The Vocation of Politicians

Saturday, October 04, 2003



I recently entered into a debate on Mark Shea's Blog, Catholic and Enjoying It, responding to the October 3, 2003 posting of an article where George Weigel supports the notion of excommunicating politicans who vote differently than the Vatican position on an issue. The article is entitled Pope John Who?.

I disagree with both Weigel and Mr. Shea on this issue. My own position is that as individual Catholics, we do have a strong moral obligation to allow Church teaching to influence our individual vote. On this, I think the conservatives and I can actually agree.

However, my feeling is that the divine vocation of a politician (cf. Rom 13:6) in a representative democracy is to represent his or her constituents.

I believe it is blatantly dishonest, and a dereliction of duty for a politician to run a campaign stating he or she will represent us, then turn around and impose their personal morality on the rest of us. Even when this morality is in agreement with Rome and myself, it is morally wrong for this politician to neglect the consensus of her or his constituents.

The reasoning that says that the Vatican can tell a politician to over-ride the collective will of the people who put her or him in office is the same reasoning used by Muslim clerics in the Taliban. The same resoning was also used by the communists. For Catholics to reason in this way is to act as though Guadium et Spes was never issued, and to return to the days of absolutist monarchy and the Syllabus of Errors along with its condemnation of democracy. The late Jesuit, John Courtney Murray already made significant strides in articulating a sensible approach to Catholic politics in a free and pluralistic society. Why should we go backwards in the development of doctrine?

I do believe that politicians can and should use well reasoned arguments, as well as their personal charisma, and their power and status of office to try to persuade and influence us, as a society, to make morally right decisions.

However, in the final analysis, I believe the Catholic politician must give more weight to the will of his constituents than she or he will give to Rome. This does not mean that a politician should completely ignore Rome. Rather, it means that weight and authority for a statesperson in a democracy resides in the will of the people first, and private religious belief second.

Mark tied to build the case for a morally principled stand by politicians by appealing to liberal issues such as overturning Jim Crow, or opposing the Nazis. I agreed that the politician should try to use her or his influence to persuade people to do the morally rigth thing in these instances.

However, I also stated that if this politician has a majority consensus of constituents that support Jim Crow or Nazism despite the best attempts to persuade otherwise, the politician is morally bound to try to find a compromise, or vote his constituents will, or step down from office.

To simply impose his or her will is morally reprehensible in a secular representative democracy governing a pluralistic people. I say this as a man married to a Black woman and trying to have Black children. It is even wrong for liberals to impose their own personal choice by force against the collective will of the people!

As an individual who is not a politician, it is my own personal responsibility to vote according to my conscience and that conscience should be formed in large part by Church teaching. Indeed, many of my essays address political issues and theological implications of the Gospel to politics. I have strong political opinions, and I believe every Christian should be involved in politics as an individual voter. We, as Catholics, should be trying to persuade the majority to see what we see on issues such as the value of human life, peace, social justice, the common good, equity, proper liberty, the value of family and a sense of community, the environment, and even respect for proper authority.

Yet, in my mind, the calling of the politician is one where making compromises, deals, and trade-offs is part of the job in a representative democracy. The ability to do this well and to strike the balance between personal belief and public consensus requires wisdom, accumen and character. Where compromise may be perceived as weakness from a prophet or bishop, compromise is the highest virtue of the statesperson!

Mark raised the two issues that are spurring this debate in America today: abortion and gay domestic partnerships. In his mind, Catholic politicians must tow the line on these two issues or face excommunication. His readers agreed, and seem to overwhelmingly think that allowing a poll to form your conscience is a sin for a Catholic politician.

First, excommunication is a severe penalty that I think conservative Catholics take too lightly sometimes. If we seriously believe what the Church teaches about it, it literally means that a person is cut off from the Body of Christ and headed straight for hell. A formal excommunication can only be lifted by a bishop, and cannot be resolved through normal confession or private repentance.

I believe it is Pharisaic and judgmental to hastily threaten people with excommunication. This is not an appropriate censure to a politician who is simply doing his best to balance Church teaching with the dictates of conscience given her or his chosen profession. It is not as though Catholic politicians are claiming to have authority to teach doctrine from their position, and the politician may very well agree with all Church doctrine in private. However, his or her role as statesperson is not to enact private belief, but to represent the people! Excommunication should not be a threat imposed on those who are doing their job in good conscience.

Regarding the idea of allowing polls to form conscience, which I was accused of in Mark's forum, I am not really saying this in an absolute and extremist sense. I am saying that if a Catholic politician truly is following her or his conscience, he or she better be taking polls, talking to people, and discerning the consensus of their constituents. Then this collective will becomes part of a complex discernment process on how she or he will vote on given issues. A Catholic politician who is not doing this is not doing the job of a politician, and should step down!

A Catholic politician following her or his conscience can very well be in a position where he or she feels somewhat ambivalent about homosexuality, and feels very strongly that abortion is murder. If this statesperson's constituents support civil gay domestic partnerships and abortion on demand, the best the politician may be able to do is reach some compromise positions.

For example, this politician may decide that the gay domestic partnership issue is a really a legal question about equal treatment under the law. Regardless of what the statesperson thinks of homosexual acts personally, the politician can reason that that the Church has every right to preserve the sacramental meaning of heterosexual unions, but the Church has no right to speak to tax laws and such for two people chosing to live together. Therefore, this Catholic politician decides to go to leaders and influencers of her or his liberal constituents and say, "I'll meet you half way. I'll give you gay domestic partnerships, if you get me support for a ban on late term partial birth abortions."

Such a politician may also choose, for political reasons, to otherwise remain largely silent on the issue of earlier term abortions, though he or she feels strongly that abortion is murder. The choice may be made to remain silent precisely in the hope of finding opportunities to win small victories, such as partial birth abortions, or to wage a larger battle at a more opportune time, or to trade off to get something else that protects the value of life (such as banning assisted suicide). Perhaps this policitican also chooses to appeal to the Church's social justice teachings with his liberal constituency to do great things for the poor.

Now, this Catholic politician has compromised the Church's teaching on both homosexuality and abortion. The abortion issue is compromised because she or he made no effort to completely outlaw abortion. The homosexuality issue is compromised because the bishops and Rome have decided that gay domestic partnerships, even as simply a civil matter, threaten the integrity of sacramental marriage.

However, I would argue the politician did the right thing.

Rome is called to proclaim the truth as they see it with clarity and courage and purity. I have no problem with the fact that it is not Rome's calling to compromise. However, it is not Rome's job to run governments in pluralistic societies. Furthermore, it is counterproductive to the advancement of Catholic causes to push an all or nothing principle so far that Catholic politicians are forced out of office by choice or by lost elections. This is not good for anybody.

The politician's calling is precisely to compromise and wheel and deal to make progress on issues inch by grueling inch.

Rome oversteps its bounds when it moves from proclaiming the guiding principles and absolute or eternal truths to telling politicians exactly how to vote in specific temporal incidences.

What is ironic to me is that conservative Catholics are in a rush to see Bishops threaten politicians with excommunication over homosexuality and abortion. Yet, when our current adminstration wages an unjust war condemned by the Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, the papal nuncio, most other Cardinals, and the entire USSCB, the conservatives suddenly decide the Church has no right to tell politicians what to do. What hypocricy! It seems to me that the ordinary and universal magisterium had made it "manifestly evident" (see canon 749.3) that the war in Iraq was not just. Yet, conservative Catholics argued that in this instance, politicians do not need to listen to Church teaching. This is simply flabergasting.

Then there is the issue of this adminstration reinstituting the federal death penalty after about 30 years without it, though the Holy Father has strongly questioned the application of the death penalty in today's world. There are the cuts to headstart and school lunch programs that seem to contradict Church social teaching. There is the issue of the adminstration pushing back the clock on affirmative action that the Church leadership supported. Why don't conservatives want supporters of the current adminstration also excommunicated? Conservatives seem very selective in their application of excommunications, which points to exactly why it should not be used as a threat to politicians in most instances.

If the Church has the right to tell politicians how to vote in every specific instance in a pluralistic society governed by a representative democracy, why aren't we pushing for bans on contraception? What about blue laws (forced closing of businesses on Sunday)? Why aren't we excommunicating everyone who supports free speech to the extent of permitting items on the Index to be published? Where does such thinking end, and how does it differ from the goals of Osama Bin Laden?

I am not saying that the Church has nothing to say to politicians. Nor am I saying that theology does not have political consequences. Theology does impact politics, and the Church does have something to say to the secular world. However, it is not simply what we say, but how we say it. There needs to be a respect for the political process of a free and representaive democracy. Respect for this process is more than pragmatism. Our history of mistakes such as the inquisitions and the crusades show us that respect for the political process in a free society is a moral demand!

The politician in a representative democracy has a challenging task of setting aside personal bias and representing those who put him or her in office and continuing to represent those who pay his or her salary. While the politician can try to influence the collective will of the people, the politician cannot and should not force personal convictions on the people! The politician has the difficult task of walking the tight-rope between personal conscience and representing her or his constituents, and failing to listen to the constituency should be considered a sin.

Here is some Church teaching on the subject:

The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. - Guadium et Spes no. 76

"Then render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Matthew 22:21)

"Therefore, it is necessary to be subject [to state authority] not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. " (Romans 13:5-6)

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Corinthians 3:17)

The civil authority must see to it that the equality of the citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good of society, is never violated either openly or covertly for religious reasons and that there is no discrimination among citizens. - Dignitatis Humanae no. 6

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 5:30 AM

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