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February 1, 2009

Public officials must lead with ‘common good’ in mind

By Michelle Martin


When a politician seeks to enrich him or herself, at the expense of the people he or she serves, it’s not just illegal — it’s also wrong according to Catholic teaching on the nature of authority.

“Authority, as Jesus taught us, is always about service,” said Melanie Barrett, assistant professor of moral theology in the Department of Christian Life at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. “One of the things that is attractive about Jesus’ authority is the way he coupled kingship with great humility and service.”

No one would confuse modern political leaders — especially in Illinois — with Christ.

Three Illinois governors have been imprisoned since the 1970s, including the most recent former governor George Ryan, who is serving a 6½-year sentence on corruption charges stemming from his time as Illinois Secretary of State. Current Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested by federal agents in December as part of a corruption probe, although, as of late January, he had not yet been indicted. He was impeached by the Illinois House of Representatives, and his Illinois Senate trial began Jan. 26.

“Political power that comes to a person by reason of election definitely carries with it a sense of moral responsibility,” said Servite Father John Pawlikowski. professor of social ethics at Catholic Theological Union, in an e-mail interview. “It is given by the people as voters in a democracy as a sacred trust for the good of the overall society. … Certainly from a Christian ethical perspective power is to be understood primarily in terms of service. This is what Christ modeled for us through his public ministry. This is what we remind ourselves of as Christians every Holy Thursday.”

The root of Catholic teaching on power and authority begins with the idea of essential human dignity, that each person is made in the image and likeness of God and is a brother or sister for whom Christ died, Barrett explained. Because of the dignity of each person, Catholic social teaching holds that society is for the person, not the person for society.

“Put differently, society should aim for the ‘common good,’” Barrett said, “which the Second Vatican Council defined as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’”

So political leaders first must be intelligent enough to understand what the common good is, to identify where it is not being served, and find ways to correct the problems, Barrett said.

Needed virtues

But St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Dominican philosopher and theologian, said that political leaders must be more than intelligent; they should also possess the virtues of courage, temperance and justice.

“If a person lacks courage, they won’t make the right choices if doing so would cause them pain or harm,” she said. “If a person lacks temperance, he or she won’t make the right choices if tempted by some pleasure — money, gifts, sex, nice dinners, whatever. If a person lacks justice, they won’t make the right choices because they value their own good as more important than the people that they serve.”

Robert Gilligan, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois which operates as public-policy voice of the Catholic Church in Illinois, said he believes most political leaders in Illinois are “in it for the right reasons.”

“I think most elected officials are honest, hardworking people,” Gilligan said. “Public service is difficult today. They don’t have a lot of time in the evening or on weekends.”

And they work under a spotlight, so when one of them does do something wrong, it gets magnified, he said.

Culture of individualism

At the same time, Gilligan said, politicians are influenced by the culture they live in, and it is a culture that has increasingly encouraged individuals to put their own wants and needs first.

“You can go back to when Ronald Reagan was running for president, and he had that slogan, ‘Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’” Gilligan said. “That’s asking about the individual. In Faithful Citizenship (the U.S. bishops’ statement on what Catholics should consider when voting), we talk about the common good, not the good of the individual.”

Barrett said that as citizens, voters have the responsibility to take into account the moral character of the candidates who are running, because that will come into play as they make decisions.

“Are we electing them on their ability to make those judgments?” she said. “It’s easy to get lazy and say I will vote for this person because of their race or because it’s a woman or something else.”

Pawlikowski agreed that character counts when it comes to elected officials.

“Power to govern is a sacred gift which positions the person as one who must respect in a special way the people whom he or she is governing,” he said. “Like it or not, they set a tone for a society. … Catholic ethics has always emphasized overall moral ethos as an influence on individual moral behavior. This is what the whole discussion of sinful social structures are all about. Political leaders who exhibit disdain for moral values can contribute to its infecting the entire social system. The reality of corruption in Illinois public life for decades shows how corrosive such moral disdain can become.”