Roman Catholics, Americans, and the Conscience of Politics


In an ongoing editorial feature Rolling Stone runs a With Us – Against Us column. Should anyone be confused about the political leaning of RS, the With column was colored blue while the Against column was, wait for it, red. In the current issue towards the edge of the red lies a blurb about a Roman Catholic Church parish’s refusal to serve the Eucharist to Obama voters. My initial query concerning the mechanics of such a plan (how does the priest know who I voted for, does God tell on me, is that something I would have to confess and receive absolution for, can I be absolved for voting Bush in ‘o0 and ‘o4) was lost to consternation at the stupidity of the sound bite pulled for the piece. The episode revealed a not-so-minor problem which the Roman Catholic Church in America has faced since the beginnings of the nation, that of the relation of Church-State-Individual. In this home of the brave and land of the free has does the ex cathedra of the Pope work with the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness of Jefferson, for the American there is no statement more viewed as ex cathedra than the Constitution. For this reason among others, some critics of the RCC would argue that Americans are not real Catholics, but if you really but that line, I dare you to try that logic on some 70-year-old Irishman or woman from Boston sometime. I cannot know for sure what was going on in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s mind as he and others worked on the Roman Catholic Catechism, but I am inclined to believe that this may have been an issue (or something like it) for which their work was done.

Early on in the section of the Catechism devoted to the proper understanding of the Old Testament Decalogue, it was written that “Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or public, alone or in association with others, within due limits” (3.2.1, 2106). This right is claimed on basis of human dignity and free will seemed a little odd. One might ask how this line might have been used in relation to Luther’s Here I Stand or even the aforementioned event. One guesses that the “due limits” exclusion may loom large or small depending on its interpreter. For this reason to seek the answer to how one would expect a parish priest to act during America’s overblown election season, one might be interested to understand how the individual is linked to the authorities (placed) above him or her.

As much of the history of interpretation has revealed, the discourse on the Fourth Commandment should be considered instrumental here. The section opened with an obscure epigraph, “He was obedient to them.” Neither the ‘he’ nor the ‘them’ are textually explained, but should one follow the footnote, one might find the He is Christ, and the ‘them’ to be Mary and Joseph. So we begin with a remainder that Christ, himself, was obedient to his parents (except when he was not, of course; but that is not quoted here). It was explained, like much of the tradition, that the command was explicitly aimed at children, but “concerns the ties of kin…. Requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders…. [and] extends to pupils… employees… subordinates… [and] citizens” (3.2.4, 2199). In this way all citizens are to view the authorities of the community as “representatives of God” (3.2.4.5, 2238), and to seek the welfare of the city as the prophet demanded.

That does not mean a free pass to “parents, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, [or] all who exercise authority,” each of these is also responsible to act honorably, humbly, and lovingly to those under them (see line quoted above). Section five of this section explicitly commanded civil authorities to serve their public, and in so doing to give a good showing of the values of the church at all times respecting the dignity and value of life. As representatives of God, their authority exists only when in line with the goods of the faith, and their subjects are required to refuse obedience when the latter occurs (3.2.4.5, 2242).

In this way “the church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man” (3.2.4.5, 2244). One might assume that means taking into consideration the teachings of other commands; i.e. to consider whether one should take a pro-choice or pro-life stance one might do well to consult the teaching on murder.

Yet it is all that much murkier when one begins considering candidates for elected office, is there some hierarchy of values? Like the game of Hearts, are there certain issues that can trump others? True by teaching of the church one cannot allow another to die, but what is one to do about a government-sponsored and allowed homicide? And just what makes one act homicidal and another justified? If one considers the recently debated actions of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, one might be able to make the case that at times even the Pope has been tripped up by the length and breadth of this teaching. All of this may not answer all the questions to the letter, much less tell us if that priest really should be considered Against Us; yet, in the fact that we have caused argument and debate, one might argue the Catechism has done its job. Not to be so American and Wesleyan, but unfortunately the rest is up to us. I guess I would have to grudgingly, with teeth clenched agree to the placing, and I guess I could make a case for it from a certain reading of the Catechism.

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