Catholics and Political Freedom of Conscience

Catholics and Political Freedom of Conscience

Roman Catholic Archbishop Brunett is the bishop of the diocese which includes my local parish church that my wife and I attend. Just before the last election he wrote in our diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Northwest Progress, his views about Catholic voting. He says Bishops and clergy have Popethe right to advocate moral and social teachings in the political process. He claims it is the duty of every Catholic "to form their conscience in accord with Church teaching." That would mean there is no room for dissent. Then he argues it is the obligation for all Catholics to not only vote, in accordance with their conscience, but to work within the political parties "so that Catholic principles will influence not only government, but the entire culture." Other Catholic Bishops agree and have announced the same thing in their dioceses.

This kind of dogmatic instruction is also consistent with what we saw in the last presidential election. Republicans successfully aligned themselves with religious groups who preached to their members the duty to elect politicians whose religious beliefs were in agreement with their religious beliefs. Their moral concern was primarily  the issues of abortion and same sex marriage. Any candidate whose political views did not reject abortion in every circumstance or oppose same sex relationships was seen as immoral and unfit for office. When Catholics joined the same view, American Bishops made it clear Catholics couldn’t morally vote for John Kerry in the Presidential election. For example, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced that Catholics couldn’t vote for Kerry and take communion. Announcements were made that Kerry and other political candidates around the country were not allowed to take communion because of their political views on this issue. Acceptable and unacceptable candidates were identified using these two issues as the moral litmus tests. Religious web sites were created to instructed the Christian voter how to cast their vote and be a good Christian or good Catholic.

The idea that Catholics would be committing a sin if they voted for Kerry or other candidates whose political position were at odds with the Bishops moral position seems to me to be based on a syllogism. The logic runs something like this (1) certain acts are seriously immoral and these include abortion or same sex marriage (2) Catholics must accept the teaching of the Church about this without question in order to remain good Catholics and (3) therefore they cannot vote for a candidate who politically at odds with Catholic teaching. Kerry is at odds. Therefore you cannot vote for John Kerry.

This logic seems very flawed to me. The idea of a moral obligation to submit mind and will by blindly accepting all moral pronouncements of a Bishop or church leader at the expense of freedom of conscience is un-Christian and un-Catholic, in my view. I also think the idea of Catholics having an obligation to blindly accept all pronouncements as morally binding is against human dignity and un-American as well as being in conflict with centuries of Catholic tradition of freedom of conscience.

From Thomas Aquinas to the Second Vatican Council, the right of freedom of conscience has been a fundamental teaching. The Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (April 16, 1971) said "In the final analysis conscience is inviolable and no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to conscience as the moral tradition of the Church teaches." The Second Vatican Council has said "We have a very rich tradition of teaching the primacy of conscience, a teaching both we and our contemporaries would do well to study carefully." It strongly endorsed the right of freedom of religion.

Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801 – 1890) was a famous convert to the Catholic faith in England. He is regarded as a theologian and scholar who wrote influential books on the Catholic faith. Gary Wills in his book "Papal Sin" quotes Newman as saying: "Certainly, if I am obligated to bring religion into after dinner toasts – I shall drink to the Pope, if you please – to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards."

The logic seems flawed as well. Let’s take the example of Galileo, whose life has been recently Ptolemy retold in "Galileo’s Daughter" by Dava Sobel. The story begins with Copernicus who was born in 1743 and became a Catholic priest. Since the 2nd Century, when Claudius Ptolemy (pronounced "tall-e-me") had first taught the earth was fixed and that the sun, stars and plants revolve around it, the Church had accepted this idea as a moral belief consistent with the Bible. Copernicus was fascinated with astronomy. By mathematical examination Copernicus decided the sun was at the center of the universe and the planets, earth included revolved around it. His ideas were not widely publicized. After his death Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) became interested in the issue. He was an Italian physicist, astronomer and philosopher. He has been referred to as the father of astronomy. Galileo thought Copernicus was right, but after publishing his ideas about it, Pope Paul V asked the Holy Office to investigate the issue. Their findings was that it was heresy and against Catholic doctrine to hold such a belief. The Pope instructed Galileo to abandon his Copernican opinions or suffer sanctions. A decree was issued by the Congregation for the Index prohibiting, condemning and suspending books advocating the Copernican system. It was seen as a matter of faith to accept the idea that the earth was the center of the universe.

Let’s assume for discussion, Galileo was a candidate for president running against Ptolemy. Applying the logic of American Bishops Catholics would have a moral obligation to accept the church teaching and accept that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around no matter what their conscience might dictate. This logic would also mean any Catholic who voted for Galileo would be committing a serious sin and should not be given communion. Therefore, there would be a moral obligation for vote for Ptolemy in spite of his erroneous ideas and the differing conscience of Catholic voters. That makes no logical nor Christian sense to me.

The same example can be applied to a number of other instances in Church history including Pope Pius IX "Syllabus of Errors (1864) who pronounced "it is error to say that in our time it is no longer convenient to have the Catholic religion as the only religion to the exclusion of any other religion" or Pope Urban who created special indulgences to those willing to go on Crusades. The right to differ in conscience from these ideas is inherent in all Catholics in my view.

What about John Kennedy’s campaign for president in 1960? Then the Church was strongly backing this Catholic candidate for U.S. president. Kennedy’s said: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President. should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him." Catholic Church leaders enthusiastically backed his position then because they wanted to see a Catholic president. However, at the time of the last presidential election they have taken a very different position due to their strong objection primarily to two issues: abortion and same sex marriage.

I believe we owe our Bishops and church leaders respectful attention and careful consideration of their pronouncements. But I don’t believe we are morally obliged to adopt as articles of faith everything they say  in connection with our political activities. I believe all voters, Catholic included, have the right to put issues into political context. Most Catholics understand we live in a pluralistic society with differing moral view points. Translating our Catholic morality into civil law which applies to citizens who disagree with us flies in the face of the concept of separation of church and state. Americans do not accept the idea of a government sanctioned religion. Nor should they accept the idea of a government sanctioned religious beliefs.

As a Catholic who treasures the rich heritage of the Church, I respectfully believe the myopic concentration on two moral issues – abortion and same sex marriage – at the expense of other very significant moral issues such as capital punishment, war, famine, homelessness, lack of medical care and the like is unbalanced. I believe in American values – the right to dissent, freedom of religious belief, and freedom of conscience. I object to moral intimidation which conflicts with these rights every American possesses. I also think adult Americans object to the idea of blindly accepting all teachings of Church leaders. I believe we are a country who has insisted on the right to study, consider and analyze before agreeing with someone else’s ideas even when they are religious leaders.

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