For the early Christians, living in societies that were at best indifferent to Christianity and frequently hostile, the challenge was how to survive without compromising the faith. During the time of persecution, Christians would find it often impossible to be true to Jesus and accommodate the demands of the civil authorities, requiring of them the ultimate witness to their faith: Christian martyrdom.
With Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and his eventual conversion, the challenge for the Christian quickly changed. It became actually advantageous in society to be a Christian. Leaders of the Church would exercise enormous influence over civil society. With the emergence of this—of Christendom—we find an attempt to order civil society in accord with the principles of the gospel. The relation between the leaders of the Church and the state became entwined.
In the Church’s liturgical calendar we find many illustrations of saints who exercised civil authority: St. Louis IX of France, St. Elizabeth of Portugal, St. Henry of Bavaria, St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Stephen of Hungary, St. Wenceslas of Bohemia. We see in these men and women examples of both the positive impact of Christian faith on civil rulers and faith-filled leaders of state on the Church.
Unfortunately, there are perhaps even more examples of the close association of Church leaders with political power creating an environment for abuses. The French Revolution and its repercussions on the life of the Church in France is perhaps the most dramatic example of the impairment of the mission of the Church because of the close association with some of its leaders with abusive royal power.
In the late eighteenth century, in the newly formed nation of the United States, Catholics were a small minority. According to the first census of the nation in 1790, there were almost four million Americans, white and black, with only thirty-five thousand Catholic: about 1 percent.
Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop of the United States, instructed priests in the new democracy to keep themselves distant from politics. Carroll would personally follow this principle and in effect established a policy that left a lasting impression on the American Catholic clergy in succeeding generations.
John Tracy Ellis, one of the most well-known historians of the Church in the United States, gives this analysis of Archbishop Carroll’s formative influence on the Catholic Clergy in America: “The policy of clerical aloofness was in part induced by the shyness of an unpopular minority, but it was equally a policy born of the dual conviction that the clergy’s principal business was their religious ministry and that it was improper to use their office for political ends.”
In May 1840, on the eve of a presidential election a quarter of a century after Carroll’s death, the Catholic bishops closed their fourth provincial council with a pastoral letter to the clergy and the laity in which they touched on the political scene: “We disclaim all right to interfere with your judgment in the political affairs of our common country, and are far from entertaining the wish to control you in the constitutional exercise of your freedom.”
At the same time, the bishops counseled their fellow Catholics that they were accountable to God for what they termed “the honest, independent and fearless exercise of your franchise.” Moreover, if any Catholic should yield to undue influence through motives of favor or dishonest gain, they warned: “You have violated your trust, you have betrayed your conscience, and you are a renegade to your country.”
It is important to know this history, but it is equally important to note that, at the same time as it has declined to support particular parties or candidates, the Catholic Church in the United States has always cherished its right and responsibility to speak on moral issues and form the conscience of her members. While the Catholic community regrets that bishops did not speak out forcefully against slavery and the subsequent evils of segregation, we take pride in the Church’s advocacy for the rights of workers, immigrants in the nineteenth century, and civil rights for African Americans in the twentieth century.
In Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council spoke of the role of the Church in society: “Christ did not bequeath to the Church a mission in the political, economic or social order: the purpose he assigned to it was a religious one.”
Later in that same document, the council fathers developed this theme:
The political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields. Nevertheless, both are devoted to the personal vocation of man, though under different titles . . . . The Church, for its part, being founded in love of the Redeemer, contributes toward the spread of justice and charity among the nations and within the borders of nations themselves. By preaching the truths of the Gospel and clarifying all sectors of human activity through its teaching and the witness of its members, the Church respects and encourages political freedom and responsibility of the citizen.
Earlier in Gaudium et Spes, the council fathers stressed the importance of every Catholic working for the common good and taking seriously their civic responsibilities:
Every citizen ought to be mindful of his right and duty to promote the common good by using his vote. The Church praises and esteems those who devote themselves to the public good for the service of men and take on themselves the burdens of public office . . . . Christians should be conscious of their specific and proper role in the political community; they should be a shining example by their sense of responsibility and their dedication to the common good.
In November 1998, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops promulgated the document Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. It summoned Catholics in the United States to be more bold in transforming American society with the principles and values of our Catholic faith:
Today, Catholics risk cooperating in a false pluralism. Secular society will allow believers to have whatever moral convictions they please—as long as they keep them on the private preserves of their consciences, in their homes and churches, and out of the public arena. Democracy is not a substitute for morality, nor a panacea for immorality. Its value stands—or falls—with the values which it embodies and promotes. Only tireless promotion of the truth about the human person can infuse democracy with the right values. This is what Jesus meant when he asked us to be leaven in society. American Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural life. But in assimilating, we have too often been digested. We have been changed by our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough. If we are leaven, we must bring to our culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy. That is our vocation as believers. And there is no better place to start than promoting the beauty and sanctity of human life.
We need talented and principled Catholic men and women to seek elective office. Public life requires enormous sacrifices on the part of those who do it for the right reasons and motives. I have the highest admiration for the dedication and integrity of many Catholics who serve at the national, state, and local levels in government.
At the same time, it saddens me to see the many Catholics in public life who abandon the moral teachings of the Church on fundamental human-rights issues in order to appease the leadership of their party or because they believe it necessary to get elected. We do not need Catholics serving in public office who are willing to check their principles at the doorway of the legislative chamber. A Catholic in public life must allow the moral values of his faith to inform his positions.
Certainly, a Catholic elected to public office must make prudential judgments on how to best advance the rights and the dignity of the human person. There are many issues, in fact most issues, where Catholic politicians may disagree and adopt different policy positions—a just immigration policy, for example, or public-assistance programs for the poor, or health-care policy, or military engagement, or taxation policies.
At the same time, there are circumstances where to support a particular policy involves approval of an intrinsic evil. In March 2004, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose prefect at the time was Cardinal Ratzinger, promulgated a Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in the Political Life that addressed this precise issue:
John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose” any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them. As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, “an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.”
The issue of the scandal caused by Catholic politicians who persistently act contrary to Catholic moral teaching on matters of intrinsic evil has become a significant problem. Catholics and others are confused about the teaching and the seriousness of the teaching of the Church on fundamental human-rights issues, such as the sanctity of human life, when Catholics in public life contradict this church teaching while still claiming to be faithful Catholics.
The bishop must have pastoral concern for the Catholic politician as a member of his flock. He must attempt through pastoral dialogue to enlighten the Catholic politician about the moral seriousness of his or her position. At the same time, he must protect his flock from being misled. The American bishops addressed this issue in Living the Gospel of Life:
We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching. No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.
Every Catholic should be concerned about a wide range of issues, as noted above. But we must realize that those issues that involve intrinsic evils—direct attacks on human life, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, or direct attacks on the institution of the family (for example, a redefinition of marriage to equate with same-sex unions or cohabitation)—must assume a moral priority. While all issues are important, all are not equally important from a moral analysis.
Even if we have our priorities correctly ordered, we may or probably will not find a perfect candidate. Sometimes we must choose between a candidate who opposes legal abortion in most instances but not all and one who supports the legalization of abortion without restriction. Or we may be presented with a choice of a candidate who supports all abortions but opposes funding of abortion and one who supports legal abortion and tax-funding of abortions.
In such cases, we must choose the lesser of two evils or, conversely, the choice that will yield the greater good. We should not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. In other words, it is not prudent not to vote because we have no perfect choice rather than attempt to elect someone who is imperfect but is significantly better than the alternative.
In a 2004 memo, addressed to inquiries by American bishops about the responsibilities of Catholic politicians and voters, then Cardinal Ratzinger stated: “A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”
This inevitably leads to the question: What could be a proportionate reason for more than forty-five million children killed by abortion during the past thirty-five years and the much greater number of adult men and women spiritually and emotionally scarred by their participation in abortion?
The Catholic community needs to find its voice on the abortion issue. This is not about supporting a particular party. There are heroic members of both parties who defend the sanctity of human life. Unfortunately, at this moment, one party has adopted a position that faithful Catholics and others that share their view about abortion are not to be permitted roles of leadership within the party.
Our ultimate goal cannot be to capture just one political party and keep them in power. Our goal must be to build such a broad consensus that neither the Democratic nor the Republican party will tolerate someone who advocates legal abortion to represent them, just as today neither party allows an anti-Semite or racist to speak for their party.
Jean Garton, for many years the leader of Lutherans for Life, uses a wonderful biblical image for the attitude of the Christian pro-lifer in the face of the apparent insurmountable strength of the pro-abortion forces in our time. She invites those engaged in the struggle to protect life to remember the fear of the adult soldiers of Israel when confronted with the Philistine warrior giant Goliath. They looked at his size and strength and concluded he was impossible to defeat. The boy, David, on the other hand, armed only with his slingshot and a few pebbles, looked at the immenseness of Goliath and thought: How can I miss?
As Christians, we know that the victory of life has already been won and we are just privileged to take part in its unfolding in this particular moment of human history. We have to spend our time in this world doing something. To what greater enterprise could we devote our time and energy than defending the sanctity of innocent human life?
Joseph Naumann is the archbishop of Kansas City. These remarks are adapted from a talk he gave at the Gospel of Life Conference in Denver on October 20, 2007.