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Co-responsibility for public policy  


January 14, 2004

Clarion Herald

New Orleans

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 inevitable.

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.

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 •