Mitt Romney’s recent vote to convict President Donald Trump following the impeachment trial in the Senate created a huge uproar among politicos, but particularly Republicans, many of whom were outraged. When someone bucks his party and votes outside the group, backlash is a typical reaction. And that is why few politicians vote very often in opposition to their party’s line. It is just easier and usually more politically astute to vote with your party, lest one lose his/her committee appointment, chairmanship, preferred office space, or future dollars needed for the next election. No, the vitriol Romney faces is not all that surprising among hard-line party members, especially secular ones.
Catholics Question Romney’s Motives
What I did find surprising, however, was the harsh backlash from many considered to be devout Catholics, including Catholic clergy. A few examples from social media the day of the vote: One Catholic layman stated, “So Romney was turned down by Trump for a cabinet position, proves he ran for the Senate to take down Trump. Pathetically petty.” A deacon wrote, “I accidentally watched Mitt Romney give his speech. Pathetic. Justifying the unjustifiable using God & conscience as justification.” A second deacon wrote, “I used to like Mitt Romney, less so over the last few years, but now I see him as a very little man, petty, resentful, vindictive, and small. So many more thoughts…..unauthentic, and the rest I will refrain from sharing.” A priest wrote, “Please pray for Mitt Romney. A heart filled with vengeance can carry a person into very dark places. Lord, please heal him.”
Those are some of the more tame examples available of the many pretty serious judgements of Romney’s heart and intentions. And to a man, I know them all to be good, holy men. They just reacted emotionally to a political disappointment, which we are all prone to do from time to time. The comments, though, are pretty good examples of rash judgment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, warns us against such judgements:
To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved (CCC 2748).
Why Did Romney Cast a Vote to Convict?
Mitt Romney is not Catholic, of course, but he considers himself, as do his peers, a man of devout Mormon faith. It was his deep Mormon faith, he claims, that led him to follow his conscience and vote to convict the president. Now, one can disagree with Senator Romney’s conclusions about the evidence, certainly. We can be quick to judge his heart and intentions as in the four examples above. And we can think, as some allege, he perhaps let a sour relationship with the president cloud his judgement. Or we can think he just misunderstood the evidence and drew the wrong conclusions. I choose to believe Senator Romney failed to properly view the evidence and was thus led to the wrong conclusions, and then the wrong vote. But where so many Catholics – and there are many, many more than the examples above – make a mistake is casting aspersions toward the senator for having cast his vote for any other reason than what he stated, which was:
I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the President, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong… my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.
That many Catholics would simultaneously state that the case against the president could not lead to a conviction because the provable evidence – essentially what was in the president’s mind – was nonexistent, while claiming to know what was in Romney’s head when he cast his vote, seems both ironic, and a bit hypocritical. Unless we can prove otherwise, we should take the senator at his word, as many of us did the president’s.
The Catechism on Conscience
Catholics should be very careful about criticizing a person who follows his/her conscience when making a decision. As the Catechism states:
Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law (CCC 1778).
It goes on to say:
Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters (CCC 1782).
With regard to how to have an informed conscience, the Catechism states:
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.
The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.
In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church (CCC 1783-1785).
I realize that the above information is not discussed much, but the message is crystal clear; one must act within one’s informed conscience, provided that act is not in opposition to Christ and His Church’s teachings. How can we assess how well another’s conscience might be informed? One’s faith is an indicator, of course, but without truly knowing a person, and their lifelong formation, it is hard to nail down a definitive answer. And too often, we tend to think merely disagreeing with another person means their conscience must not be informed. But perhaps it often it is our own that might be out of line, particularly when we subordinate our faith – willfully or otherwise – to politics, and our emotional reactions to political actions, as many public Catholics seem to do.
None of us can know for sure what was in President Trump’s head while the money was delayed. It is clear to many, including me, that the case against the president was flawed and unproven. So too is it clear to me that the allegations about what was in Senator Romney’s mind and heart are also flawed and unproven. Speculation is a dangerous thing, can ruin reputations, and can lead to putting ourselves in a state of sin. We Catholics are called to avoid rash judgement, tale-bearing, calumny, and detraction – all sins against the Eighth Commandment, according to the Catechism. Social media is a tempting beast, where we think we can speak as we please. The question is not can we, but should we? As Proverb 21:23 states, “He that keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his soul from distress.” I think in the internet age, we can apply that to our fingers as well.
Did He or Didn’t He?
I think it is clear from Catholic teaching that we should always accept at face value, in the absence of proof otherwise, a proclamation by someone when they claim that they acted based on their conscience – even if of another faith, and even when we disagree with the result. We do not have to like the choices, nor even the person, but we are still called to love them and not judge their hearts, minds, and intentions. Did Senator Romney make the wrong decision? With regard to his vote, I indeed think so. And as far as acting on what his conscience advised? As a huge fan of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, both of whom steadfastly followed theirs to violent ends, I think not. Senator Romney said he did what he thought was right, and this Catholic respects his exercise of conscience, even if not the political result.