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Knaves or Fools? The Letter from Catholic Congressional Democrats

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 14, 2004

On May 10th, forty-eight Catholic Congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives – all Democrats – sent a letter (see link at bottom) to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC arguing that bishops should not deny communion to pro-abortion politicians. The letter is so riddled with false ideas that it raises the age-old question: Are its authors knaves or fools? Here are the top ten reasons that they are both knaves and fools when it comes to their stand on this issue.

The “Fool” Reasons

10. Unguided aspirations. To avoid sacramental discipline, the Congressmen argue that “each and every one of us is committed to the basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic social justice – helping the poor and underprivileged, protecting the most vulnerable among us and insuring that all Americans of every faith are given meaningful opportunities.” But these are aspirations, not moral principles. The aspiration to help the poor, for example, must be guided in its implementation by moral principles.

9. Unchecked policy decisions. The signatories argue that they “take steps every day” to advance respect for life and respect for human dignity, including health care reform, hunger relief and human rights. Here the confusion deepens between daily policy decisions and the moral principles which must guide them. Fashioning an optimum way to handle medical costs, for example, is a policy decision. The fact that it is wrong to kill the patient to reduce costs is a principle.

8. Confusing principles and prudential judgments. The letter argues that refusal of the Eucharist based on one’s position on abortion might lead to refusal based on other issues spoken against by the Pope or bishops, such as capital punishment or the war in Iraq. This introduces yet a third confusion, between prudential judgments made by ecclesiastical persons and settled moral principles that are part of the Church’s magisterium (see Capital Punishment: Drawing the Line between Doctrine and Opinion).

7. Idolizing law. The legislators argue that the Supreme Court has mandated a Constitutional right to abortion. Since they are sworn to uphold the Constitution, “members who vote for legislation consistent with that mandate are not acting contrary to our positions as faithful members of the Catholic Church.” But laws contrary to the will of God are null. No one, least of all a Catholic, can put human law on a par with moral principle in order to support measures which are “consistent” with fundamental moral evil. Further, it is the special responsibility of the legislative branch of government to make good laws, even to amend the Constitution if necessary.

6. Privatizing morals. The authors cite a distinction between public and private morality, but they fail to see that the distinction is not one of substance but of prudence. A private immoral action cannot be made moral by government fiat, still less guaranteed as a right. True, out of prudence, the wise State does not seek to enforce every aspect of personal morality. But where wrongs become directly and obviously relational – with one person’s actions adversely affecting another – the political authority must act.

The “Knave” Reasons

5. Hiding behind false obligations. The signatories refer to their moral obligation to represent the views of their constituents even when they conflict with their own views. This transparent dodge upholds a view of representation which no politician accepts when he feels strongly about an issue. Constituencies are always divided. The obligation to represent them entails not mirroring their views but using one’s intelligence and talents to provide leadership on their behalf.

4. Threatening the Church. If these Congressmen are punished by bishops, the letter suggests, it will cause the Church to “lose strong advocates on a wide range of issues that relate to the core of important Catholic social teaching.” One wonders how this could happen among legislators so deeply committed, as they themselves claim, to these fundamental principles.

3. Wielding the anti-Catholic club. The writers also inform Cardinal McCarrick that denial of Communion will revive latent anti-Catholic prejudice, which “so many of us have worked so hard to overcome” – presumably by hiding Catholic moral principles under a bushel basket. (Ahem, with friends like these . . . .)

2. Selectively citing Church documents: The politicians twice cite the American Bishops' statement Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility to bolster their case, while concealing the fact that this same document states that abortion can never be morally permissible.

1. Loaded language. The use of language is manipulative. Negative catch-phrases are used to ascribe ill motives to the bishops, who are using sacramental discipline merely to “influence how a legislator acts” and to “influence votes”. The text supposes that Catholic legislators will be “scorned and held out for ridicule by church leaders”, and that this will be done whimsically “on the basis of a single issue”. The Church is portrayed as playing "partisan politics". In contrast to this pettiness, the authors fairly glow with their own true civic and religious virtue: “the church has played a central role” in their lives and has "instilled in us a value system that drives us to fight for a better life for all Americans.” These Congressmen “value the church, its teachings and are proud to be Catholics.”

Needed: Unworldly Wisdom

In the end, this message from 48 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. Congress is a classic case of political obfuscation by those who see nothing beyond politics and believe in nothing that transcends politics. They seem not to understand that if the Church is to bear any sort of credible public witness, she must begin by protecting her own members from the confusion caused by the public scandals of her politically wayward children. And she must end by doing everything in her power to save these same children's wayward souls.

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