Sunday, February 3, 2008

Religion and faith in the public square

Over on Observations & Contentions, which is the First Things blog, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the journal's editor, has web-published his remarks given last Saturday at a debate sponsored by The Economist. The resolution being debated was "Religion and politics should always be kept separate."

He begins by defining terms which, in a debate, is absolutely essential. He uses Aristotle's definition of politics according to which politics is our answer to the question, "How ought we to order our life together?" He points out that "The ought in that definition indicates that politics is in its very nature, if not always in its practice, a moral enterprise."

He goes to ask about the role of religious institutions, which "understand themselves to be divinely constituted," in the polity of these United States. According Fr. Neuhaus, the United States Constitution views them as "voluntary associations of citizens who join together for freely chosen purposes." Hence, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc. are "on the same constitutional footing as labor unions, political action groups, professional associations, and a host of other organizations formed by common purpose. In the heat of the political fray, all these institutions are tempted to claim that, on the issues that matter most to them, they have a monopoly on morality. All of them are wrong about that."

He goes on to state that "religion cannot be separated from politics. More precisely, religion cannot be separated from democratic politics. But I do believe that religious leaders should be more circumspect and restrained than they sometimes are in addressing political issues, and that for two reasons. The first and most important reason is that the dynamics of political battle tend to corrupt religion, blurring the distinctions between the temporal and the eternal, the sacred and the profane. So the first concern is for the integrity of religion." The second reason, lest I leave you hanging is "concern is for the integrity of politics".

He also gives some of his thoughts and impressions on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship that are well worth reading in their own right as well as nicely complement his remarks from the debate. The USCCB document includes this section: "In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching," which some cynical and morally ill-informed commentators have turned into what Neuhaus calls "the conscience clause", which gets interpreted in our emotive culture as, at the end of the vote anyway you like as long you feel strongly about it.


Fr. Neuhaus is accurate and succinct in his observation that this so-called "conscience clause" "is not a loophole but speaks to a solemn obligation. It is clear Catholic teaching that one must act in accord with conscience, even if one’s conscience is misguided. At the same time, one is obliged to form one’s conscience according to moral truth. It is also the Church’s teaching, reiterated in this document, that acting according to a rightly formed conscience is a matter that impinges upon one’s eternal salvation" (underlining and emboldening mine).

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