On Faith Panelists Blog
November 2, 2010
Catholics’ disregard of teaching does not make it untrue
By Colleen Carroll Campbell
Benedict XVI and Catholic Cardinal-designate Raymond Burke both recently
characterized voting as a moral act with spiritual consequences. The pope said
that "decriminalizing abortion is a betrayal to democracy," (http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1004432.htm)
since he believes the procedure denies rights to the unborn. Burke called
voting a "serious moral obligation" and added that Catholics "can never vote for
someone who favors absolutely what's called the 'right to choice.'" (http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=8095)
If Catholics largely disregard the church's teaching (the 2008 Catholic vote for president went to pro-choice Obama), does what the pope says matter? Is voting a religious act or purely political? (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/05/catholics-turned-to-the-democrat/)
Political contests have a moral character because they have moral consequences. And a citizen’s religious worldview necessarily guides the choices he makes in the voting booth, whether he is conscious of it or not.
We have become accustomed in recent decades to divorcing politics from morality and denouncing as a theocrat anyone who suggests that our faith should inform our political views. The result is what the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square”: a sanitized space where political arguments are unwelcome if they spring from religious conviction, appeals to once self-evident truths are neither embraced nor challenged but reflexively dismissed as mere opinion, and debates about life’s most fundamental questions are ruled out of bounds before they can begin. In the naked public square, the division between faith and reason, God and man, private truth and the public ethic is absolute and impermeable.
Part of the rationale behind this naked public square is a desire to rid our public square of religious conflicts, to privatize religion and therefore render it irrelevant to political debates about how we ought to order our life together. The privatization of religion buys us a measure of peace and quiet in the short-term, but it also prevents the most fundamental form of deliberation necessary to the functioning of a democracy: honest debates about right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood.
These debates need not be explicitly sectarian, but they are always essentially religious, because they are about questions of ultimate meaning. What else, after all, is at the core of our disputes about abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage? Such disagreements arise from competing ideas about the value of human life, the meaning of human sexuality, and whether and how we can know moral truth. Even those who claim no religious affiliation or belief in any moral absolutes belie their own self-proclaimed neutrality when they insist on the rightness of their position and on the adoption of laws that reflect their own laissez-faire or morally relativistic views.
No one comes to the public square without an agenda, a set of values, and a worldview. Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal-designate Raymond Burke are simply calling on members of their flock to bring their Catholic worldview to bear on their voting decisions. They are asking Catholics to follow Church teaching by prioritizing the human person’s inalienable right to life over prudential concerns about the best way to manage the economy, reform health care or address immigration.
This is not a new challenge. The U.S. bishops have issued it repeatedly, as in their 1998 statement, "Living the Gospel of Life," where they identified opposition to abortion and euthanasia as the indispensable foundation of efforts to build a culture of life and noted that "being 'right'" on other issues "can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life."
In the case of Pope Benedict, he is calling for the same prioritization he called for in 2004, when he answered a request for guidance from Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick with these words:
"Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. ...While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
That many Catholics disregard this teaching does not change its validity or importance, any more than the fact that many Catholics skip Sunday Mass nullifies their duty to observe the Sabbath. It is simply a reminder that American Catholics, like Americans in many religious traditions, have a long way to go when it comes to connecting the faith they profess with the decisions they make beyond church walls.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is author of “The New Faithful,” an ex-presidential speechwriter, op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and host of “Faith & Culture,” a TV and radio show on EWTN.