Friday, January 19, 2007

Politicians and Morality

Recently, Nancy Pelosi, a member of the Democratic party from San Francisco, was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. This position makes her a very influential politician. During the course of her taking office she made much of her "Catholic" roots and described herself as a "devout" Catholic. As part of her celebration of taking office she attended mass at a Catholic university. What made some conservative Catholic observers angry was the fact that Nancy Pelosi has a public voting record regarding the issue of abortion that is almost perfectly opposed to that of the Catholic church. These Catholic observers seem to feel that it is the duty of the local bishop (in this case the archbishop of Washington) to publicly admonish Pelosi and perhaps to ban her from public participation in the Eucharist.
What's going on here? Some people argue that if the archbishop does not take action he only encourages everyday Catholics to also ignore Catholic moral teaching regarding abortion and other matters. Conservatives disparage what they call "cafeteria catholics." These are (in their view) Catholics who "pick and choose" what they will believe. The result, say the critics, is a group of Catholics whose faith does not mean much to them and consequently is easily ignored. These conservative Catholics would like to see the "cafeteria" catholics out of the church (whatever that means). They would like to seek a Catholic church that might be smaller in numbers but would also be a church that has clear beliefs and a moral code that is practiced by all. Such a church, the conservatives feel, would be a church that present an effective message of evangelization to the rest of the world.
What do I think? It seems to me that the issue is more complicated than the conservatives believe. The issue of abortion is very polarizing. The notion that a bishop could dictate to a catholic politician regarding any issue could be a problem. John F. Kennedy handled the allegation of Rome's control over him by essentially introducing the idea that his private religious life and beliefs were separate from his political duties. This has been expressed recently as, "I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don't feel I have the right to impose my personal views on others." I myself think that this notion that a politician can have a private moral stance at odds with their public voting record is just a way of avoiding the issue. Still, since we are dealing with the conscience of an individual we have to be careful about public condemnations of their positions. Perhaps the Archbishop has chosen to deal with Pelosi by speaking with her privately. We don't know. Perhaps the Archbishop feels that Pelosi (with her flaws regarding abortion) is still capable of doing good things regarding other issues on the minds of Catholics. We don't know.
Conservatives, on the issue of abortion, as on other issues, have an important prophetic role to play in the Church today. We always need to be reminded of the importance of faithfulness to the traditions of our Church. Conservatives also need to be careful. Sometimes the more extreme conservatives sound a bit like the pharisees in the gospel. Their condemnations of others who they consider less "pure" than themselves seem to lack the charity we associate with Jesus. When a prophet becomes a pharisee their importance to the faith of the Church diminishes considerably.

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