Catholics in Political Life

As Americans, we've all been the unfortunate witnesses of so-called “Catholic” politicians who pander to voters, playing up their church affiliation to gain support, only to conveniently set their religious convictions aside once elected. It's the same tired excuse every time: “Well, I'm personally against X, but as a politician in the public sphere, I have an obligation not to impose my views on others.”

Not so, says the Vatican. In fact, this new document says just the opposite. Quoting from John Paul II's Evangelium vitae, it states 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.”

That seems pretty clear to me: Catholic politicians need to act like Catholics.

But the document doesn't stop at the obligation of Catholic lawmakers. The laity is also reproached for not voting their Christian conscience: “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

Groups like Catholics for a Free Choice will be disappointed to hear that “organizations founded on Catholic principles, in which support has been given to political forces or movements with positions contrary to the moral and social teaching of the Church on fundamental ethical questions … [are] in contradiction to basic principles of Christian conscience [and] are not compatible with membership in organizations or associations which define themselves as Catholic.”

(Frances Kissling, call your office.)

Even Catholic publications are given a stern reprimand for “express[ing] perspectives on political choices that have been ambiguous or incorrect.” In short, no one is off the hook.

I can already hear the complaints. “But what about my duty to respect my conscience?”

There are a couple of answers to that. First of all, it's true, we're bound to follow our conscience. However — and this is essential — our conscience MUST be properly formed. People who disagree with the Church's teachings tend to do so out of hand without first trying to understand those teachings. That's not following your conscience, that's following your will.

But the Vatican has more to say about our obligation to follow our conscience. “[T]he right to freedom of conscience and, in a special way, to religious freedom…is based on the ontological dignity of the human person and not on a non-existent equality among religions or cultural systems of human creation.”

In other words, our conscience is free insofar as humans are free, and we must make our own choices. However, that doesn't mean that all choices are equally good, and we're still responsible for weighing these choices very carefully against the teachings of the Church — accepting the consequences of that decision.

Others may argue that the arena of politics is no place for religion. Senator (and presidential hopeful) John Kerry of Massachusetts seems to think so. In his polite rejection of the Vatican's statement, Kerry has explained that to “'represent all the people' he can't be bound by church doctrine.”

Kerry misses the point on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin. As a Catholic, he IS bound by Church doctrine, not by the laws of a democracy that is only of “human creation.” His responsibility to the Faith must always come first, or he simply isn't living that Faith.

And the Vatican makes another important point: This isn't a simple case of religion vs. politics. The Church fully understands the need to keep these institutions separate. However, the Church also teaches absolute truths that have nothing to do with mere denominations or institutions — the sanctity of human life being one of them:

“Political freedom is not — and cannot be — based upon the relativistic idea that all conceptions of the human person's good have the same value and truth, but rather, on the fact that politics are concerned with very concrete realizations of the true human and social good in given historical, geographic, economic, technological and cultural contexts.”

And later…

“No Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements.”

In short, moral relativism is no virtue. These are truths that, while taught by the Church, are not exclusive to Catholicism. Nor are they capable of existing independent of our political lives.

Still, others may groan that the Church is simply trying to force some kind of political agenda on its members. But this just isn't so. While the document states very plainly that abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual unions can never be supported, it lists other goals — education for children, social justice, and peace — that it doesn't make any prescriptions for. While these are ends we must always work for, the document doesn't force Catholics to accept any one way of achieving those goals.

“It is not the Church's task to set forth specific political solutions — and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one — to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person,” the document says. “It is, however, the Church's right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters when this is required by faith or the moral law.”

The Church doesn't force us to accept a particular position on welfare reform, immigration, or education — the details of these “temporal questions” are left up to us. However, some of these questions are beyond dispute — such as abortion and euthanasia — and the Church is right to remind us of our primary duty to the moral law, not just the law of the land.

In a time when both clergy and laity are losing sight of their responsibilities as Catholics, it certainly is refreshing to hear a clear voice give us such an indisputable guide to living — and voting — faithfully. I'd really encourage you to read Ratzinger's piece yourself. It's actually pretty short, but it packs a lot of great information.

Let's hope the Governor Granholms and Senator Kerrys of this country will give it a closer look.

For more information click here.

Deal Hudson is editor and publisher of CRISIS Magazine. You can reach him via email at

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