Robert George on Catholic Politicians and Faith

Attempt to Privatize Beliefs Is Unwise, Says Princeton Professor

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PRINCETON, New Jersey, MARCH 18, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Where should a Catholic politician draw the line between private faith and public duties?



For a professor's perspective on the question, ZENIT turned to Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

This interview is part of an occasional series linked to the recent Vatican doctrinal note "On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life."

George is author of "The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Morality and Religion in Crisis." He also is a former presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and currently serves on the President's Council on Bioethics.

ZENIT: Many people say that President John Kennedy set the pattern for American politicians. According to that pattern, state comes before creed. Is that an accurate assessment of the U.S. situation? Is it justifiable?

George: When Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, he faced opposition from a significant number of Protestants who were concerned that he would permit the Pope to dictate U.S. policy and impose Catholic moral teaching on such issues as contraception and divorce.

He attempted to blunt these concerns by publicly espousing the view that religion is a purely private matter that has no legitimate bearing on a statesman's public responsibilities. This account of the relationship of a statesman's religious faith to his civic duties cannot be justified from a Catholic viewpoint. Nor is there any basis for it in American constitutional doctrine.

It would have puzzled -- even shocked -- men such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Yet its articulation by Kennedy was helpful to him in selling himself as a presidential candidate to the Protestant majority in the United States.

Fearful that by contradicting Kennedy they would damage his chances of becoming the first Catholic president, American bishops and others who should have spoken up, mostly remained silent. Their silence was to have tragic consequences.

Of course, the separation of the institutions of church and state is valid from both the Catholic theological and the American constitutional vantage points. The church should not control the state; nor should the state control the church. Each must respect the legitimate autonomy of the other.

So Kennedy could rightly have promised not to let the Pope run the government. The truth, of course, is that the Pope had not the slightest desire to run the United States government. Allegations to the contrary were reflections of gross anti-Catholic bigotry.

But the attempt to privatize religious faith and immunize public policy-making from the influence of religiously informed moral judgment is unjust, unwise, un-Christian and un-American. Thank goodness that Lincoln did not choose to privatize his faith on the question of slavery, and that Martin Luther King accepted no doctrine of religious privatization on the question of racial segregation.

You ask whether Kennedy established a pattern for American politicians. Many Protestant and Jewish politicians in the United States, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Joseph Lieberman, apparently feel no compulsion to hide their faith or treat their religious convictions as irrelevant to their public lives.

Many Catholics, however, especially in the Democratic Party, continue to embrace Kennedy's model. They claim, for example, to be "personally opposed" to abortion, yet they support its legal protection and even its public funding on the ground that they must not impose "private" religious judgments on their fellow citizens. Mario Cuomo, when he was governor of the state of New York, defended this posture in a speech at Notre Dame University that quickly became a kind of playbook for Catholic politicians who find it expedient to support abortion.

Cuomo's argument rests on a fallacy that is not difficult to expose. The status of the child in the womb as a human being is not a matter of revealed religious dogma; it is a plain fact of human embryology and developmental biology.

The obligation of the polity to protect the child against deliberate homicide follows from the principle that every member of the human family, irrespective of age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependency, is entitled to equality under the law.

Tragically, the abdication of responsibility to respect and protect the rights of the unborn by Catholic governors, members of the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, the state legislatures, and the federal and state judiciaries has been a major factor in preventing the wrong of legal abortion from being rectified in our country.

I myself come from a Catholic family with historic loyalties to the Democratic Party; so it is with profound regret that I say that children in the womb may lawfully be killed up to the very point of birth in the United States today because Catholic Democrats -- led today by Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the brother of the late president -- have promoted and protected legal abortion and its public funding, and have indeed placed it at or near the top of their domestic priorities.

Although President Kennedy himself did not advocate legal abortion -- it was not an issue in his lifetime -- it must be said that many Catholic politicians have seized upon his misguided idea that religion is a purely private matter to justify their support for abortion and other moral evils.

Q: Some politicians say that their function is to represent the views of their electors, and that therefore they are not able to obey the Vatican or Catholic doctrine. Is this just an excuse, or is there a real conflict here?

George: I've never heard a politician express this view of his function. Rather, politicians typically acknowledge an obligation to provide statesmanlike leadership and even to take unpopular stands when conscience or the Constitution or the common good demand it.

Of course, it is comparatively rare that politicians actually take unpopular stands. Most politicians -- though there are many honorable exceptions --behave as they think they need to behave in order to maximize their chances for election or re-election.

Those Catholic politicians who have exposed children in the womb to the violence of abortion certainly offer rationalizations for their behavior; but the rationalization they typically offer has nothing to do with any putative obligation to represent the views of their electors. It is, rather, the alleged obligation to respect individual freedom by refraining from imposing a putatively private religious view on fellow citizens who do not share it.

Of course, they would never say such a thing if the victims of the lethal violence they were licensing were members of a group or class for whom they had sympathy or whose members they held in favor. So their posture toward the unborn is an example of partiality and a violation of the principle of equal justice under law.

They are selling out the unborn for purposes of political advantage, then invoking high moral principle to rationalize their conduct. It is shameful.

Q: How can the Church and lay Catholic leaders help Catholic politicians in their task of being faithful to moral principles?

George: Together with my co-author William Saunders, I have written at some length about this subject in an essay published in my recent book "The Clash of Orthodoxies."

The first responsibility is with the laity. In the domain of politics, and especially as voters, Catholic citizens should resolve to withhold their support from politicians who fail in their obligation to afford to all -- including the child in the womb -- the equal protection of the laws.

Catholics should make it clear to the political class that ending the violence of abortion is our most urgent matter of domestic human rights, and our No. 1 priority.

The bishops have an important role to play as well. They should continue to support -- indeed, they should increase their support for -- the heroic people who staff the pro-life office at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Moreover, in their capacity as teachers, bishops -- and all priests -- must miss no opportunity personally to stress the truth, powerfully reaffirmed recently by the Holy See, that support for legal abortion and its public funding is incompatible with Catholic faith.

They must remind Catholic voters and politicians of the need to give priority to the cause of justice for the unborn and other vulnerable persons. Bishops in particular should not hesitate publicly or privately to speak to politicians in the most direct, unambiguous and forceful terms about this matter.

And when a bishop speaks publicly, other bishops should be vocal in their support for him. I applaud Bishop Weigand of Sacramento and others who have confronted prominent Catholic officeholders who have implicated themselves in the wickedness of abortion.