Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi has made a fool of herself again in public but just in time, she gives relevance to this article that I have been working on. Do those politicians really have any idea what they are talking about? They claim that their Catholicism is firm, but find it inappropriate to “impose” it on others. They take an active public role that requires them to support the exact opposite basic moral teaching, and — impose it on others.
Are they just crossing their fingers behind their back like a child playing a game? I think that they have talked themselves into believing that this kind of public position can be reasonable. How did this peculiar nonsensical attitude come about?
I am referring to the more visible and persistent ones like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Joe Biden, Terry McAuliffe former DNC Chairman, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, New York governor Andrew Cuomo…do I have room to continue the list? Pelosi is a special case in that she seems want to revive the old structure that existed during the breakup of the Roman Empire and update it to Princess-bishopric with her “Catholic friends”. It smacks of the later Reformation except the difference is that she supports contra-faith beliefs and Martin Luther objected to them. Biden has indicated that he has pursued a political career keeping his Catholicism [God’s truth] out of it.
I have managed to live a reasonably long life (thank you Lord) and have successfully supported a family and nursed a wife through illness. Retirement income and being reasonably free of illness myself (thank you Lord) has allowed me shift my thinking from mostly survival mode to a more luxurious contemplation mode. In this mode, a person begins to wonder about some of the things he heard in his lifetime, but did not really fully comprehend. Strange sounding ideas coming from adult leaders of our society. So many strange sounding ideas in almost three quarters of a century.
Well it is time to try and understand this one:
Being Catholic and NOT being Catholic at the same time.
Probably the best sources for some understanding would be the sources of authority in politics often referred to for this strange phenomenon, the late Senator Ted Kennedy and his brother fondly known as JFK (John F. Kennedy).
I meet Ted Kennedy briefly years ago when he and his first wife, Joan, were given a tour of the Peace Corps camp Crozier in Puerto Rico. This was 1962 and I was training for a school building project in Gabon, West Africa. He had just been elected to fill his brother’s vacated senate seat, then president John F. Kennedy, in a special election after two years of an appointed “seat warmer” Benjamin A. Smith II. It was necessary to use Mr. Smith strategically because Ted Kennedy was not yet old enough to run.
I recall that there was something unsettling about Kennedy in person. He did not seem to be exceptional and I felt that it was not quite right to run American politics as a family business. Often party and name takes precedence, as George Cabot Lodge II (Republican, also a family carry forward) came the closest to beating Ted Kennedy for this seat.
Ted Kennedy is gone now after a long career in federal government service. I was not a fan of his as you have read, I did however especially admire his brother-in-law Sargent Schriver the first Peace Corps Director, whom I was provilaged to meet and talk with. Shriver was, according to a son, a daily Catholic Mass attendee even when traveling. The three Kennedy brothers (to include Robert F. Kennedy) and Schriver had a strong influence on American life. They are remembered still in recent American history (after JFK’s congressional and senate career) from his presidential win in 1960 to the present day. JFK’s time as president had many good features and I am only concentrating on his Catholicism here as it pertains to politics.
JFK’s Famous Speech.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference……….. where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind………Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
(John F. Kennedy, Speech to Greater Houston Ministerial Association, 1960 – bold added to text, selected portions of speech shown)
This speech of John Kennedy appeased those who were afraid of direct involvement in American politics by the Vatican. How he would be an employee of the pope who would call John directly about some passport problem or lack of FBI interest in enforcement of some aspect of Canon law, and John would fix it. Of course this kind of allegiance means that the Protestant ministers of the South would probably have had to leave a message with the White House operator.
But, this speech leaves one wondering exactly what he meant or even if he knew more fully what he was saying. What I think he said is this, His conscience will guide him and if it differs from Church teaching he will disregard that teaching. Was he saying that his conscience was not formed by Catholic teaching? On what magnitude or importance of a problem would he disregard Church teaching? Everything? In other words was he declaring that he would, if elected, ignore God’s law substituting secular thinking and thus lead a large population to ignore the lesson of Genesis 3?
He did not approve of religious groups voting as a block. So what about political groups or blocks? Political party leaders and the numerous special interest group lobbyists in Washington can be allowed to pressure anyone. It is not block action or influence he did not like, it was from a particular group.
So that leaves the question, how does he justify ignoring God’s will and then claiming to want to follow his will by calling himself Catholic? This is an understandable state of human existence when we look to our own lives. We all must examine our consciences and reconcile ourselves to God. But, what we are understanding here is a rule or an accepted behavior being proposed, not a failure to abide. Isn’t what he was saying the same as, I am Catholic when I want to be, and that is acceptable behavior? What about non-negotiable issues? Does this just mean that whatever religious affiliation may have shaped your life, gave it meaning and clarity, doesn’t matter in order to get elected? Or is it true that there is no pretense at all.
Maybe Ted Kennedy Can Help Us Understand Better.
Ted Kennedy gives us some insight into this quandary by trying to fill in some detail. In 1983 (erroneously when last checked attributed to 1969 here) he gave a speech at Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College regarding religion and politics in America. This speech tries to give a more detailed reasoning in order to ease the conscience of those who wish to trade their religious dogma for a political career.
President Kennedy, who said that “no religious body should seek to impose its will,” also urged religious leaders to state their views and give their commitment when the public debate involved ethical issues. In drawing the line between imposed will and essential witness, we keep church and state separate, and at the same time we recognize that the City of God should speak to the civic duties of men and women.
So, exactly how “imposed will” works in politics I can only guess means the imposition of law as opposed to “witness”, which means just speaking about an issue. If this is so, we are left with not only a Church but religious individuals who are restricted to wanting a law dealing with a moral issue but can’t say so. For example: We can speak about the misery that rape causes but we would be restricted from declaring support for a law against rape! Absurd.
The real transgression occurs when religion wants government to tell citizens how to live uniquely personal parts of their lives. The failure of Prohibition proves the futility of such an attempt when a majority or even a substantial minority happens to disagree. Some questions may be inherently individual ones, or people may be sharply divided about whether they are. In such cases, like Prohibition and abortion, the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual, not the coercive power of the state. But there are other questions which are inherently public in nature, which we must decide together as a nation, and where religion and religious values can and should speak to our common conscience. The issue of nuclear war is a compelling example. It is a moral issue; it will be decided by government, not by each individual; and to give any effect to the moral values of their creed, people of faith must speak directly about public policy.
Now Do We Understand?
We have now some understanding of how the Kennedy approach works, you define those things which you consider have to do with the individual only, and declare those things off limits to governmental action – hence you as a government official have no right to interfere regardless of your religions teachings.
Sounds nice and neat until we realize that the declaration that an issue is “uniquely personal” can be faulty according to a person’s faith teaching or any other source of moral understanding. Such is the case with abortion. It is very clear in Catholic teaching that an unborn is a human person that has a right to life, it was clear in 1960 and 1983.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church or CCC)
1959 The natural law, the Creator’s very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature.
1960 The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known “by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.”The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit.
In the speech, Ted Kennedy also tried to provide a set of four rules for determining when it is proper to apply a conscience formed by religious values. This attempt to legislate outside of the legislature, or simply moralize, put Mr. Kennedy in the position of trying to redefine the role of the Church in American life. He also seemed to be creating rules that only apply to religion, it is unclear that if a lawmaker was in favor of Prohibition and was not religious or could have been an atheist, if it would be alright to support Prohibition because he wanted to stop drunkenness and the harm it causes to innocent people.
In the first rule, he cautioned people when speaking from religions authority (such as the Bible), that a person interpret correctly, and gives some examples of his interpretation as a guide to correctness. He proceeded to define what is an acceptable name to give to a religious organization and then he self-righteously warned against being self-righteous.
Second, he says that honest conviction is the only justification a person needs in order to legitimately disagree with the Catholic Church. Of course the Church has a different teaching on this:
CCC 88 – The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.
Third, he did not like phantom issues or false charges and he would let us know which was which. Apparently this test was ignored in later election campaigns by most politicians, presumably because it was meant only for religious people.
Fourth, with some justification I think he said we must respect the motives of those who disagree. This advice has also generally been disregarded in later election campaigns as it was in 1983 during the presidencyor Ronald Reagan.
What Have We Learned?
So, I come away from these explanations for a wall of separation between the Catholic life and the rest of the world unconvinced that they are meaningful rules at all! I see those speeches as just generalized appeasement nonsense for political ends that has soaked into the American consciences to her detriment.
I do however like at least one sentence of Ted Kennedy’s speech were he said, “Separation of church and state cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power.” Did either of them really need to say anything more?
This Man Said It Best of All.
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. (George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796)
© 2013. Howard Duncan. All Rights Reserved.