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Religious 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 abortion.

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 legislation.”

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 origin.

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.

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