Bishop’s Perspective: Faith and politics

 October 27, 2012 column in the Juneau Empire


I watched with interest the recent vice presidential debate. In particular, I was struck by the portion of the debate when the moderator questioned the candidates about their Catholic faith and how it impacts their view on abortion in our country. Congressman Paul Ryan said that he looks to his faith to help him form his conscience to being pro-life, and that he is pro-life because of reason and science. Vice President Joseph Biden said that he also upholds his Catholic pro-life stance and believes that life begins at conception but he would not want to impose his personally held beliefs on others as a public official and supports legalized abortion.

From my perspective, and as one of the Shepherd’s within the Catholic Church, I believe that it is disingenuous for politicians, many of them Catholic, who say that they are personally opposed to abortion but do not want to impose their beliefs on others. Now, if opponents of slavery would have thought the same way about the abolition of slavery as some of our politicians today think about abortion, I cringe to think how much further we would have to work for the basic understanding of life, liberty and freedom. How much further behind would we be in civil rights and the understanding of human dignity if they were to have said that he personally was against the slavery of African Americans but did not want to impose their moral stance on slave-owners so that they and everyone else could have the ability to choose? If that were the case, I do not believe we would have an African-American president today. It is important to have politicians of character
who uphold “the law of nature and nature’s God” without being swayed by popular opinion.
Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan share a common faith, but they have different political philosophies. However, Catholics, both those in public office and voters making political choices, may not neglect or deny their fundamental moral responsibility to uphold the sacredness and dignity of human life, from conception to natural death. This is paramount to our understanding how we address the other areas of life. To defend marriage as defined by God as an institution between one man and one woman is also a
fundamental value for society. To promote and defend the welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and to work for the common good are also mandated by the teaching of the Catholic Church.

That being said, each vice presidential candidate has been inconsistent in the ways in which they have followed the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Vice President Biden, while stating that he believes, as his Church does, that life begins at conception, and while professing his personal opposition to abortion, supports the virtually unlimited right to abortion that has resulted in deaths of millions of unborn children since the tragic Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. In addition to this position of his in conflict with the teaching of the
Church, Vice President Biden has also come out in support of legalizing same-sex marriage.
By way of contrast, Congressman Ryan has been a resolute advocate of Catholic moral teaching on the defense of the unborn and traditional marriage between one man and one woman. However, the Federal budget that he has proposed could do harm to the poor and vulnerable by neglecting their legitimate needs. For example, Congressman Ryan proposed a budget that has received a critique by the Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace committees of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops,
stating that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

Only through a right understanding of the moral order will we be able to live in freedom, peace and liberty the inalienable rights granted to us by our Creator. With this understanding, faith and politics do play an important role of integrating the moral order with society so that all might live in peace, freedom and liberty. While democracy is the best means whereby citizens participate in the political governance of the country, it is only successful when first and foremost there is a complete and thorough understanding of human life and dignity.

The attack against the very essence of human life, such as abortion, constitutes an intrinsic evil. While politicians will decide on how they integrate their faith into their politics, it is important for us, as believers and non-believers alike, to decide how we should uphold the common good and a natural moral order by exercising our right to vote.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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