Convictions and Public Policy
Archbishop Henry J.
Mansell - Diocese of Hartford, CT
The Catholic Transcript - June Issue, 2004
In recent weeks heightened attention has focused on
situations where holders of public office who claim to be Catholic support
positions in public policy which are contrary to Catholic teaching.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has
appointed a task force to study this matter further. The task force has not yet
made its report but when it does, discussion certainly will be intensified. I do
not mean to anticipate that report, but rather to offer some reflections on the
situation at this point.
As various bishops have made public statements lately, it has
been interesting to note the reactions of some politicians. The tone in a number
of instances has been hostile, challenging the bishops’ right to speak out.
Emotions have run high on antagonism and animosity, while the remarks themselves
have been fairly shallow in content: “The bishops should respect the separation
of church and state . . . the bishops should stay out of public policy . . . the
bishops should confine themselves to church matters, etc.”
How many politicians continue to recite the mantra on
abortion, “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I will not impose my views
on others.” I would like to raise a question which seems rarely to be addressed:
“Why are they personally opposed to abortion?” If they are opposed because
abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, then the stakes are raised
considerably. If they really believe that, they have the responsibility to take
steps to protect, support, and promote that human life. With all of the rancor
that has been vented recently, I have heard little of the remorse or regret that
should attend the tension between personal opposition to and public support for
The advances in technology and specifically in sonar imaging
should make that tension all the more unsettling and uncomfortable.
The teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion has been
constant, going back to the first century Didache, “You should not kill the
embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” As the Catechism
of the Catholic Church states, “The inalienable right to life of every innocent
human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its
Church teaching, therefore, is clear, but we are involved
here with more than Church teaching. The taking of an innocent human life is a
violation of the natural law. The right to life does not represent a concession
made by society and the state. It belongs to human nature and is inherent in the
person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his or her
We speak about natural law, but another issue of concern
arises when people say that religious convictions should not influence political
positions. Yet our foundational document, the Declaration of Independence,
states that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,
and that among those are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. That is a religious conviction.
When we ask public officials to leave their religious
convictions at the door, are we not depriving them of what is foundational in
their existential makeup? Are we not asking them to be fundamentally
schizophrenic? Are not our religious convictions basic to our identity?
How many political leaders serve in public office precisely
because of religious convictions to promote the commonweal? Where would the
civil rights legislation of the 1960s be without the religious convictions which
inspired and promoted it?
I have focused on the abortion issue here because it is
radical. The Catholic Church promotes reverence for the whole continuum of human
life, from conception to natural death. We provide all sorts of services and
advocate on any number of issues to foster human life. We are the last people
who can be labeled “one issue.” (It is interesting to note how often those who
apply that charge to us maintain that across-the-board support for legalized
abortion is the litmus test for candidates for the United States Supreme Court.)
Life is the fundamental right, and the other rights proceed
from it. The right to privacy is critical, but it cannot be extended to taking
the life of an innocent human being.
The dialogue will continue. The foundations of our society
are at issue. It should be remembered that civilization enjoys its finest hours
when it is defending innocent human life in all its stages, particularly at its
weakest and most vulnerable.