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The Catholic New World



September 26, 2004

Participation in the Church and participation in political life: a matter of conscience

In writing in these columns about participation in the Church’s governance, ministry, mission and worship, I have come back to sacramental baptism and profession of the Catholic faith as the bases for “belonging.” Both baptism and the faith, however, are social in nature. They bring us into a family, the people of God, and this family does not live only for itself and its members’ salvation; it is commissioned by Christ to make holy the world.

“Worldly” choices, in economics, in politics, in entertainment and art, are never foreign to the faith. They contribute to the holiness of the world or they weaken the world’s connection to its Creator. Making such choices in daily life engages a person’s conscience and affects one’s relationship to God. For a believer, every decision is made in the light of faith. Some months back (see the April 25-May 8 issue of The Catholic New World), I wrote a column on Catholics and politics, explaining that the faith cannot be separated from political life, even if Church and State are separate institutionally.

Now we are in a period of political decision-making. There is pressure from all sides to co-opt the Church or to distance oneself from her, depending on the person and the party, the issue and the anger. While the Church speaks to many issues about human life, about economic justice, about war and peace, the really neuralgic point in American political debate for three decades has been legal protection for aborting a baby, of whom over 40 million have been killed since abortion on demand was legalized by the Supreme Court. This is a crime against humanity itself, and would be so even if the Catholic Church did not exist. Abortion is intrinsically evil; it is not wrong because the Church declares it sinful. Opposition to abortion is no more a uniquely Catholic moral position than is opposition to stealing.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church’s clear and consistent teaching over 2,000 years about the immorality of abortion creates a particularly acute moral challenge to the conscience of Catholic officeholders and voters in the United States. Because most people more or less take their morality from the society in which they live, a country’s civil laws shape people’ sense of right and wrong. Making and keeping civil laws is always a matter of conscience. Conscience in our culture is individualistic, grounded in the conviction that each person can decide what is right or wrong or even what is true or false. The first challenge in talking about participating in politics with a Catholic conscience, therefore, is to come to understand what conscience really is.

Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray was the American theologian of the last generation who contributed most significantly to the Vatican II declaration on religious liberty. The Church teaches in that document that the state cannot outlaw religious freedom or force anyone to act against his or her conscience in moral issues. Moving from the state’s obligation to respect religious liberty to considering the individual citizen, however, the document does not “support the theory that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do simply because my conscience tells me to do it. This is the perilous theory that in the end it is my conscience and not the objective truth which determines what is right or wrong, true or false.” Cardinal John Henry Newman explained that conscience signifies the perceptible and demanding presence of truth in a person’s act of judging: “Conscience is the messenger of God who both in nature and in grace speaks to us behind a veil and teaches and rules us by his representatives.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1778) says conscience is “a judgement of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of the concrete act he is going to perform.”

That actions have a moral quality in themselves and that conscience has to conform to objective truth in religion and morality runs against the prevalent conviction that sincerity justifies any decision. If it’s “hard” to do something, or if it is done with regret, then I must be sincere and no one can object to what I do. In writing on the moral life some years ago, the U.S. bishops said, “We must have a rightly formed conscience and follow it. But our judgements are human and can be mistaken; we may be blinded by the power of sin in our lives or misled by the strength of our desires.” In matters of principle, one cannot appeal to conscience against or above the teaching of the Church, although in practice one must follow even an erroneous conscience in a particular action.

Another challenge to forming one’s conscience against society’s norms or against one’s own desires is the oft-expressed social dictum that “guilt” is unhealthy. But guilt disturbs the false calm of moral callousness. Guilt is the complaint of my conscience against my self-satisfied existence. Guilt is as necessary for moral health as is pain for physical well being. Both guilt and pain tell me something has gone wrong. Anyone no longer capable of feeling guilty is spiritually sick.

People complain these days about extreme polarization in society and in Church. Even small disagreements stir up deeply felt animosities. While disagreement is often unpleasant, perhaps it is also a sign that people are morally alive, struggling with issues that involve right and wrong, personal integrity and individual guilt. Since the faith and therefore the Church are “inside” a believer’s conscience, Catholics cannot simply appeal to individual conscience to resolve differences over social policy and politics. Resolving matters of conscience brings us back to the faith we first received in baptism, a faith that is shared with all believers.

During this electoral campaign, guilt and anger have arisen because conscience seems to be dictating different political choices among people who claim to share the same faith. The issue is further complicated because how one participates in political life is being used to determine how or even if one should participate in the Church’s worship of God, especially in receiving the Body of the Lord in Holy Communion. Should a pro-abortion politician receive Communion? Should the minister of Holy Communion give the pro-abortion politician the Body of the Lord? Politics divide and the faith unites, and we each participate in both political life and in the life of the faith community. Small wonder that Catholics, feeling the tensions in their consciences, can be puzzled and anxious. Another column will continue this reflection. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago

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