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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 ...

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