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Conscience and Catholic Politicians (Part 2 of 2)

Interview With Fordham's Father Koterski

NEW YORK, APRIL 13, 2006 (Zenit) - The "statement of principles" by 55 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives has rekindled the debate over the responsibilities of Catholic politicians.

Signatories of the letter stated that "In recognizing the Church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas."

However, Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski, professor of philosophy at Fordham University, notes that while some issues allow for varying prudential judgments, other issues deal directly with basic moral principles and thus leave less or no room for individual judgment.

Father Koterski shared with us why disagreement with Church authorities on war or immigration reform is fundamentally different from disagreement on abortion.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday on Catholic Online.

Q: Is there a distinction between a conscientious disagreement with the Church on immigration reform and disagreement on abortion?

Father Koterski: On both these questions, it seems to me, one can identify some matters of moral principle and other matters of practical judgments about the facts.

No Catholic legislator could support legislation on immigration reform that violated the moral principle that requires respect for human dignity.

But determining precisely what our immigration policies should be in order to respect human dignity turns on all sorts of practical questions, such as how many immigrants a region can really handle in any one period of time, or what the appropriate level of health care or welfare support for new immigrants should be.

There are some practical recommendations on these subjects by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Catholic legislators should definitely give these careful study.

I think that there is some latitude on the specific answers to these questions, whereas there is no room at all for a Catholic legislator to claim reasons on conscience as allowing support for policies that would treat immigrants, even illegal immigrants, inhumanely.

In regard to abortion, there is a similar distinction between principles and their practical application.

The Church has clearly taught that we must be opposed to procured abortion always and everywhere -- this is a universal moral principle, and on this point there are no possible grounds for disagreement with the Church based on some claims about reasons of one's own conscience.

But there remain various questions about how best to proceed on practical questions, such as on the recent initiatives to outlaw partial-birth abortion.

Here it is important to take note of the directives of "Evangelium Vitae," No. 73, on how a Catholic legislator whose unequivocal opposition to abortion is well known may still vote for legislation that does restrict some types of abortion even if it is not possible at that time completely to forbid the practice of all induced abortion.

In contrast with this careful vision of the relation of moral principles and their proper application, stands the sorry track-record of most of the individuals who signed on to the recent statement by Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives. For many of them have voting records that the National Abortion Rights Action League considers "perfect" by virtue of their support for the pro-abortion agenda.

The assertions of that document about a commitment to protect the most vulnerable members of our society ring hollow by a comparison with the actual voting records of many of the signers.

The document's references to the "undesirability of abortion" might be thought a hopeful sign. But it is distressing to see that the farthest the signers of the document were willing to go in regard to real opposition to abortion is the document's statement that each of the signers "is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term."

From the pro-abortion voting records of many of the signers it could appear that their commitment to "reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies" includes keeping abortion legally permissible.

Q: In what way is the Church's teaching on abortion binding on the individual believer in a way that the Holy Father's views on an issue such as a particular war are not?

Father Koterski: It is important to remain mindful of the distinction between: 1) universal moral precepts that bind always and everywhere and 2) judgments that one makes about the facts of a given situation.

The Church has a clear teaching on the topic of procured abortion that has been constantly affirmed and reaffirmed as a principle of morality.

The principle in question here is a universal negative precept that applies always, everywhere, and to everyone, namely, that it is never permissible to procure an abortion -- see "Evangelium Vitae," No. 62 -- because innocent human life is sacred to God and may never be deliberately attacked.

By contrast, the views of the Holy Father on an issue such as the morality of a particular war are not uttered at the level of principle but at the level of a judgment about the facts of a given situation, in light of certain principles -- here, the principles of just war.

If the Holy Father were making a comment about what the principles of just war are, he could well be articulating some universal precept, such as the precept that the aggrieved party may not go to war unless it has exhausted all other avenues to address the injustice, or the precept that even in a just war one may not directly attack the innocent.

But the question of whether a given war is just or not depends not only on adherence to the moral principles dealing with the conditions for just war, but also on all sorts of factual questions.

Because there are so many factual issues that enter into such a judgment, anyone's judgment about the matter can be considered debatable in a way that a statement of moral principles is not debatable.

The Holy Father's judgment on any such matters deserves great reverence from Catholics, but it should not be considered to be at the same level of authority as a statement that he might make on the universal moral principles.

I would go so far as to say that we should even presume that the Holy Father has better access to the facts than we do, and that this would make his judgment on factual questions likely to be better than ours.

But questions of fact are crucial for making the correct application of moral principles, and questions of the application of moral principles to the facts are debatable in a way that moral principles in and of themselves are not.

Q: If a Catholic politician, as a matter of conscience, finds herself in disagreement with the Church on a particular issue, how should she respond?

Father Koterski: Mindful of all that we have said above about the differences in the level of Church pronouncements on moral matters, I would urge that a Catholic politician be first of all ready to become better informed in conscience by further study and discussion of what the Church's moral principles are and what the magisterium has taught about their proper application.

When there is no more time for study and one must act, for example, by casting their votes in their roles as legislators, they need to observe the principles of divine law as superior to their own theories and opinions in matters of moral principle.

When it comes to disagreement over an application of the moral principles because of a disagreement over the facts, legislators certainly must try to ascertain the truth about those questions of fact and obey a conscience well formed by knowledge of true principles.

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Keywords

Koterski, Politics, Conscience, Catholic, Moral, God

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