Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Conscience and Catholic Democrats

Raymond J. Keating

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Raymond J. KeatingAre a majority of Roman Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives rethinking their support of abortion?

In late February, 55 of the 72 Catholic Democrats in the House signed a statement of principles. The document declared: "As legislators, in the U.S. House of Representatives, we work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being. We believe that government has a moral purpose." Wow, really?

Most of the signers, however, brandish solid, pro-abortion voting records. Have they experienced a sudden conversion? Hardly. Instead, this statement ranks as a cynical political act during an election year, a display of ignorance about actual Catholic teachings, or both.

These Democrats mention Catholic social teaching, and proclaim their commitment to "reducing the rising rates of poverty; increasing access to education for all; pressing for increased access to health care; and taking seriously the decision to go to war." Of course, in good conscience, Catholics can disagree on how such objectives might be achieved. For example, on health care, some Catholics might embrace socialized medicine, while others support market-driven reforms.

But on other issues, no moral wiggle room exists for the conscience. These Democrats declare that they "agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion we do not celebrate its practice." Yet, they continue later: "In all these issues, we seek the Church's guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas."

For these Catholics, the legitimacy of such claims rests on what the Catholic Church teaches about abortion and conscience. So, let's seek some guidance from the "Catechism of the Catholic Church."

It could not be clearer on abortion: "Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law." For go od measure, it notes: "Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life." And finally, regarding the law: "The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation."

But what if a Catholic legislator simply disagrees, according to conscience? Conscience, though, is not a tool or excuse for moral relativism, for going against fundamental teachings of God and the church.

For example, the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" points out: "In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light of our path . . . We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church." It adds that one's conscience can remain "in ignorance" and make "erroneous judgments." An individual is held personally responsible for such ignorance when failing to "find out what is true and good, and when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin."

Among the reasons listed for "errors of judgment in moral conduct" are "ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, . . . assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience," and "rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching."

The sinfulness of abortion is a core teaching of the Catholic Church. The conscience of a Catholic cannot ignore such a moral fundamental or simply discount it as a "tension that comes with being in disagreement." Conscience is not license to do as one pleases.

The statement of principles by Catholic Democrats in the House also notes: "We believe the separation of church and state allows for our faith to inform our public duties." On that count, they are absolutely correct. However, despite claims to "advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being," most of these Catholic Democrats have gone directly against their own faith by consistently voting to support abortion. For Catholics, as well as for all other Christians, that is a grave sin.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Copyright Raymond J. Keating

Posted: 09-Mar-06

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