If Blessed John Henry Newman is correct that the great defining principle of Catholicism is the Incarnation, the embodiment of God – and we think it is – then it follows that the Church cannot sequester itself from the world of the body politic. We use the word “politic” judiciously – in distinction from “politics.” In common English we do not so readily discern the distinction that Europeans, for example, might draw between the arena of political activity (“la politica”) and that kind of “politics” we are accustomed to experience as bitterly partisan. Hence, the importance of refection and, consequently, constructive action by the Church in the world of politics is often dismissively short-changed by appeals to separation of church and state, as if faith were alien to reason, and religion had nothing to do with public policy.
Our stance on the great humanitarian issues of our time – the unalienable value of human life, war, racism, migration and freedom of conscience – is as key to our Catholic identity as to what we call the American Way. Incarnationally speaking, everything that touches humanity touches God.
The call to faithful citizenship is at the heart of the Church’s mission. The upcoming Catholic Social Ministry Gathering will pursue this as Catholic social ministry leaders assemble in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12-15, not only to discuss issues but also to visit representatives of Congress and present proposals and concerns about policies affecting the most vulnerable people in the U.S. and around the world.
It is a strange and twisted logic that reaches for the funding of programs or procedures designed to deny access to the human family in the name of so-called reproductive rights, which is often just a code for abortion. Such is the broad scope of the Jan. 20, 2012, HHS ruling that goes well beyond the constitutional limits that the Supreme Court has thus far drawn on such funding. Access to abortion, according to the court, does not include a right to receive public funding for it. Yet we now have an administrative order – not even a law subject to public argument – forcing employers to pay for drugs and other procedures abhorrent to their consciences, which will include sterilization and – lest we be appeased by the broad category of mere “contraceptives” – aborting babies. In the face of this we must stand up for the value of human life and freedom of conscience both as Church and as good citizens.
Some may find in this a confrontational stance against the current administration and, therefore, “political” in the narrow sense. But given the clear and carefully reasoned positions that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken over the decades on so many issues, such as immigration, war and health care (to name a few), it would be quite strained to assign any consistently partisan alliance. Without doubt, these stances will have certain political consequences as any effective attempts to protect human rights may, especially when there is resistance to them for any reason. Placing the good of the country over partisan concerns, however, has long been a respected principle of good citizenship. Above all, the good of our country demands the protection of our most vulnerable lives.
It is not inconceivable that, had the administration been more patient, some common ground could have been reached that at once protects the rights to life and conscience while balancing other competing interests asserted in the name of liberty, as E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post Writers Group laments. Dionne is no right-winger. With great reluctance, he appears to fault team Obama more for bad politics than for bad principle. In this case, however, what may be bad politics in the narrower sense of the term, is also bad for the body politic, in the most fundamental sense. Undermining freedom of conscience and the protection of life is no way to preserve the foundations of a free and just society. It is a short route for leading the country to chaos.