A preliminary note: This editorial is intended as a reflective response to Judge Michael McConnell’s recent lecture at Notre Dame about John F. Kennedy’s 1960 “Address to the Houston Ministerial Administration.” With an eye to the upcoming midterm elections, the focus of this piece is not McConnell’s lecture, but rather the meaning of conscience for today’s Catholic politicians, an issue introduced by Kennedy’s address and still a subject of debate in contemporary politics.

“…I am not the Catholic candidate for president.

“I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

With these words to a group of southern Protestant ministers 50 years ago, former President John F. Kennedy set a precedent for Catholic politicians to regard the formation of their consciences as a matter quite separate from the guidance of the Catholic Church.

Today, Catholic politicians have access to many resources from the Holy See and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the correct formation of conscience.  Among other texts, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, and the USCCB’s document “Catholics in Political Life” identify several non-negotiable life issues that must be upheld in any truly just society. These include prohibitions on abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and same-sex marriage.

The Church’s stance on these five issues is firm and unwavering.  At the same time, Church teaching holds that people of goodwill may disagree on various issues where prudential judgment is involved, such as just war theory, poverty, and capital punishment.

Although the non-negotiable issues should be prioritized according to moral gravity, it is a mistake to see these issues as entirely separate from other social justice issues. True social justice includes, and indeed is founded upon, the human being’s right to life in all its stages. The Catholic politician, in accordance with a properly formed conscience, must assign the greatest moral weight to the five non-negotiable issues. By doing so, he or she upholds a respect for the dignity of all human life that must be the foundation of any solution to injustice.

As Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici, “The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (38).

As the opportunities offered by an outstanding tradition of service at Notre Dame reveal, poverty, violence, and discrimination are deeply painful sufferings to witness. Understandably, politicians who represent diverse bodies of constituents often see these ills as the most pressing problems in our society. Indeed, President Kennedy identified the “real issues” at stake in the presidential campaign as “war and hunger and ignorance.” Catholic politicians may feel that conscience tells them to address these problems before abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, or same-sex marriage.

But what are the implications of Kennedy’s and his predecessors’ claims that their consciences are directed independently of the Church’s clear guidance? To adopt this attitude is to accept conscience not, as Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman astutely observed, God’s law “apprehended in the minds of individual men,” but rather as “a creation of man.”

Newman, in his 1874 Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, explained,

“Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ[.]”

Catholic, Christian, and non-Christian leaders alike can appeal to conscience as the root of their actions; one of the most notable freedoms in American public life is the individual’s ability to choose a set of principles as guidelines for his or her moral choices.

At the same time, when conscience is separated from its origins in a Divine Lawgiver, conscience can become the justification for horrifying violations of human dignity. Although the end of slavery, the vote for women, and the advance of the civil rights movement can all be attributed to the power of conscience, terrible events in human history can also be traced to the instructions of “conscience.” Adolf Hitler believed he was following his conscience, as did Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot.  In the words of Flannery O’Connor, “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.”

When a Catholic politician isolates his or her conscience from the truths taught by the Church, he or she can easily adopt a “personally opposed” ideology on any issue, whether it be abortion, discrimination, or war. The Church’s instruction, by appealing to human reason’s ability to know good and evil, provides Catholic politicians with a weapon to combat evils waged in the name of conscience, like the Holocaust or the mass genocide in Rwanda during the 1990s.

Furthermore, the Church’s instruction on the moral gravity of certain non-negotiable issues is intended not just for Catholic politicians, but for all politicians. The survival of democracy itself depends upon politicians’ respect for a hierarchy among moral issues; Pope John Paul II, in his Doctrinal Note on “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” writes that

“Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society” (3).

Catholic politicians are called to be the first to reaffirm the roots of conscience as the “Aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” Nevertheless, a Catholic politician’s decision to follow the instructions of the Church in forming his or her conscience frequently exposes him or her not only to ridicule, but even to an exclusion from the political sphere based on appeals to a very narrow conception of separation between Church and state.

Such daunting prospects call for courage. In a time when the American president has moved to fund publicly the destruction of human embryos for research purposes, Catholic politicians will continually be pressured to deny the Church’s authority in matters of conscience.

Thus, a unique part of the Catholic politician’s vocation is to encourage other politicians to see the five non-negotiable issues not just as “Catholic issues,” but as issues that all politicians can and should recognize with the aid of a properly formed conscience. As former Republican Representative Henry Hyde said in his speech at Notre Dame during 1984, titled “Keeping God in the Closet,”

“[W]e ought to make use of the educative potential of public office to make clear that abortion is not, at bottom, a ‘Catholic issue,’ but rather a moral and civil rights issue, a humanitarian issue and a constitutional issue of the first importance.”

Gabby is a junior PLS/Philosophy major. Contact her at gspeach@nd.edu.