by Matthew Bunson
As he sat in the Tower of London awaiting his trial for treason in August 1534, St. Thomas More observed to his daughter, “I never intend, God being my good Lord, to pin my soul to another man’s back, not even the best man that I know this day living: For I know not where he may hap to carry it.”
The patron saint of politicians went to the executioner’s block within a year for refusing to abandon his conscience for political expediency and then not even to save his life. Would that more Catholic politicians might follow his lead.
It is almost axiomatic that many Catholic politicians in both political parties are unwilling to form their consciences properly. Even fewer are willing to act on a conscience formed in accord with reason and the divine law, especially if it means enduring political and social martyrdom.
The issue, for example, of pro-abortion Catholic officials has been brought again to the forefront of an election year by Hillary Clinton’s choice of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate. Kaine has publicly declared that he is personally opposed to abortion but, since his arrival in the U.S. Senate in 2013, has earned a 100% rating on abortion from Planned Parenthood and NARAL.
Kaine is not alone or very novel in professing his private Catholicism while holding a public position that is contrary to the teachings of the Church. What is striking in the 2016 political climate, however, is the way that a faithful Catholic striving to bring a properly formed conscience into the public arena today is accused of imposing dangerous and illegitimate ideas onto the body politic.
All of this was predicted, of course, in a document published in 2002 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” The future pope’s intention was “to recall some principles proper to the Christian conscience,” and it is worth a new reading in light of the upcoming election.
Cardinal Ratzinger did not discourage Catholics from taking part in politics. Rather, he suggested, “By fulfilling their civic duties, guided by a Christian conscience, in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values, all the while respecting the nature and rightful autonomy of that order, and cooperating with other citizens according to their particular competence and responsibility.”
At its heart, the document served to remind everyone that political life must be oriented toward promoting the dignity of the human person and the common good, especially in the face of the great threat from moral relativism.
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