|By Joan Chittister, OSB
When I was growing up, for a Catholic to eat meat on Fridays was a "mortal sin," the kind of thing for which you went directly to hell, they told us -- no passing go, no collecting $200. But no Catholic lawmaker I know of introduced legislation to close grocery store meat departments on Fridays to protect Catholics from error or to save others from sin.
When I was growing up, Catholics were not permitted to get divorced but no Catholic legislator, as far as I can discover, opposed divorce legislation for the rest of the population.
Hysterectomies, long a moral question for the Catholic church, were unopposed by Catholic doctors, lawmakers and politicians.
Birth control legislation became the law of the land, despite a papal encyclical opposing it, and Catholic legislators accepted it.
Nor did any bishop excommunicate them for doing so.
Lots of things, in other words, that went on in this country violated Catholic discipline or Catholic conscience or Catholic spiritual practice.
But two things prevailed, simultaneously and clearly, in every case: Catholic conscience itself and respect for the conscience of other equally sincere, totally dedicated religious traditions and spiritual people for whom such things were evaluated through a different theological lens.
The point is that Catholics weren't required to do any of these things and, at the same time, others were not obstructed from doing them in cases where their own consciences or religious traditions dictated otherwise.
On the contrary: the U.S. Constitution protected a person's civil rights and honored their religious traditions at the same time. The function of legislators was to do the same. It was not to impose any particular religious code on anyone.
Now we have new questions facing the public arena and voting Catholics at large: Is John Kerry a "good Catholic" if he supports a pro-choice voting position on the abortion question, when, as a matter of fact, few other religious traditions absolutely condemn it under any and all conditions? Or, if John Kerry is not a "good Catholic" can Catholics in good conscience vote for him? And is John Kerry -- or any other Catholic politician -- to function in the U.S. government as a "good Catholic" or a "good American?"
The questions are crucial, not only for Catholics but for the future of the country and the identification of good leadership. The answer depends on what it is to be a "a good Catholic."
Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical "Rerum Novarum," clearly thought Catholic morality had to do with establishing balance between capital and labor. John Kerry supports increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. That's a very Catholic position.
Pius XI wrote that being a good Catholic involved working against financial monopolies that restrict enterprise. Kerry intends to stop the offshore banking that hides corporate profits from the tax rolls and shrinks the revenue needed to provide public goods and services. That's a very Catholic position.
Pius XII wrote that the right of private property is a lesser right than the rights of all to the goods of the earth. John Kerry promotes legislation designed to support U.S. farmers, the reunification of immigrant families and the restoration of benefits for legal immigrants. Those are very Catholic positions.
John XXIII condemned sexism, the arms race and systemic poverty. John Kerry opposes the wage gap that now exists between men and women workers. He supports arms control and non-proliferation measures. He supports welfare programs. Those are very Catholic positions.
Paul VI taught that social justice includes the obligation of rich nations to honor the rights of poor nations. Kerry has denounced the policies of unilateralism and preemptive war. He promises to renew U.S. alliances around the world so we are seen as an international partner not a bully. Those are very Catholic positions.
The 1971 bishops document on "Justice in the World" called social sin as immoral as personal sin. Kerry sponsored legislation to stop the arms trade to nations that are undemocratic. He worked to create the UN genocide tribunal in Cambodia. Those are very Catholic positions.
John Paul II, in his encyclicals calls for the transformation of structures that oppress the poor in capitalist countries. Kerry has spoken out against racial profiling. He supports the restoration of affirmative action. He has pledged himself to restore civil liberties, lost during the Ashcroft era, to the United States itself. Those are very Catholic positions.
And all of them -- along with subsidized housing programs, educational supports, minimum wage proposals, child-care credits and anti-capital punishment propositions -- are essentially, fundamentally and profoundly pro-life positions.
Can Catholics vote for him in good conscience? If "good conscience" has something to do with upholding the highest ideals of the faith and its commitment to all human life, they can.
Can a Catholic politician be a good Catholic and a good American at the same time? Only if they are, in fact, both at the same time. The Catholic politician who functions in the U.S. government as a good citizen, who lives by his own conscience and at the same time safeguards the sincere conscience of others, is, in fact, functioning as a good Catholic.
Fortunately, most bishops, as in the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, realize that the Catholic church is not a single-issue tradition. He said: "One (issue) may be primary, but there are many issues that have to be considered....All these things have to be weighed very carefully -- without giving anybody any direction on how they should vote."
Bishops know what it means to be a Catholic politician in a pluralistic country and, I am convinced, they will defend that to the end. In fact, "The Faithful Citizenship Guide" published by the US Bishops calls us back to "an old idea with new power -- the common good." Surely the "faithful citizenship guide" is calling the bishops, too. Otherwise, Catholic participation in common good, the fullness of the Catholic voice in the public arena, the entire Catholic vision of life, may well be lost here again for decades to come.
From where I stand, that would really be a sin.
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