Conscience in Politics

Papers presented at a 1992 conference sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute were published as a book: When Conscience and Politics Meet: A Catholic View. It is a scant 103 pages. Its brevity makes it all the friendlier to busy people concerned over the issue of conscience-in-politics but with little time to get beyond the daily barrage of  events.

Georgio de Chirico. The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913).

We look at the news networks, read the pundits, listen to the talk, and wonder how we arrived at where we find ourselves now. In his preface, Msgr. Eugene Clark states without irony:

It is not patronizing to discern in our society a lack of interest in binding conscience.

That was a quarter century ago. By now, that lack has metastasized to the point where a politician who dares exhibit an informed and binding conscience is demonized, dismissed, caricatured as humorless, or a liar. Lucifer in the flesh. A miserable sonofabitch. We are encouraged to believe that what seem like acts of conscience are really only cynical moves to advance personal ambitions. In short, conscience itself has been erased as a qualification for office. All that matters now is style. And the favored style is crude and demagogic.

Felix Barrias. Camille Desmoulins Haranguing Patriots (1789). The first event in the French Revolution.

Church politics fare no better. There is no longer even a readily identifiable, cohesive collectivity that can be designated as “the Catholics.” What William Bentley Ball, a constitutional lawyer, had to say at that conference about the character and scholarship of modern justices applies equally to that of our higher clergy:

If you compare the opinions of most of the justices of today with those of the great jurists of a century and a half—or even a century—ago, the diminution in learning and in quality of expression is startling.

Our bishops—the upper shepherdom in its entirety—are political creatures no less than certain of our justices. Ball’s judgment on the reasoning of the courts two-plus decades ago fits the thinking and enunciation of the current pontificate:

It is not surprising, then, that we get some opinions from the High Court which are, at worst, unreadable or at best the kind of banal attempts at noble expression which political speech writers purvey.

Substitute the phrase indissolubility of marriage for abortion in the following remark and it applies nicely to the latest papal exhortation, The Joy of Love (a wince-inducing title that really needs its Latin label Amoris Laetitia):

In some decisions of the Supreme Court—notably in reference to abortion—we are being paved over with non-sequiturs, missing premises, imponderable language, failure to know that a thing cannot at the same time be true and not true.

Some twenty four years later, Ball’s words are more poignant now than when they were written:

In the face of the now intense cultural (essentially religious) crisis, the leaders of the Church must insist on doctrinal fidelity, must by public action expose as un-Catholic those politicians who scandalize the faithful by public denials of their Church’s teachings, and must decide whether they prefer the solidarity and unity of the Catholic people to the allowing of further destabilizing changes in the liturgy and religious practice. It is surely time for a moratorium on change, for a cessation of lingual perfectionism which, for many, lifts the anchors of the known and believed—and sets convictions afloat in a sea of uncertainty.

Noting the way things were headed at the time his paper was delivered, Ball offered no reassurance. He could only close with a phrase from Psalm 41, remembered from his boyhood:

Spera in Deo, quoniam adhuc confitebor illi: salutare vultus mei, et Deus meus.

Hope in God, for I will give praise to Him, the salvation of my countenance and my God.

James Hitchcock submitted an essay “Catholics in the Public Square: Issues for the 1990s.” The crux of it is here:

In countless ways [since the 1960s] American Catholics have been encouraged by their national leaders to view the world through the glasses of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

If the legacy of the Kennedy years has made liberal ideology seem irresistibly glamorous to many assimilated Catholics, the stance of the national Church leadership has made that ideology seem also like the genuine expression of Catholic thought . . . .

The political role of the Church is thus reduced to that of a cheering section for movement virtually all of which have originated elsewhere, from secular roots, which depend mainly on secular movement for their strength and energy . . . . All but the most fanatical secularists are willing to accept a Church which plays this role.

This little book tells us as much about ourselves as about the inevitability of the current pontificate.