Co-responsibility for public policy
By ARCHBISHOP ALFRED C. HUGHES
January 14, 2004
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that all Catholics have a
personal responsibility to participate in promoting the common good in
accordance with their vocation in life. Those holding public office have a
special responsibility. The goal of this participation is to help shape a public
policy that is in conformity as much as possible with the law rooted in our
nature that governs us all, no matter what our religious belief. Thus, they are
called to try to ensure that the laws that govern us protect human life, respect
the human person, preserve the unique nature of marriage, support family, ensure
the safety of children, guarantee religious freedom and make it possible for all
citizens to share in the conditions that are necessary for human living.
But Catholics also experience a certain freedom in developing legislation
that is, as much as possible, in conformity with the natural law. There can be
different strategies for realizing fundamental values. There are going to be
differences in the application of the basic principles of political theory.
Sometimes the technical complexity of issues makes diverse human judgments
What, then, is the responsibility of Catholic public officials to translate
their moral convictions on the life issues into public policy? Let us first
address those issues that admit of no exceptions: abortion, physician-assisted
suicide, homicide, the destruction of human embryos in artificial fertilization,
stem cell research and cloning. In each of these, the issues are clear-cut. We
cannot do what is wrong even for good purposes.
SOMETIMES public officials have to make a prudential judgment that at a given
time in human history, only imperfect legislation is possible. If the intent of
this effort is to limit the evil as much as possible, no other approach to
legislation seems feasible and the legislation does not eliminate the
possibility of introducing more restrictive laws in a more favorable political
climate, it is legitimate for public officials to support such legislation. It
is always important, however, that such public officials are publicly on record
in support of legislation which is committed to the truth about the fullness of
respect for human life.
Other life issues call for the exercise of prudential judgments in human
situations. For instance, a pastoral judgment needs to be made whether in a
particular instance capital punishment is morally justifiable. Our Holy Father
and the United States Bishops have cautioned that in their judgment the
situations that justify capital punishment are severely limited, if not
non-existent. Another example is that with regard to war. The Church teaches
that war needs to be a last resort and that very specific conditions need to be
fulfilled. The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" indicates that the
responsibility to make such decisions about war weighs heavily upon those who
have the responsibility for the common good (cf. CCC, 2309).
In the other life issues, it is always important to witness to what is
morally correct. At the same time, we preserve the rightful freedom of
individuals to make prudential judgments about the use of extraordinary means to
prolong life when a person is terminally ill. In the area of artificial
contraception, it may not be realistic to try to adopt legislation to make it
illegal, but it is certainly possible to work for legislation to ensure the
rightful freedom of conscience for medical workers, health care facilities and
pharmacists to abide by their moral convictions and to protect citizens from
having to pay for the provision of contraceptive services to others. When it
comes to ensuring the rights of the poor, there will inevitably be conflicting
strategies. It is the responsibility of public officials to devise and support
those strategies that most fulfill responsibility to ensure that all people have
access to the basic necessities of life.
A recent Vatican document, "A Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the
Participation of Catholics in Political Life," offers valuable guidance in the
above issues for public figures. This document does not propose a Catholic
agenda, but clarifies for Catholics those truths that are rooted in nature. The
Louisiana bishops are sending a copy of this document to each of our elected
Catholic public officials in Baton Rouge and Washington. When Catholic officials
openly support the taking of human life in abortion, euthanasia or the
destruction of human embryos, they are no longer faithful members in the Church
and should not partake of Holy Communion. Moreover, citizens who promote this
unjust taking of human life by their vote or support of such candidates share in
responsibility for this grave evil.
Public discourse needs to be marked by civility. We need courage and honesty
to speak the truth about human life. We need humility to listen to both friend
and opponent. We need perseverance to continue the struggle for the protection
of human life. We need prudence to know when and how to act in the public arena.
God grant us all the wisdom and courage only he can give.