Politicians can't ignore their faith


Yesterday's Vatican document on the obligation of Catholic politicians to oppose legal recognition of homosexual unions can be summarized in one sentence: You can't believe two contradictory things at the same time.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The teaching of the Catholic Church — along with the unanimous moral tradition taught for millennia by all major religions — is unquestionably clear. Homosexual acts are immoral, and therefore, as yesterday's document stated, cannot be recognized as the basis for "marriage, which is holy." Anyone who believes this — and faithful Catholics presumably do — therefore cannot be part of an effort to promote legal approbation of homosexual unions.

Many Catholic politicians in Canada are doing just that — including the Prime Minister, his presumptive successor and the Justice Minister. They have explained that their legislative views and their religious faith are two separate things.

Two questions arise: Is this approach in fact possible? And is it morally coherent? The Church — and basic logic — answer no to both.

Is it possible to separate one's legislative views from one's religious faith? Take the venerable Tommy Douglas for example. A Christian clergyman and founder of the CCF (forerunner of today's NDP), his religious faith was the principal animating factor of his political campaigns for an expanded welfare state. Was he imposing his religious faith on others by voting for health care or social assistance programs? To have told Tommy Douglas to separate his religious faith from his political program would have struck him as absurd. The same would apply to innumerable campaigns for human rights or social justice that were animated by religious faith — suffice it to mention the celebrated anti-slavery campaign of William Wilberforce in 19th-century Britain.

More fundamentally, if a politician is a serious person, his religious faith will inform his entire worldview. How exactly does he then separate this from his public policy decisions? Would it be possible for an MP to separate his biblically motivated concern for the stewardship of creation from his vote on an environmental bill? And if he were to somehow ignore his convictions on those things most important to him, what basis would there be for a decision? To remove religiously grounded convictions from policy-making is to move a giant step toward raw political power as the only determinant of public policy.

Despite that danger, that approach is advocated by many Catholic politicians in different political parties. Can one do so and remain morally coherent?

The Vatican document said that "the scope of the civil law is certainly more limited than the moral law." A Catholic is obligated to attend Mass every Sunday; the civil law does not address such questions. So not every religious prescription should be written into law. There are religious matters on which the civil law is and should remain silent. The Apostles Creed should not be in the Constitution.

Yet what happens when the civil law is in conflict with the moral law? Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, gave the ancient answer a modern voice. He was encouraging white pastors to give political expression to the Christian brotherhood they professed in faith. A politician cannot profess something as wrong according to his conscience, and then promote it in his legislative acts. To do so is simply to say that he is both in favour and against the same thing at the same time. It is morally incoherent. In contrast, the Vatican document reminds Christians that they are obligated "in every occasion, [to] give witness to the whole moral truth."

The Vatican's document has been widely described as a "directive" to Catholic politicians. And while the Vatican does issue what it calls "Instructions" from time to time, yesterday's document bore the more unusual title "Considerations." It would be patronizing to "instruct" Catholics to not act in self-contradictory ways; instead Catholic politicians are invited to "consider" what it means for their own integrity to drive a wedge between their beliefs and their acts. The Church respects the political vocation too much to accept the moral dodge that beliefs are "personal" while legislation is "public." All human acts are personal and therefore bear moral scrutiny. The only thing which a politician can separate himself from by such formulations is his personal integrity.

The Catholic temptation to adjust one's moral compass to the prevailing political conditions is an ancient one. Often the cost of integrity has been martyrdom. It is the courageous choice always available to the honest believer. And a choice always has to be made — between what one professes to be true and what the demands of a particular political situation may be. Yesterday's Vatican document clarifies — as have Canada's Catholic bishops over the past weeks — that you can't choose contradictory things at the same time. Something has to give.

A Post headline writer summarized the situation yesterday: Martin Puts His Faith Second. Just so.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Politicians can't ignore their faith." National Post, (Canada) September 19, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2003 National Post

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