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.


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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