I recently had lunch with a friend who is a revert to the Catholic faith. Now fervently Catholic, she has maintained the fiery and no nonsense evangelical spirit she picked up during her Protestant sojourn – one of the many reasons I enjoy spending time with her.
This particular day she wanted to know why something hasn’t been done about politicians who support abortion or other practices that directly contradict the faith, and then are able to present to the public what amount to Catholic selfies. She mentioned how much this scandalizes many Protestants, causing them to think the Catholic Church is soft on these issues.
We talked about the much-cited Canon 915, which states that, those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
Most people understand politics as the art of furthering the common good. On the one hand, it’s not a straight-line activity, which means that it requires negotiation and compromise in order to achieve the most good possible in a particular situation owing to the many individuals and opinions involved.
On the other hand, one can never legitimately compromise a principle. The principles by which one lives should never be affected by the negotiation involved in politics, even as a voter. These principles exist above the fray. These should and do remain sacrosanct in our hearts and minds as we navigate thorny situations where only a little good can be accomplished, such as when a vote may decrease abortions while not abolishing them.
People entering politics should be expected to articulate the principles upon which they intend to act. Once elected, even the most idealistic Catholic will soon realize the impossibility of perfectly formulating positive law in line with moral law in every circumstance. But at the same time, that person can certainly not abandon the principles of the moral law. These principles will provide the unwavering goals to which all efforts in a particular political situation are directed.
Although it’s sometimes said you can’t legislate morality, you will try in vain to come up with a law that is not an attempt to legislate someone’s view of morality, even if just a teeny bit. As confirmed in Vatican II, the Church recognizes “the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church – but not from that of morality.”
Because of this the Church typically leaves political activity to the laity while providing clear guidance on moral principles. It’s the laity’s role, not the clergy’s, to sanctify the world by infusing the temporal order with Christian values to the extent possible. That’s why priests aren’t permitted to run for elective office.
This does not mean imposing doctrines that can only be known through divine revelation, but simply drawing on the natural moral law accessible to every human heart to correctly order society. Everyone is subject to the dictates of this law by virtue of being a part of God’s creation. St. Paul pointed out that we all have this law written on our hearts. We can discern this law more or less clearly, depending on the condition of our consciences.
As proof of this, one could point out that every civilization has had some form of the commandments incorporated into its laws (C. S. Lewis gives examples of what he calls the universal Tao, which testify to this transcultural morality, in an appendix to his great book The Abolition of Man). It just comes with being human.
A bonus for Catholics is that the Catholic Church has meditated on these commandments for millennia in a variety of circumstances, which means that Catholics have a clearer idea of the natural moral law because of accumulated wisdom and experience.
In recognizing the role that morality plays in politics, the Church is also recognizing that she cannot be silent when principles of the moral law are in dispute, especially so when her own children are involved. Morality is her business, even if political activity itself is not her role.
Where moral principles are being flouted, she must speak up. When her own children are verbally abandoning those principles, she must render them every assistance at her disposal, no matter the walk of life. This assistance has a two-fold purpose: to recall the errant and to protect the innocent from scandal. As to scandal, the greater the ability to spread error, the more critical it is to act. To do otherwise is to abdicate the role given the Church by Christ Himself to shepherd His flock.
If bishops hesitate to act because a situation is “political,” they are giving the public impression that the Church’s moral principles are also political, in and of themselves. Thus, it is very possible that in refusing to apply one of the possible remedies – Canon 915 – to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who obstinately continue to make statements that are antithetical to the moral law, the teaching of that law becomes subject to politics.
And the broader upshot may very well be not just that certain hot-button moral positions appear mere policy preferences, but so does the Catholic faith.