John Allen’s take – in this week’s National Catholic Reporter – on some of the things Pope Benedict said in Mexico makes quite interesting reading. It is even more so in the context of the onslaught on Rick Santorum for the views he expresses about the human integrity which is shown when a person maintains consistency between his Faith and his actions in political life.
Allen notes that,
Especially in the West, Catholic politicians who don’t vote in accord with official church teaching on contentious issues such as abortion and gay marriage often distinguish between their private beliefs and their public roles. I may privately oppose these things, they argue, but I can’t impose those convictions on a pluralistic culture.
As a result, rejection of this private/public distinction has become a staple of Catholic pro-life rhetoric. The argument is usually that it’s at best inconsistent, and at worst a form of cowardice, to espouse one position in church and another in the halls of Congress.
Pro-lifers often cite a famous remark by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei: “Have you ever bothered to think how absurd it is to leave one’s Catholicism aside on entering a university, or a professional association, or a scholarly meeting, or Congress, as if you were checking your hat at the door?”
Pope Benedict XVI has echoed that position during his current trip to Mexico, which is his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America. Aboard the papal plane on Friday, he too took a swipe at those who try to drive a wedge between private and public ethics – pointedly calling it a form of “schizophrenia.”
“One sees in Latin America, and also elsewhere, among many Catholics a certain schizophrenia between individual and public morality,” Benedict said.
“Personally, in the individual sphere, they’re Catholics, believers. But in public life they follow other paths that don’t correspond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society. It’s essential to educate people in order to overcome this schizophrenia, educating not only about individual morality but also public morality.”
The pope partly may have had the culture wars in mind, especially given that a number of Catholic legislators in Mexico City have in recent years voted to legalize both first trimester abortion and same-sex unions.
Yet what’s most striking about the pope’s comment is the very different context in which it arose.
Benedict XVI was asked by a famous Mexican journalist not about abortion or gay rights, but rather the strong contrast between rich and poor across the continent and whether the Catholic church was doing enough to promote social justice.
“Naturally the church must always ask itself if it’s doing enough on behalf of social justice in this great continent,” Benedict said in reply. “This is a question of conscience which we must always ask ourselves.”
The church is not a political party, Benedict said, but it is a moral force, and because politics is supposed to be a moral enterprise the church always has something to contribute to political life. The pope said the church’s first duty must be to form consciences, imparting a strong sense of moral responsibility both at the personal and the public levels – and it’s that second level, he said, “where perhaps the problem lies.”
That was the lead-in to Benedict’s strong denunciation of political “schizophrenia” and his insistence that the “great values of the Gospel” must be the basis of a just society.
In other words, Benedict took a staple of Western pro-life rhetoric, which is the need for coherence between a Catholic’s private beliefs and public positions, and gave it a far broader spin.
Santorum has been accused by some of cherry-picking Catholic doctrine and of failing to show the integrity he proclaims by not condemning capital punishment. In attacking him for this his critics are simplyfing the Catholic position with regard to capital punishment. It is not at all as clear-cut as is its proscription of the killing of innocent unborn children.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2266 and 2267) puts the teaching this way:
Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well‑founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.
The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. Finally punishment has a medicinal value; as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.
If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
This is very wise and a very humane appeal to Catholics to prudently judge the situation in the light of the prevailing circumstances in their society. It does not, however, categorically say that the taking of life is never justified. One may well feel – looking at American society – that the application of the death penalty in some states is a blemish on the face of that society. One may hope that in time the electorates in those states where it still applies will be moved to see that it is not necessary and deem it unjustified. Catholic teaching does not yet, however, take on itself the authority to tell them that they are, morally obliged to judge this to be the case.