A political examination of conscience

| Jason Adkins | October 7, 2015 | 7 Comments

Pope Francis’ recent speeches to Congress and to the United Nations were models of Church engagement in the public arena. By re-framing the task of politics and anchoring policy debates to the natural law, both messages were radical critiques of the prevailing culture of each institution and should serve as an examination of conscience for public officials at all levels of government.

Politics serves common good

From the beginning of his remarks to Congress, Pope Francis stressed that the task of politics is to serve the common good. This may seem obvious, but the reality is that modern political thought has often characterized politics as a battle for power.

For example, when one hears the word “politics,” the first thing that often comes to mind is elections, rather than a rational debate about how we order our lives as a community.

Pope Francis is reminding us of the classical vision of politics and the nobility of its task. Politics, as he has said, is one of the highest forms of charity because it serves the common good.

According to Pope Francis, we need public figures who have a spirit of openness and pragmatism, leaders who can put aside political ideology and the concerns of special interests to work for the well-being of everyone, and not just the well-being of donors, parties, interest groups or their own ambitions.

In other words, politics requires persons of virtue. Surely, this was the message the U.S. Congress needed to hear above all others.

Models of political virtue

Rather than speaking abstractly about the necessary virtues needed to renew American public life, Pope Francis highlighted the witness of four Americans who embody these virtues: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Pope Francis indicated that both Lincoln and Dr. King are models because they called on America to create “a new birth of freedom” for everyone and without exclusion.The ordered liberty for which they called is rooted in America’s founding principles, namely, that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Lincoln repeatedly stressed that the American experiment in self-government and ordered liberty was a proposition, not a fact, meaning that it had to constantly be proven true.

Dr. King reminded us in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that our measuring stick in this task of renewing the American experiment is the Bible and the natural law. Building on this theme in his speech to the U.N., Pope Francis stressed the importance of the natural law as the guiding principle of that body’s international development goals.

Paradoxically, Dorothy Day was cited by Pope Francis as a model of political virtue even though she rarely voted. She embodied the principle that politics is about civic friendship and showing solidarity with others, particularly the poor, rather than the power struggles of elites.

She calls us to encounter those at the margins and live among them. Rather than focus on top-down political schemes to change society, we must build a new society from the bottom up, starting with one’s own soul and then reaching out to the local community.

Finally, Pope Francis called attention to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose witness is a deep challenge to the noise and rancor that pollutes our daily environment, especially our political discourse.

In the quiet of the contemplative life we may, with Thomas Merton, discover the inner wellspring of grace to be people of peace — people who reach out across divides and overcome obstacles to bring reconciliation and dialogue. Such prayerful witnesses may forge new paths once thought unthinkable.

For those troubled by the Church’s presence in the public arena, Dr. King clarified that the church does not seek to run the state, but instead to be the conscience of the state.

Pope Francis’ political examination of conscience reminds us of the political virtues necessary for the challenges of today.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

Protect women: Support the licensing and inspection of Minnesota abortion facilities.

Call Governor Mark Dayton at 800-657-3717 and ask him to support HF 606/SF 616. Share this message:

  • Please support legislation HF 606/SF 616 to promote the health and safety of Minnesota women. Ensure abortion providers are following laws related to abortion and the disposition of fetal remains. This legislation applies similar, common-sense regulations to abortion facilities that other outpatient surgical centers must follow. Existing regulations are not enough.”
  • All abortion facilities should be held to the same basic standards of patient care as other facilities that perform outpatient surgery. The bill applies existing state licensing requirements for outpatient surgical centers to abortion facilities that perform 10 or more abortions per month, and authorizes the commissioner of health to perform inspections of abortion facilities (no more than two times per year).
  • The state already regulates facilities ranging from hotels and nursing homes to cosmetology salons and tattoo parlors. Why should women who are entering abortion facilities be excluded from the type of protection we offer women who are entering a nail salon?
  • Unsafe abortion facilities and unscrupulous abortionists have been discovered in numerous other states. Our state lacks the ability to determine if the same dangerous conditions are present in certain Minnesota facilities.
  • Ensure Minnesota abortion providers are not profiting from the sale of fetal tissue.

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Category: Faith in the Public Arena

  • Paula Ruddy

    Pope Francis offered a “radical critique” to the U.S. congress. Who offers a “radical critique” to the Roman Catholic Church? In my view, the church and the state can each contribute to keeping the other honest. But this only works if each has the humility to know they need critique, and each has respect for the other’s core values. The State’s core values of liberty and equality need much more respect from the Roman Catholic Church if the Church’s valuable contribution is to be heard. If Jason Adkins thinks of himself as “the conscience” of the Minnesota legislature, he should think again.

    • Charles C.

      Hello, Dear Paula,

      It’s a joy to see you again and to exchange
      thoughts on an important issue. (Even though I’m not completely clear
      what the issue is, in your mind.) I have even more difficulty because
      Mr. Adkins is a sort of “third party” to this conversation. It is
      difficult for me to discuss anything with Mr. Adkins, primarily because I
      am never sure whether I am hearing him, or someone that his position
      requires him to be. (And, to be honest, I am not in total agreement
      with his statements.)

      If you don’t mind, I’d like to approach this scattershot, and see if we have grounds for discussion.

      1.) I don’t believe the United States Political system, at any level, is in a position to offer any advice on achieving salvation, living a moral life, or preparing for judgment. On those subjects they have no expertise. They cannot even claim frequent success with issues which are, supposedly, within their area of expertise. I don’t want politicians to give a critique of anything to anybody.

      2.) The idea that the State’s core values include equality, is a very strange one indeed. America has equality as a value, but it’s relegated to a second place as it is very limited in it’s scope. America’s value of equality is a legal value only, and even then it’s narrow. Besides, it’s one of those words which gets thrown around for emotional value, and not because it conveys any meaning.

      Consider; blacks can vote, felons can’t, women can vote, illegal aliens can’t. Men can now marry men (sadly), but not if the man is their brother. Police, and even the Inspector General for the Department of Education, can carry automatic weapons, I can’t.

      And consider the other “equality” frequently being used now. It’s whatever you get whenever you get rid of “Inequality of Income.” rather than discuss it at length, that’s the kind of equality no one who has thought it through really wants.

      3.) Just as unlikely is receiving a useful lecture on “Liberty” from our politicians. I don’t think we need to discuss that, but I assure you that the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t the only ones being bound. Imagine if they tried to put up a lemonade stand in front of their building to raise money for legal fees, but didn’t have a food vending license.

      4.) I don’t think the Pope delivered a “radical critique” to the Congress or the UN. I’m not saying anything about his position, but if you want a radical critique of the UN, look to Netanyahu and the 44 seconds in which the world was, I hope, shamed into silence.

      5.) If the Catholic Church wore a football outfit while riding a unicycle, it couldn’t get respect, honesty, or a dialogue, with the State. It isn’t possible, and it isn’t scriptural.

      Besides, the State doesn’t want to listen to the Church. Abortion, Euthanasia, Same sex “marriages,” pick anything. It should be clear by now, that the only time the State listens to the Church is when it agrees with something the State wants to do anyway. When was the last time the Church hierarchy persuaded the State to do something it didn’t want to do? And all the Church can do is try to persuade. The State can jail dissidents, fine Churches, take Church property under eminent domain, pretty much anything it wants.

      6.) I don’t think Jason Adkins, or any sane person, wants to be seen as the conscience of this state’s legislature. Why would anyone want to be considered small and slimy?

      With respect,

  • Paula Ruddy

    Charles, your comment is a case in point. I am advocating for an ethic of citizenship in which Catholics respect the secular state and work with other citizens to create a just society. I think most of us do that. At times Church spokesmen use triumphal or disrespectful rhetoric that I think is counterproductive.
    To what or whom do you refer as “small and slimy”?

    • Charles C.

      Dear Paula,

      As strange as this may sound, I’m beginning to like you and the way you think. I never disliked you, but you’re looking more and more impressive.

      “Small and Slimy?” I meant the conscience of the Minnesota State Legislature, but throw the governor in as well, if you’d like, it makes a more complete picture.

      But to the substance of your message. I agree with you that Christians have (or should have) respect for the secular state. “Render unto Caesar . . .” That includes respect. The problem occurs when we ask what “respect” means. I don’t think it means obeying every law, whatever it says. The Constitution and our history tend to support that idea. It can sometimes be a tricky balance. That was made clear in the episode of the County Clerk and the marriage license applications. Was she morally right or wrong? Was she legally right or wrong? Which question is more important? How does “respect” even enter this, unless respect means something similar “to obey.”

      I don’t think that respect means that if the State says “Do X,” and the Church says “Don’t do X,” respect requires that we do what the state orders.

      The question of what type of language to use is also a tricky one. We have to start with the idea that, however we say it, what we say has to be the truth. For that, we go back to the Bible and the Church. The tone of voice may differ, but the message has to remain solid.

      Jesus was known as gentle at times, but he also condemned the money changers. When we ask “What would Jesus do,” we should remember that freaking out and flipping tables is a viable option. In Matthew, Jesus said: :
      “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” That sounds pretty condemning and disrespectful.

      I’m not sure what “triumphal” language is, but I’m all for the Church saying that it is the religion that Jesus founded, it contains the Truth in all fullness, is a sure and certain path to salvation, and it will not pass away. I think Catholics need to be reminded of that occasionally.

      The correct language to use may be dependent on several factors, but it must always be true, it must be clear, and it must be motivated by love for the person and the eternal soul to which it is directed.


    • dudleysharp

      I wish some Catholics would respect their own teachings.

      Pope Francis, US Congress & the Death Penalty

      Addressing the US Congress, Pope Francis did not give a speech against
      abortion, which the Catholic Church identifies as the intrinsic evil of
      murdering the innocent and which no Catholic may support and which occurs a
      million times a year in the US.

      The Pope did give a speech against the death penalty, which the Catholic
      Church identifies as a moral sanction, within 2000 years of Catholic teaching
      (1), with guilty murderers being executed about 38 times per year in the US, and
      a sanction that any good Catholic may, morally, support, today (1), and which
      support may extend to calling for more executions (1), with the rational,
      factual conclusion that innocents are more protected when the death penalty is
      retained and used (1), with the primary foundation of justice.

      With regard to some Catholic anti death penalty statements, Catholic
      theologian Steven Long places the arrow:

      ” . . . (it) is symptomatic of a society that can garner more support to
      spare the guilty than to save the innocent.”

      “The crowd still wants Barrabas.” (2).

      Archbishop Charles Chaput: “Both Scripture and long Christian tradition
      acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment . . . ” “The Church cannot
      repudiate (the death penalty) without repudiating her own identity.” (3)

      2015, Pope Francis calls for the end of capital punishment, in all cases,
      thereby, according to Chaput, disavowing the Church’s identity, as supported . .

      Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from
      involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth)
      Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of
      Trent” (1566).

      Paramount obedience.

      From the newest Catholic Catechism

      CCC 2260 The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders
      of God’s gift of human life and man’s murderous violence:

      “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

      . . . the source for which is the Noahic Covenant, Genesis 9:6, an eternal
      command, for all peoples and all times, which establishes the sacredness of life
      as the foundation for death penalty support.

      Pope Francis’ call for an end to the death penalty, worldwide, was an
      expression, only, of his personal opinion, which is in conflict with both the
      newest Church teaching (CCC 2267) (1) and with 2000 years of Catholic
      teachings (1).

      The newest Church teachings have been confirmed as a prudential judgement
      (1), with which any faithful Catholic may disagree and support more executions
      (1), as the rational, factual outcome of protecting more innocent lives (1),
      with a foundation in justice (1).

      1) Catholic Church: Problems with Her Newest Death Penalty Position:
      The Catechism & Section 2267

      2) Four Catholic Journals Indulge in (anti death penalty) Doctrinal
      Solipsism, Steven Long, THOMISTICA, March 5, 2015

      3) “Archbishop Chaput clarifies Church’s stance on death penalty”, CNA,
      Catholic News Agency, Oct 18, 2005. Chaput was then archbishop of Denver, now of Philadelphia

    • CatholicCrusader

      “Disrespectful rhetoric” ?? If the policy doesn’t deserve respect, then what’s the problem ?

      Have you seen the rhetoric and policies demanded — let alone the $$$ they want — from left-wing Jews and left-wing ghetto black ministers ???

  • Charles C.

    By the way, the bills (HF 606 and SF 616) were referred back to committees and will not see any action before March 8, 2016. There is no guarantee that they’ll even come out of committee.

    Certainly, feel free to call the Governor, but if the bill gets bottled up in the Democrat controlled Senate, the Governor can ignore all calls as it won’t reach his desk.

    Try calling the members of the Senate Health, Human Services, and Housing Committee, which is where the bill is sitting. It has four Republican members and seven Democrat members: Sheran, Wiklund, Eaton, Hayden, Hoffman, Lourey, and Marty. My gues is that those are the seven who will keep it from being passed out of committee.

    If all of the Republicans vote for the bill, four of the seven Democrats would need to be persuaded to support it, just to get it out of committee.