Politicians and Catholic teaching


Sir, – D Vincent Twomey (Letters, November 3rd), commenting upon my Rite and Reason piece (“Why would voting Biden not fall in line with Catholic teaching?”, Rite & Reason, October 27th), writes: “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.”

I presume that his personal moral convictions, like mine, include considering immoral the actions specified in the list he quotes from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes – that is, violations of the moral law, “such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, [etc]”. So, how can it be true that to say that something is a matter of personal moral conviction is to “reduce” it to the realm of private opinion? In any case such an “assumption” plays no part in the argument I sketch in Rite & Reason.

What may be a matter of opinion, though, is how moral values are best reflected in the law. This is a question for every citizen, and it is the particular care of a lawmaker, who will need to consider how all the values are best served in all the circumstances of time and place. Dr Twomey notes that “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’”. Yes, but that isn’t to deny that a conscientious judgment as to what the law should be is often more complex than a judgment about the morality of an action or omission or state of affairs.

This is recognised later in one of the paragraphs of Evangelium vitae from which Vincent Twomey quotes: “. . . when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality”.

Who is to say that, mutatis mutandis, considerations of this kind don’t apply in Joe Biden’s situation?



Emeritus Professor

of Moral Theology,

St Patrick’s College,


Co Kildare.

Sir, – The logical outcome of all Catholic politicians following Catholic teaching in their political lives is a theocracy – and we have been down that road already. John A Costello proposed in 1948 to the pope to “repose at the feet of Your Holiness” the loyalty of the Irish people. Seán MacBride said in the Dáil, “all of us in the government who are Catholics, are, as such of course, bound to give obedience to the rulings of our church and our hierarchy”.

This theocratic Ireland was characterised by poverty, emigration, censorship, ignorance and unspeakable cruelty to women and children in institutions funded by the State and run principally, and generally unaccountably, by the Catholic Church.

However, since those unhappy days, the people of Ireland have separated their religious views from their views on how society should be run.

Fr Twomey writes, “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”. It would be a brave politician indeed who would now stand for election on a platform of traditional Catholic values and propose to reintroduce the ban on contraception, outlaw divorce, and recriminalise same-sex relationships and unrepeal the Eighth Amendment, because none of these laws, Fr Twomey implies, could be supported by our good Catholic politician. Whatever about abortion, I cannot imagine any Catholic politician campaigning to row back on the other issues.

Perhaps Enda Kenny spoke for all politicians when, under veiled threats of excommunication for drafting laws covering abortion in 2013, he said. “My book is the Constitution ... That’s the people’s book and we live in a republic and I have a duty and responsibility, as head of government, to legislate in respect of what the people’s wishes are”. In response to the threat of excommunication from the Catholic Church, he said: “I have my own way of speaking to my God.” – Yours, etc,



Co Dublin.

Sir, – Prof D Vincent Twomey is insistent that moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia are “intrinsically wrong acts” and should be opposed on the basis of “universal” and “absolute” moral principles that are not entirely dependent on Catholic doctrine.

If moral norms are universal, then why does Prof Twomey refer only to papal documents while ignoring secular sources such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee or Amnesty International? These organisations have expressed opinions contrary to that of the Catholic hierarchy on the issue of abortion, for example.

Of greater significance is the fact that the majority of Irish Catholics disagree with moral pronouncements from the institutional church on a range of moral issues, such as contraception, divorce, and marriage equality.

It seems therefore that complex moral issues are best addressed by the concept of competing rights rather than absolute moral norms. In the case of abortion, for example, this approach to moral decision-making was adopted when the Irish electorate voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, thus rebalancing the rights of mothers and unborn human life. – Yours, etc,



Co Cork.