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Conscience and Catholic Politicians (Part 1 of 2)

Fordham's Father Koterski Unpacks an Ongoing Debate

NEW YORK, APRIL 12, 2006 (Zenit) - A recent "statement of principles" by 55 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives has rekindled the debate over the responsibilities of Catholic politicians.

The signatories of the letter stated that "we seek the Church's guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience."

But, according to Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski, professor of philosophy at Fordham University, the Catholic understanding of conscience requires a distinction. The crucial factor is not fidelity to one's chosen moral principles, but rather fidelity to moral principles given to us by God.

Father Koterski explained to us the importance for Catholic politicians to inform their conscience in accord with divine moral principles as mediated by the magisterium of the Church.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.

Q: Can you describe the historical context that has created the perception that politicians may disagree with, or work against, Church teaching through appeals to "conscience" and their responsibility to constituents and the Constitution?

Father Koterski: It seems to me that it is only because the Church is such a stalwart defender of the genuine rights of conscience, properly understood, that the situation you describe could have come about.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1782, reflects a long-standing tradition in Catholic moral teaching that every person has the right to act in conscience and that no one must be prevented from acting according to one's conscience.

In the sections that follow, the Catechism reviews the importance of a proper formation of one's conscience, including the duty and right of the Church through her bishops to be the authoritative interpreter of moral principles for this formation of conscience.

Unfortunately, a common misunderstanding has grown up in modern culture about the notion of conscience. And I think that this misunderstanding is at the root of the notion that politicians may disagree with and even work against Church teaching through an appeal to conscience.

The misunderstanding occurs when one thinks of conscience in terms of fidelity to one's chosen moral principles.

Clearly, acting in good conscience does mean fidelity to moral principles. But in the Catholic understanding of conscience, we are not simply permitted to choose some set of moral principles to which we want to be faithful. God chooses the moral principles we must use in our moral deliberations for us.

God has revealed them to us, and we can find them in the Scriptures. Likewise, we can find them in the natural moral law that God has implanted in human nature.

It is one of the duties of the Church to make clear just what those moral principles are where there is any doubt about them.

In the situation that you describe, it seems that some politicians hold that they may choose other principles than those that God has chosen for us as their basis for making moral decisions.

Sometimes they articulate their reasoning in terms of what their constituents accept as moral values. But in doing so, they risk doing precisely what one may not do as a Catholic, namely, acting as if one were permitted to choose which moral principles one will use for one's moral deliberation.

Q: Is there such a thing as the "primacy of conscience"?

Father Koterski: Yes, the Church has long recognized the primacy of conscience, so long as one understands the term properly. It is not just that one may obey one's conscience, but that one must do so -- but, first, one must form one's conscience correctly.

Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" gives a fine treatment of this question within the section on "Conscience and Truth" in Chapter 2.

In that section he criticizes those theologians who have misunderstood conscience as if it were what creates moral values. Rather, he takes the authentic understanding of conscience to be the inner witness of our fidelity or infidelity to the divinely given moral law. It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II often speaks of conscience as the very witness of God himself within us.

In the correct sense of the term, conscience is the judgment that we make about whether an action we have done or are about to do is in conformity with the objective and universal moral law that comes from God and that can be known by us as the natural law.

But we must note that conscience is not an infallible judge, as "Veritatis Splendor" says in No. 62. Since it is subject to error, we must constantly work to form the conscience truthfully. The magisterium of the Church is at the service of this formation.

Q: To what extent are Catholic politicians and public officials bound by their individual consciences, even when they conflict with Church teaching?

Father Koterski: The issue here, I think, concerns the meaning of the term "conflict with Church teaching."

The term "Church teaching" is a broad term by which people group together various things that need to be carefully distinguished. The term can easily run the range from "universal moral precepts that bind always and everywhere" to recommendations of a practical nature made by one's local pastor on a particular question.

Catholic politicians and public officials are bound just like the rest of us to conform to Catholic teaching on matters of moral principle. In fact, they have a special duty in this regard, precisely by reason of the office they hold and their obligation to work for the common good.

They have a special obligation to know various things about the Church's teaching on any number of matters, precisely because they may need to vote on these matters, or to make policy, or to enforce the law.

If Catholic politicians or public officials find themselves at odds with the Church's teaching, they have a very strong duty in conscience to form their consciences better by careful study of the Church's teaching on moral principles and their proper application.

In saying this, I want again to emphasize that not everything that is said by a Vatican document or by a particular bishop or in a particular sermon is at the same level.

To the extent that we are dealing with a practical judgment made by someone in the Church and not with a moral principle, there is more room for possible disagreement, and hence greater need for clarity about what the facts of the situation are, so that we can ascertain the correct application of moral principles to particular cases.

Even so, it is crucial for everyone involved in such discussions to root their thinking on moral matters in divine revelation and in good discernment about the natural law.

And it is crucial that everyone in such a situation should have the humility to admit that our own individual reasoning in matters of conscience is not infallible. It is precisely for this reason that we need the guidance of the Church on controversial matters.

Q: Is a "properly formed conscience" just another way of saying one who is in total agreement with Church teaching? If that is the case, what is left of conscience?

Father Koterski: In addition to the distinction that I have been making between moral principles and judgments of fact on practical matters, I would like to make an additional distinction: To speak about being in "total agreement with Church teaching" does not imply that the Church has already spoken on every possible issue and on every particular practical question.

Having a properly formed conscience certainly does mean that one will intend to be in total agreement with the moral principles that the Church teaches.

Catholicism is not a moral supermarket in which one can pick the stances that seem best to any individual. Rather, it is a religion that has the promise of divine guidance for its magisterium in moral matters, and that, after all, is a better guarantee than the rest of us can claim as individuals.

But even when we are committed to be in total agreement with Church teaching, we still face the need to work out a solution to new problems that come along on which the Church has not yet definitively spoken.

Further, each of us needs to face various questions of a factual nature, on which we will need to work at applying the principles of divine morality correctly.

For example, one could take up particular moral topics such as the question of law and public policy on immigrants, or the morality of a given war, or countless other questions that turn on questions of fact.

Lawmakers will have to wrestle with the distribution of the revenues at hand, and they will have to ascertain how to state the language in a bill they are trying to enact, so that it will garner enough support to become law. Their task is to craft legislation that will truly respect the moral law in what their legislation requires, permits, or forbids.

It seems to me that there are all sorts of things left for conscience to do even when one is completely committed to Catholic teaching.

[Thursday: When Church teaching binds Catholic politicians]

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