Bringing Morals to the Public Square

Catholic Political Leaders Need to Make Principled Stand

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Carl Anderson

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, NOV. 23, 2009 ( As much of the world moves in a secular direction, some commentators have taken to speaking of a «post-Christian» society.

Certainly, the days of the close embrace of Christianity by civil authority are a thing of the past. We might say we live in a «post-embrace» world. But that does not — and must not — mean that Christianity is headed for a marginal «ghetto» existence.

Indeed, it was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) who wrote in the 1980s: «In the long run, neither the embrace nor the ghetto can solve for Christians the problem of the modern world.»

As the Church faces a culture that is increasingly secular and finds little place for Christianity in the public square, it will be up to Christians, who value conscience, to create the «creative minorities» Benedict XVI has called for to bring moral reasoning into the public discourse.

And it will take the continued, clear voice of the Church to help guide that discussion — not toward the open embrace of state power, but toward ethical thought in civic decision-making.

The needed leadership of the Church in helping form statesmen who can better the future with a morally attuned creative minority has been highlighted by Benedict XVI’s calling a summit of Catholic politicians to be held at the Vatican early next year.

He has made clear by this course of action that now is the time for Catholic leaders to take a stand, and that this is the time for those who form Catholic leaders to show them the truth and importance of conscientious action.

Forming consciences

This project is not a new one for Benedict XVI. In fact, in 2003, while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he released a document on Catholics in political life, which said: «The Church’s magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions.

«Instead, [the Church] intends — as is its proper function — to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good.» (III.6)

Recently, we saw the Church «instruct and illuminate» the consciences of politicians, with the result that a creative minority –within its country’s own governing party — was able to effect real change.

If we look at the Stupak Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives’ health care legislation, we can see the effect that one man of conscience — a Catholic and Knight of Columbus — can have on a national issue, by standing true to his principles and building a «creative minority» coalition.

This amendment helped shape the moral foundations of a law, and won a clear victory, but it would not have been possible without the conscientious action of the man who wrote the amendment, without the creative minority that supported the amendment, and without the Catholic bishops who so strongly supported the amendment.

Strong leadership by our bishops, and the tireless work of many Catholic laypeople, has certainly begun to pay off, as both the polls and Stupak Amendment prove.

But there is still work to be done. Sadly, in the first critical health care vote in the Senate, every Catholic Democratic senator voted to advance a health care bill toward passage that the bishop’ conference called «morally unacceptable.»

The vote ignored not only the guidance of the bishops, but the will of the American people, who, according to a recent Pew survey, oppose abortion as part of health care reform by a nearly 2:1 margin (55% to 28%). Only 44% were opposed in 1994.

The Senate vote shows the need for the Church’s continued clear and strong message in shaping conscience. No matter how many battles are won, there will always be new areas, or new issues, on which the Church’s moral guidance will be crucial.

Time’s not up

The Senate may yet do the right thing, and the vote this past weekend should not discourage us, but rather motivate us to continue facilitating the momentum we have seen in the House and with the American people generally.

People can be persuaded to do the right thing, and years of consistent Catholic teaching on life issues has paid off. No Senate vote can take those victories away.

For another excellent example of a call to conscience, we can also look at Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States, and the fact that one year after his visit, according to our polling, Americans by an almost 2:1 (50% to 29%) margin wanted to hear what he had to say on abortion and life issues.

Couple this with his statements in the U.S. last year, and with the American heritage of rights endowed by the Creator, and then add American’s strong desire for an accurate moral compass, and suddenly we can see that the American people desire strong moral leadership, and we can make sense of their pronounced shift to the pro-life position revealed in poll after poll.

Each of us too is called to bring our conscience into public life, to lead by our moral example, by our moral action, and by our demand that our political leadership do the same.

Shaping the moral Catholic political leaders of today and tomorrow so that they follow the dictates of a well-formed conscience, is what Catholic education — whether in the classroom or from the pulpit — is all about.

If we accomplish this, we will have created Catholic political leaders that have a consistent commitment to Catholic social teaching — and do not pick and choose which elements of that teaching they will follow. That would truly transform politics, and principle could then be understood as something necessary in political practice, not just in political platforms.

* * *

Carl Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation