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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 ...

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