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A Conscience Decision

Christians Making Choices in the Public Square

By Father John Flynn

ROME, MARCH 20, 2007 (Zenit) - Catholics involved in politics should follow their own conscience, but in doing so they need to be well informed. This was one of the points made by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in an address March 6.

Cardinal Bertone was speaking at the launch of a book by Italian Senator Luigi Bobba entitled "Il posto dei cattolici" (The Place of Catholics). In his remarks, published in the March 8 edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the cardinal observed that a Catholic politician's conscience needs to respect those values which are not negotiable, namely those that correspond to an objective truth. Only in this way will public activity be carried out in a way that respects the human person and fundamental human rights, the secretary of state affirmed.

Cardinal Bertone then went on to mention a number of important areas that require attention, such as safeguarding life from conception until natural death, the promotion of the family and the defense of the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

An involvement in politics that damages values such as these is not good for anyone, he argued. Moreover, the cardinal insisted, it would be wrong to justify taking action against these values by basing such a decision in the name of an appeal to one's conscience. It is precisely to avoid such erroneous decisions that the Church makes its voice heard in public debates on important issues.

This participation by the Church in the public arena should not be seen as an undue interference, but rather as an attempt to help form consciences. In this activity, Cardinal Bertone continued, the Church does not limit its message to Catholics, but directs itself to all persons of good will, in the hope of helping them overcome the temptation to take decisions based merely on what is most pragmatic and according to self-interest.

Ignoring principles

Cardinal Bertone's address comes at a time when bishops in a number of countries are speaking out on political issues. In Scotland, Bishop Joseph Devine strongly criticized the Labor Party for ignoring Christian principles, reported the Scotsman newspaper March 12.

The bishop of Motherwell also warned that the traditional support of Catholics for the Labor Party could not be counted on. Behind his remarks, the Scotsman commented, lies the dismay of the bishop at anti-family legislation, promoted by the Labor Party in both the local Scottish Parliament and the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

"The state seems to have developed a new kind of morality devoid of any Christian principle or background," declared Bishop Devine.

Christian principles were also on the mind of Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta, Australia. The bishop penned a pastoral letter on civic responsibility, published in March by the diocesan publication Catholic Outlook.

The missive comes just prior to the March 24 elections in the state of New South Wales. National elections will also be held later this year.

Bishop Manning cited documents of the Second Vatican Council that encourage Catholics "to carry the presence of Jesus into all spheres of human activity." We can influence society by making informed moral choices when voting, he noted.

The bishop of the diocese located on the Western outskirts of Sydney also explained that doing this is not an attempt to impose Catholic teaching on everyone. We believe, he stated, "that Catholic teaching works for the good of all, for a stable society, and for the promotion of human dignity, human rights and freedom."

The pastoral letter lays out a series of moral principles to take into account when deciding who to vote for: protecting life in all its stages; promoting the family based on marriage between a man and a woman; protecting the rights of parents to educate their children; serving the poor and vulnerable; practicing global solidarity; and exercising stewardship over creation through care for the environment.

"It is clear that the task at hand is to defend and promote the most fundamental aspects of human dignity for the good of all," Bishop Manning concluded.

Good citizens

In Nigeria, Catholic bishops urged the government to ensure the April elections are free and fair, according to a report published by the Catholic Information Service for Africa on March 6.

The statement came in a communiqué dated March 3, issued at the end of a weeklong meeting at Abuja on the theme "Good Governance, Democracy and Christian responsibility."

"These elections will either increase or diminish the respect that the international community has for Nigeria," the bishops said in the communiqué. The declaration also called on politicians to refrain from intemperate and uncivil language, and advised Nigerians to vote according to their consciences in the coming elections.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo steps down in April after 8 years in power. As well as electing a new president, Nigerians will also vote for state governors and members of Parliament.

Religion and politics also continues to occupy attention in the United States. In January, Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput strongly criticized the Catholic governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter, for his pledge to restore eligibility requirements for family planning programs to receive state funding.

Days after his Jan. 9 inauguration, Ritter announced his intention to lift the restrictions that prevent state money from going toward clinics that offer abortions, the Denver Post reported Jan. 16. These restrictions had been imposed by his predecessor Bill Owens, also a Catholic. As a result of Owens' decision, Planned Parenthood lost almost $400,000 in state funding.

Archbishop Chaput termed this proposal as a "seriously flawed policy," in an article published in the Jan. 17 issue of the Denver Catholic Register. He criticized the actions of Ritter who ran as a pro-life candidate: "In the long run, all of us -- homemakers, shopkeepers, clergy, athletes and public officials -- are judged by what we do, not by what we say."

Choosing wisely

Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, also has some advice for Catholics in public life. In an article published in the March 1 issue of the Catholic Sentinel, he reflected on what someone he described as "a prominent Catholic public person," had said regarding abortion. This person commented that it was a question of exercising free will, you can choose it or reject it, but we can't tell someone else what to do.

Bishop Vasa pointed out, however, that some choices are just, and others are unjust. "An unjust choice would be to choose to terminate the life of another human being," he said. Furthermore, it is a choice clearly contrary to Church teaching. "What we believe must inform what we do," he concluded.

The postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis," just published by the Pope, also touches upon the question of the conscience of Catholics active in politics. Under the concept of "Eucharistic consistency" Benedict XVI explained that "worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith" (No. 83).

This is true for all, the Pope continued, but is particularly so for those in a position where they make decisions on important values regarding human life, the family, marriage and education. "These values are not negotiable," the Pontiff said.

"Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature," the document continued. The Pope also reminded bishops that they "are bound to reaffirm constantly these values as part of their responsibility to the flock entrusted to them."

This is valuable advice at a time when debates over moral issues are evermore present.


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