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Catholic politicians and bishops

By Archbishop Raymond L. Burke
Copyright America Press 2004

In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Gregis (“On the Bishop, Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World,” Oct. 16, 2003), Pope John Paul II underlines the scriptural boldness demanded of the bishop as shepherd (No. 66c). In this context, he describes the bishop as a “prophet of justice,” declaring: “He proclaims the church’s moral teaching by defending life from conception to its natural end” (No. 67a-b). In proclaiming the church’s moral teaching, the bishop faces a challenge before the situation of a member of the flock who is engaged in political life and supports a position contrary to the moral law. The situation is especially serious when the position in question is contrary to the first precept of the natural and divinely revealed moral law, which requires us to safeguard and foster human life. It is made even more serious when the position espoused condones the taking of the innocent and defenseless life of the unborn child, a crime which “has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, “On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life,” 1995, No. 58a).

Teaching on Catholic Politicians

The Catholic bishops of the United States, at their meeting in November 1998, approved Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, a statement that constitutes a collective exercise of the episcopal responsibility to shepherd by speaking for justice. We declared: “No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life” (No. 32). We acknowledged that the greatest good that a Catholic politician, “whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion” is “well known,” may be able to accomplish, at a given time, is to limit the harm done by a “law which allows or promotes a moral evil.” At the same time, we made it clear that “no appeal to policy, procedure, majority will or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible” (No. 32; see Evangelium Vitae, Nos. 73-4).

On Nov. 24, 2002, the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope John Paul II and by his order, published a Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life for the purpose of recalling “some principles proper to the Christian conscience, which inspire the social and political involvement of Catholics in democratic societies” (No. 1d). The note states the constant teaching of the church “that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life” (No. 4a). It further makes clear that “the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the church” cannot mean an autonomy of the political order from morality, and that for the Catholic involved in political life, serving the common good certainly means “acting in conformity with one’s own conscience” (No. 6c). In this regard, the doctrinal note observes that it is “a form of intolerant secularism” that disqualifies Christians from political life because of their duty to act according to their conscience (No. 6d). It is understood that a correctly formed conscience cannot be “set in opposition to the moral law or the magisterium of the church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2039; see also No. 1783).

Pastoral Care of Catholic Politicians

It is the bishop’s duty to give pastoral care to Catholic politicians who offer a most important service to the whole of society. The bishop’s pastoral care in no way constitutes an unjust involvement of the church in politics. The bishop leaves to Catholic politicians and all politicians the practical decisions about the best way to serve the common good. A politician’s practical decision regarding how to safeguard the common good necessarily includes protecting the life of every individual. The failure to protect the life of the unborn, a violation of the moral law, violates the common good and betrays the trust given to elected officials. The bishop’s pastoral concern is for the spiritual good of the Catholic politician and of the many Catholics who are influenced by his or her exercise of political leadership. More fundamentally, the bishop’s concern is for the good of the innocent human lives threatened and taken by procured abortion.

The “intolerant secularism,” which tells a Catholic politician that he may not act according to his conscience, characterizes the exercise of the bishop’s pastoral responsibility as a violation of the legitimate autonomy of the political sphere from the church. Right reason, on the contrary, tells us that a bishop, ...

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