By Tanya Connor
PAXTON – Abortion and the role of objective truth in public policy were among issues on which panelists at Anna Maria College differed Wednesday. They also took varied approaches to helping those in need.
Victoria Reggie Kennedy, widow of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, joined the panel discussion after giving the keynote talk. Anna Maria President Jack P. Calareso said the academic symposium, “Faith and the Public Square: Balancing Religious Beliefs with the Common Good,” was held to encourage students to become informed voters and responsible citizens.
In her keynote, Mrs. Kennedy said she didn’t see her faith as separate from who she is. She recalled her grandmother feeding the homeless, who “could be Jesus,” and her family praying that John F. Kennedy, whose brother she later married, would be elected president. She spoke of others’ opposition to a Catholic president.
The Williamsburg Charter makes clear that the First Amendment’s “no establishment clause” separates Church from state, but not religion from politics or from political life, she said.
After panelists each gave a brief presentation, facilitator David P. Forsberg asked them how to achieve balance and maintain civility when people of different religions go through a prayerful process and come to different conclusions. Mr. Forsberg is interim president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of New England.
María Teresa Dávila, assistant professor of Christian ethics, who said she is the only Catholic on the faculty at Andover Newton Theological School, told of being on a panel with a rabbi who supported physician-assisted suicide. They disagreed, she said, but “I need to humbly walk with other people in their suffering … to consider what is politically possible.”
“There is a right and a wrong,” said Father Richard F. Reidy, a canon lawyer and pastor of St. Ann’s, the Catholic church in North Oxford. “There is a truth that is bigger than me that is out there to be discovered.” Otherwise, the discussion dissolves into gridlock, he said.
“If we lose that sense of truth, all’s fair in order to get the power,” he said.
Mrs. Kennedy disagreed, saying that to claim one’s own truth is the right one is a prescription for gridlock, a non-negotiable position. She said the governing document is the Constitution.
“Is there a political way that we can balance everyone’s views?” she asked, adding that not every faith tradition accepts that there is one truth.
Abortion is a serious moral issue, she said, adding that she thought everyone present was pro-life.
“We all want children to be brought into this world,” she said. She asked how to create a support network for that, and spoke of prenatal care, education and support for families.
“Is that a conversation we should be having?” she asked. “I think it is.” Listeners applauded.
Congressman James P. McGovern had spoken, in his presentation, about growing up Catholic, questioning faith in college, then getting his spiritual batteries recharged by the Church’s influence and faithfulness to the poor in El Salvador.
He said his faith has strengthened as he’s grown older, but with some “very controversial issues,” including abortion, “it’s more complicated for me.”
“I’ve not voted to make it a federal crime,” he said, to some applause. He said God will judge him.
“I’m not perfect, but I try to be faithful,” he said. “And I think that everybody on this planet … has an obligation to try to make this world a better place. … Religion requires activism.”
He spoke of chairing a human rights commission and being arrested for protesting genocide. Hunger and war don’t have to be; they represent a failure of political communities all around the world to make it a political priority, he said.
Father Reidy and Professor Dávila used abortion as an example in their presentations.
“Catholics … hold that by use of reason alone, we can know that certain actions are always wrong: rape, genocide, murder, abortion, torture,” Father Reidy said. “They’re wrong regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the intention of the perpetrator, or any good hoped to be derived from them. …
“There are also gray areas. … we have definite, obligatory duties to the poor, the sick, the immigrant. But exactly how these duties are carried out, the Church leaves to … prudential judgment of individuals and governments.”
The Church teaches that it should have freedom to preach the faith, proclaim its teachings about society and pass moral judgement even in matters relating to politics, he said. He said the Church proposes; it does not impose.
Catholics must live their faith in the world, guided by it, not acting inconsistently with it, he said. Catholic public officials cannot impose on others matters that are strictly of faith. But natural law is binding on all. For example, the fact that what is growing in the womb is alive and human is a matter of science, not faith.
He said Pope John Paul II said it is never licit to vote for an intrinsically unjust law, such as one permitting abortion.
“Public officials would undermine the common good and greatly fail the moral law even when they do much good to protect the quality of life for some, if they first don’t protect the existence of life for all,” he said.
Professor Dávila envisioned three intersecting circles: the moral ideal, such as respect for human life from conception to natural death; what is politically possible in a religiously diverse public square, and what is legally legitimate.
She read parts of the United States Bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” #34-35: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. … a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”
She said the consistent ethic of life calls her to work for policies that address the economy, criminal justice system, racism, alternatives to military engagement, palliative care for the dying and support for women in crisis pregnancies.
“We’re not activists based on our own moral certainty on an issue,” Rev. Andrew D. Genszler, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said of Lutherans. “We are activists for our neighbor.”
“Faith and the Public Square Balancing Religious Beliefs with the Common Good”
Fr. Reidy Opening Statement
I’ll speak first about what it is Catholics believe through faith and know through reason. Then I’ll address rights and duties in the Public Square.
(Some of) What Catholics Believe
Catholics believe that God created the world and us to share in His love. We have an intellect to know truth — right and wrong. We have a will to choose between them. God also gave us freedom. But from the start, as Genesis tells us, we abused our freedom.
But God didn’t give up on us. He sent His Son as our Redeemer who, on the Cross, paid the price of humanity’s waywardness that “we might have life and have it to the full.” He also established the Church (“You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church”) endowed it with authority (“What you hold bound on earth shall be bound in Heaven…”) and entrusted it with a mission (“Go, teach all nations all that I have commanded you…”).
We believe that there is objective truth. Truth is not just a matter of deeply held opinion. Nor does it vary from person to person. It reflects the reality of how things actually are. And not just scientific and physically verifiable matters but matters of faith and morals as well.
We learn the truth through faith but also through reason. Faith is the response to Divine Revelation (Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Teachings entrusted to the Church). Reason, apart from Revelation, is a reflection on creation including the Natural Law.
The Natural Law is a set of general imperatives written into human nature that, through the light of reason alone, inform us how to act. It is independent of and stands above positive or man-made law. It is binding upon all people, in all places, at all times. For example, suppose several people were marooned on an uncharted island in international waters claimed by no nation. It is the Natural Law that binds the castaways not to murder, rape or steal. Similarly, when, from the founding of our nation to the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery was legal in our land, the Natural Law informed us that though slavery was permitted under the Constitution, upheld by the Supreme Court and enforced by acts of Congress, it was still wrong.
Catholics also hold that, by the use of reason alone, we can know that certain actions are always wrong, e.g., rape, genocide, abortion, torture. They are wrong regardless of the circumstances; the intention of the perpetrator; or any good hoped to be derived from them. It is never permissible to do them, authorize them or encourage them.
But if there are such intrinsic moral evils, there are also a lot of gray areas. Catholics believe that we have definite, obligatory duties to the poor, the sick and the immigrant. But exactly how those duties are carried out, the Church leaves to the competency of experts and the prudential judgment of individuals and governments. In his encyclical on Catholic social teaching, Pope John Paul II wrote:
The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situation, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation…”
In those social teachings, Catholics acknowledge a duty to the common good. The common good must be distinguished from the private good of individuals. It requires a respect for the dignity of every human person, an environment of peace, justice and stability so that individuals and the community as a whole may more fully and easily reach its fulfillment.
Having laid out these general principles, I will now turn to the public square.
The Catholic Church as Institution. With regard to the Catholic Church as an institution, the Second Vatican Council taught that:
at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to proclaim its teaching about society, to carry out its task …without hindrance, and to pass moral judgments even in matters relating to politics, whenever…fundamental rights…or the salvation of souls requires it. The means, the only means, it may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of all…according to the diversity of times and circumstances.” (GS 76).
In other words, recognizing conscience in religious matters, the Church proposes, it does not impose.
Catholic Individuals. Turning to Catholic individuals, the first amendment guarantees freedom to exercise one’s religion. Scripture requires that it be exercised (“faith without works is dead”). And Christ requires that it be exercised publicly. (Do not put your light under a bushel basket”).
The Second Vatican Council taught that “the renewal of the temporal order” is the “distinctive task” of the laity (AA 7). Catholics cannot compartmentalize their faith. They must live it, not just in Church but in the world, in the way they conduct themselves in business, at school and with those in need— always being guided by their faith and never acting inconsistently with it. Catholics accept their faith because it is true and intended by God for their good and the betterment and happiness of all. It is for the common good, not something to be balanced against it.
Catholics as Public Officials. Catholic public officials, like all Catholics, must live their faith, being informed by it in all they do. But Catholic public officials cannot use the government or their decisions to impose on others matters that are strictly of faith. Yet, the moral absolutes of the Natural Law are binding on all people. They are not matters of religion but of reason. Catholic politicians cannot support such moral wrongs. They have a duty to eliminate them.
Undoubtedly, this is most clear in the case of abortion. That what is growing in the womb is alive, human and distinct from the mother is not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of science. That human rights accrue not by the grant of a government, court or any person but by virtue of being human is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of reason. And everyone is bound to respect human rights. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion…, it is…never licit to…vote for it” (EV 73).
Reason tells us that not all issues are equal. It also tells us that respect for innocent human life is fundamental and foundational to a just society and is an essential element of the common good. Public officials undermine the common good and gravely fail the moral law even when they do much good to protect the quality of life for some, if they don’t first protect the existence of life for all.