principles of Catholic social teaching.

Some hoped that the statement would indicate that the spirit of the late Bob Casey, the pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, was alive in the Democratic Party. They were, however, to be disappointed.

While the statement claims to break new ground, there is in fact nothing historic about it. Sadly, it merely represents the latest attempt by some American Catholic politicians and their unnamed theological advisors to rationalize the untenable — their claim to be faithful Catholics while supporting practices that intentionally violate what the Church teaches is inviolable: innocent human life.

The statement itself is not especially long. Unfortunately this cannot disguise its basic denial of reality. The signatories state, for example, that “we work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being.” Given that many of the signatories consistently vote for what effectively amounts to abortion on demand — that is, the denial of any protection from lethal force to a class of people who, in terms of their fundamental identity, are just as human as themselves — this seems difficult to reconcile with their claim to be advancing respect for life.

The same might be said for some signatories’ support for embryonic stem-cell research. Precisely how, we might ask, do politicians advance respect for human life by voting for funding research that involves dismembering embryonic human beings?

That some signatories are conscious of their position’s incongruity is apparent from their qualification that while they “seek the Church’s guidance and assistance,” they “believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church’s role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas.”

Certainly the Catholic Church has always emphasized the importance of conscience. But it does not teach that conscience is somehow above the truth — this, the Catholic Church teaches, is revealed by reason and, ultimately, the Catholic faith. Conscience in fact only acquires morally binding characteristics when grounded in objective moral truth. Otherwise “primacy of conscience” could be used to justify all sorts of barbaric behavior. Thus we do not absolve Communists and Nazis who killed millions because they sincerely believed “in all good conscience” they were doing the right thing.

In other words, the “tension” experienced by some signatories does not simply arise from the inconsistency between their position on certain issues and Catholic teaching. Rather it arises from their denial of truth — the truth about what science tells us about the beginning of each human life and the truth that all innocent human beings, regardless of their stage of development, ought, as a matter of natural justice, to enjoy equal protection from lethal force.

As if to distract readers from these questions, the signatories suggest that their support for various causes, ranging from reducing poverty to increasing educational access, testify to their claim “to be part of the living Catholic tradition — a tradition that promotes the common good.”

The good news is that the Church teaches there is tremendous room for prudential judgment among Catholics as they seek to enhance the common good. Some Catholics maintain that free markets further the common good better than mixed economies. Other Catholics disagree. The point is that on almost all economic issues, Catholics are free to advocate different positions precisely because they reflect empirical and prudential judgments reasonably in dispute among well-informed people.

Unfortunately the signatories seem unaware of the late John Paul II’s affirmation that, “[i]t is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop” (Evangelium Vitae no.101).

In other words, pursuing strategies that, for instance, enhance the poor’s material well-being cannot possibly compensate for supporting laws that effectively classify one group of innocent humans as people who can be dismembered or killed at will.

“Government,” the signatories twice state, “has a moral purpose.” To this, one can only respond “Amen.” But one of government’s most basic moral purposes is to defend innocent human life. As long as some of the signatories — not to mention some Catholic Republicans — vote in ways that reflect their tacit acceptance that some innocent humans are unworthy of such security, they will fail to meet what reason itself tells us is a non-negotiable demand of justice — a justice owed to the most defenseless of human beings and, ultimately, Catholics believe, to God.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (University Press of America, 2001) and On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society (Lexington Books, 2003).

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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