Religious commentators often decry that public morality is dead—that secularism has rendered us a culture entirely devoid of moral values or judgments about our responsibilities to one another. Perhaps there is a sense in which this is true—a sense in which authentically hedonistic narcissism is the predominantly driving force of our culture.
But I don’t think that most people are narcissists. Or that American culture, at least, is devoid of the moral sense. Most people, I think, want to know what is right and to do it. Most people want to be good—because God made us to pursue goodness.
Unfortunately, very few of us can agree on what it means to be good.
If you’ve spent time listening to the political rhetoric of the past three weeks—first, from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and then from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., you’ve heard a lot about living public morality.
Politicians over the past few weeks have talked about responsible budgeting, health care, war, the environment, abortion, marriage, education—and many other issues. And much of what’s been said has been couched in the language of morality. Policy, from both parties, is packaged in the idea that we have an obligation to care for one another, and that the particular policies being proposed will help us to do so.
Politicians know that most of us want to be good. They use the language of morality to support their programs precisely to appeal to our good nature. This is not a new methodology. Lincoln was an avid quoter of Scripture. So too were our Founding Fathers. So too were Presidents Clinton and Bush—they quoted Scripture even to disagree with one another.
Much of the political use of moral language is what George Orwell called the “the defense of the indefensible,” a rhetorical tactic to advance policy goals, or careers. But our political lives are inherently moral—all people should use their moral judgment to make determinations about what policies they support, what issues they advocate for, and whom they choose to elect.
We should live our public lives according to the dictates of our consciences. As Catholics, we must make political choices according to the teaching of our Church—and not separate our religious and political viewpoints. The Second Vatican Council reflected that a “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.”
The Council continued: “Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ, who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory” (“Guadium et Spes,” 43, emphasis added).
With regard to political life, the council urged laity to: “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. Laity live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer” (“Lumen Gentium,” 31, emphasis added).
The problem is that no political party, and usually no candidate, fully represents the Church’s position on important moral issues. As Catholics, we need to think carefully about a host of issues—religious liberty, the environment, immigration, crime and punishment, economics, and the dignity of the family, of workers and of the human person are only a few of the many issues which require sound moral judgments.
Though there are a host of real moral issues for Catholics in public and political life to consider, every Catholic has a primary obligation to oppose legal protection for those things which are inherently evil—abortion, for example, and euthanasia. Legal and political protection for inherent evil social acts undermines the entire social welfare. Blessed John Paul II reflected that “it is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.” The right to life must always be the first consideration of Catholics.
Beyond this issue, there are many other issues which Catholics should take seriously, which have grave moral consequences. We should do all that we can to support the Gospel imperative to care for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the needy among us. We should do so with a real respect for the person, and the family. Of course, there are many policy ideas and proposals on these issues, and we should evaluate them in light of the social teaching of the Catholic Church.
But we should order our political life, and all our life, to the hierarchy of moral realities.
To fulfill our vocation in political life, inherent evil must be opposed—beginning with working by all just means to end legal protection for abortion. This should be primary. After that issue is resolved, there are many issues about which Catholics should think carefully, and actively propose real solutions. The richness of social teaching has much to offer our public morality.
Public morality is not dead, and most people want to pursue goodness. When we live our public lives ordered by the truth of Jesus Christ, we fulfill our vocations—witnessing to goodness, to justice, and to Christ himself.