Politicians and Catholic teaching
Sir, – My colleague Patrick Hannon poses the question: if “Judge Amy Coney Barrett seems acceptable to some Catholic bishops, why not Joe Biden?” (“Why would voting Biden not fall in line with Catholic teaching?”, Rite & Reason, October 27th).
According to Prof Hannon, Mr Biden would be simply following the precedent set by John F Kennedy, who like Justice Coney Barrett, likewise “distinguished between his personal beliefs and his responsibility under the constitution”.
Ignoring the massive anti-Catholic propaganda Kennedy had to face which forced him to make such a distinction, what weight has this precedent for Catholics such as Mr Biden? The short answer is: none.
Pope John Paul II rejected the proposal that a “politician, in his or her activity, should clearly separate the realm of private conscience from that of public conduct” (Evangelium Vitae, 69). He described it as a form of moral relativism, which is based on the denial of intrinsically wrong acts. “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it” (Evangelium Vitae, 73).
The basic error, it seems to me, is the assumption that moral issues like abortion belong to the sphere of what my colleague calls “personal moral convictions” or “personal beliefs”, reducing them in effect to private opinions.
But abortion and euthanasia are not specific Catholic beliefs (that is, matters of faith); they are universal, absolute moral norms which forbid intrinsically wrong acts – irrespective of one’s religious beliefs. (On intrinsically wrong acts and the kind of moral theology that denies them, proportionalism, see Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 209, 210). These absolute moral norms are defended by the church because they are part of the moral order that is written into our very beings as human.
As Vatican II teaches: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia […], the selling of women and children […]; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator” (Gaudium et Spes, 27).
In sum, the claim that it is permissible for a politician to be personally opposed to some actions, but supportive of laws that permit them, does not stand up to scrutiny. For example, it is not convincing to say that I personally oppose police brutality or the exploitation of workers, but I will not oppose legislation that would permit them in exceptional circumstances. – Yours, etc,
of Moral Theology,
St Patrick’s College,