Questions of Conscience

Author: Scott Appleby '78

Editor’s Note: In 2004, R. Scott Appleby, now dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School for Global Affairs, imagined a radio call-in program raising questions for a Catholic presidential candidate. With a Catholic in the White House today, the questions and answers have renewed relevance in American politics.

John Q. Allman here for RADIO USA; welcome to Let's Talk. Today my guest is Senator Paul Church. Senator Church is running for president of the United States and has some issues he'd like to discuss with you. Before we open the phone lines, Senator, I'd like you to say a word about the flap over your standing as a Roman Catholic. Senator Church, welcome.

Thank you, John, and hello to all the good people out there. I'm pleased to address a dimension of my candidacy that has become an issue in this campaign, namely, the fact that I am a Roman Catholic who takes seriously my religious obligations and the moral teaching of my church.

People ask: What do I see as the proper relationship between my faith and membership in the church, and my responsibilities as a public figure and political leader?

First let's be clear: You are electing a person, not a robot—a fully formed individual with a distinctive set of experiences, ideas, convictions, attitudes and, yes, values and principles. While it is you I will be elected to represent, it is I who will be making a thousand judgments and decisions on your behalf. While I will never forget my obligation to serve your interests and represent your concerns, those interests and concerns will be filtered through my personality and view of the world. Any politician who tells you otherwise, who presents herself as nothing more than a mirror of "the people," underestimates your intelligence.

Do such politicians really expect you to believe that they will compartmentalize their own values and convictions? Do they think you want or expect them to leave their soul, heart and mind behind when they serve in public office?

I would be unable to represent you, much less myself, were my faith and political convictions not closely intertwined. Indeed, I would be different from so many of you if I left my deepest convictions behind when I made political decisions. If my faith convinces me, as it does, that human life is sacred, that the privileged have a special obligation to the poor, that politics must serve the cause of justice and peace, then I would be perjuring myself to ignore these principles in the performance of public service. They must inform my decisions.

So, Senator Church, it seems clear that your faith will make a definite difference in how you would run the country.

That's correct, Mr. Allman. Most politicians seem terrified to acknowledge that they have a faith that could make a difference in public life. At the same time, I recognize that as a public servant I am answerable to you as well as to my conscience. Like any politician, I will try mightily to persuade you, and your elected representatives, that my personal convictions lead directly to wise and just policies that serve the good of all.

That's quite a task you've set for yourself, Senator. What if you can't persuade me? I'm not Catholic, by the way, and might not believe your choices best serve my interests.

I hear your concerns. I realize other, competing convictions and principles might enjoy greater popular support—or you and other citizens might agree on principles but disagree on how best to realize them through specific policies and laws. In such settings politics, the art of compromise, earns its reputation as a corrupter of souls.

But these dilemmas also provide the opportunity for politics to recover its reputation as a noble calling, as the means of forging an underlying unity and sense of purpose among Americans, whose dazzling variety of racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds—and whose diverse views of the world, and of politics—we proudly celebrate.

This quest for unity within diversity demands a "politics of the common good." Let me explain what that means and how we can build a political culture around it.

A moment ago I alluded to "wise and just policies that serve the good of all." Policies and laws that serve only narrow special interests, and that do so at the expense of others, almost always fail the test of "the common good."

The "common good" is an idea as old as the republic. Despite our reputation as rugged and radical individualists, we Americans also boast a long and distinguished history of coming together in voluntary associations — churches, charities, private schools, unions, political parties — to advance the interests of the community and to serve the neediest among us. The 19th century French politician and writer Alexis de Tocqueville, whose tour of the United States in 1831 (to study the American penal system) led him to write his classic assessment of Democracy in America, powerfully captured the generosity of spirit and commitment to the common good that defines the American character. Tocqueville devoted many pages to providing vivid examples of Americans' social conscience in action. He also noted that America's egalitarian spirit and democratic institutions "awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy." Yet each generation of Americans strives anew to embrace that larger purpose.

Whoa, you're getting a little deep here. But tell our listeners how the idea of the common good applies to you as a president who is also Catholic.

Certainly. Commitment to the common good is one of the cornerstones of Catholic social teaching. The central question of our political discourse, according to the U.S. bishops, should not be: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Rather, politicians must ask: "How can we — all of us, especially the weak and the vulnerable — be better off in the years ahead?"

Some may respond that the common good is best pursued not by government but through the so-called private sector and the non-governmental institutions and agencies. Certainly government must not assume the duties and responsibilities of local communities or the family. Indeed, subsidiarity — that is, respect for the proper autonomy of each level of society in meeting those needs it is equipped to meet — is another cornerstone of Catholic social teaching.

Yet the federal government remains a critical player. It sets the tone and direction by supporting local initiatives and meeting needs that require resources beyond the capacity of the local or state governments. In addition, federal law establishes a framework within which all citizens can pursue the common good. And the national political culture, in short, fosters a set of values and priorities that give shape and meaning to the rough-and-tumble of daily politics.

The president in particular can become the catalyst of a politics of the common good. I would do so by articulating a vision of the common good and setting forth concrete policies and proposals to achieve it. Of course I would invite and expect vigorous argument about the vision and the proposals. There is no way round the negotiations and compromises that constitute governance in a plural, democratic society.

But I would never fail to promote my deepest convictions, even — especially — on those occasions when my responsibilities as a leader of a diverse constituency require me to enforce laws and accept compromises that do not fully honor those convictions.

Can you be a little more specific, Senator? This talk is nice, but our listeners need to hear exactly how the common good might apply for various issues they have some interest in.

Well, let me review some of the principles and political goals I have articulated throughout this campaign — principles and goals that Catholics, and many other Americans, will recognize as resonant with their deepest moral and religious convictions. Together these items form the substance of my view of the common good.

First and foremost, I believe human life is sacred. Every individual life, at whatever stage of development, health or decline, possesses an inherent dignity and worth that no one can or should violate. The dignity and inviolability of human life is the cornerstone for sound domestic as well as foreign policy. The refusal to discriminate on this question — to favor some lives over others — will shape my decisions on everything from health care to the proper use of U.S. military force, from public education to the war on terrorism. My policies shall never reflect the view that American lives are inherently more valuable than Iraqi or Pakistani or Brazilian lives, or that hale and hearty lives deserve more protection than terminally ill patients, or that the lives of prisoners and criminals are somehow less precious than the lives of law-abiding citizens.

Clearly my outlook on these matters is shaped by my Catholic faith. With the church I proclaim that we Americans are not free to abandon unborn children because they are seen as unwanted or inconvenient; to turn our backs on immigrants because they lack the proper documents; to turn away from poor women or children because they lack economic or political power; to ignore sick people because they have no insurance.

Some heavy issues here! And I see that our phone lines are blinking madly. Let's let our listeners join the conversation now, shall we? Hello, you're on Let's Talk.

Hi, this is Amy from Roanoke. Are you trying to tell me that if you're president, all of a sudden our country has to follow Catholic teaching? I left the church when I got divorced, and I don't want it shoved down my throat, thank you very much.

Hi, Amy, and thank you for your comment. I'd like to point out, however, that these ideals and principles I've just mentioned echo not only the teachings of the major religious traditions of the United States, including Roman Catholicism, they ring true to defining American values as well. The observance and protection of fundamental human rights follows from the pronouncement, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal. In addition to the right to life, each person has a right to the conditions necessary for living a decent life — food and shelter, education and employment and health care. As we debate the specific policies and laws needed to ensure these rights, we cannot lose sight of this quintessential American aspiration to leave no person behind — even as we develop economic policies to enlarge the middle class. A society will be judged by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable members. This was the clarion call of Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey, and it has been invoked countless times, by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Nor can we, as the richest nation on earth, fail to respond to the deeply troubling fact that more than 30,000 children around the world die each day as a result of hunger and disease. More than 30 civil and regional wars, fueled by the easy availability of arms, cause additional suffering, displacement and death. Crushing international debt and underdeveloped economies plague two-thirds of the world.

We also hear a good deal about the benefits of globalization and free markets. Yet globalization in its current unregulated mode offers no answer to the millions of "have nots." The global corporations must recognize that it is in their self-interest to lift all boats—to prevent the political instability, resource depletion and environmental degradation that accompanies poverty, underdevelopment and war.

We have another call, Senator; go ahead, sir.

Yeah, hi, this is Raphael from Santa Rosa. I'm a first-time caller but a long-time listener. So now you make us responsible for saving the world? What about those terrorist creeps who hate us? You want us to save THEM? Give me a [beep] break!

Hello, Raphael. I should clarify that the United States is not alone responsible for the welfare of the suffering masses. Yet, as the world's acknowledged superpower, we must re-examine our economic and diplomatic policies — the kind of aid we deliver to our allies, the incentives for social change we attach to the aid, the relationship between our military, cultural and economic presences in foreign lands.

And when it comes to exercising American influence, our first principle must be "do no harm." Enlightened, constructive engagement with other peoples and governments has no chance if our reputation is one of aggressor and exploiter.

Accordingly, the first step is to restore our historic presumption against the use of force. The doctrine of pre-emptive war may sound reassuring to a nation gripped by an unprecedented sense of radical vulnerability in the wake of 9/11. But the violation of international laws and norms; the abrogation of civil liberties and human rights, even in the name of self-defense; the refusal to exercise restraint, especially when the location and nature of the enemy is unclear—all these policies of the current administration are sowing the seeds of future deadly conflict of unimaginable proportions.

Leading with massive force is literally a dead-end policy. To understand why, we must ask: Who or what is our enemy? Who opposes our deeply held values — political self-determination, equality under the law, freedom of speech and assembly, religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person?

The customary answer today is "terrorists." Our enemies are those who hate freedom, those who despise our values — yesterday, atheistic communism; today, Islamic radicalism. They detest, we are told, the American way of life and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Certainly we have our enemies, or, as Raphael calls them, the terrorist creeps. They are formidable, not least because they, too, claim to be inspired by a moral vision, a truth, for which some are willing to give their lives. But these enemies have arisen in reaction to something. Whatever popular appeal they enjoy comes from the strength of their moral critique, not from their wanton violence.

Thus the more accurate, the more radical answer is this: Our real enemy is the systematic violation of human rights around the world and whatever corporate practices, intellectual fads and government policies that ignore or, worse, abet those violations. Our real enemy is our own complacency, dearth of imagination and failure of nerve in the face of awareness that two-thirds of humanity lacks reliable access to clean drinking water and adequate health care; millions of women and children are systematically excluded from the full protection of just, comprehensive and enforced laws protecting human rights; a massive global trade in arms enables violence to reign as our way of settling conflicts; the income and opportunity gap between rich and poor nations, and between the elites and the masses within most nations, is widening.

Yes, terrorists are our enemies. But until we devise humane and just policies to address the root causes of terrorism, our grandchildren will be chasing a new generation of bin Ladens around the world.

I don't know if Raphael will agree with that response, Senator. It strikes me that it would be impossible for us to realize those high ideals you trumpet in a world of limited resources and competing claims. And, like Amy mentioned earlier, I wonder how can you be true to church teaching without imposing Catholic beliefs on the majority of Americans who are not Catholic, not to mention the Catholics who themselves disagree with you.

John, I think the most direct answer I can give you and Amy would be to explain how a Catholic politician might negotiate the difficult issues of abortion, war and peace, and economic growth.

The political discourse surrounding abortion (and also stem-cell research using human embryos) is impoverished, with each side giving no quarter to the other. Polarization, division and ill will are the result. Pro-life Catholics increasingly rely on brittle denunciations and virtual excommunication of pro-choice Catholic politicians. In knee-jerk reaction, pro-choice Catholics fall back on the unimaginative rhetoric of defiance: My Catholic faith is a personal matter. I don't tell bishops how to bishop; they should not tell me how to govern.

The problem with this response, of course, is that it fails the integrity test by rendering the faith and moral convictions of the politician irrelevant to real-world decisions and public life. A pro-choice Catholic who takes seriously the teaching of the church would respond differently, by indicating how the principles and values of Catholic social doctrine inform his or her reasoning and formulation of a specific position.

For example, one often hears pro-choice politicians say that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." A Catholic politician who acknowledges a woman's right to decide for herself whether abortion is the taking of a human life must explain that he is respecting the priority and inviolability of conscience — another Catholic moral principle. Yet this is not enough. The Catholic politician must attempt to shape opinion, to persuade women and men that abortion is, as the church teaches, a grave moral evil. Even as he upholds the law that permits women to make that choice, the Catholic politician must expound the reasons why abortion must indeed be "rare." Why abortion is to be avoided.

Of course, the pro-choice politician risks offending his constituency if he challenges its moral reasoning. Such political courage may ultimately cost Catholic politicians at the polls. The price of integrity can be high.

Well, Senator, that response indeed may cost you some votes. But we have Father William from Texas on the line. Perhaps he can speak in your favor. Go ahead, Father.

Senator, I absolutely cannot speak in your favor on this issue. A "pro-choice Catholic" is a contradiction in terms! Your stated position plays havoc with the coherence of Catholic teaching on the question. In the strongest possible terms I urge you to reformulate your position on this matter, literally, of life and death. I also wonder if you would waffle on other issues that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in fidelity to the example of the Holy Father, has taken unambiguous positions on, such as the need to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Thank you, Father. Catholic teaching on war and peace does indeed shape my thinking on the use of U.S. military might. I am not a pacifist, nor does my church require me to be. There is such a thing as a just war — and the war against terrorism, if it is conducted ethically, qualifies. I would not hesitate to use military might in a just cause. But my church, my faith and my own moral reasoning set that bar quite high. War must truly be a last resort: diplomacy, dialogue, targeted sanctions, third-party intervention by the United Nations or other governmental or nongovernmental mediators — all these and other nonviolent measures must be exhausted, tried again, and found wanting.

In order to defend our nation, it may be necessary to wage war. But my administration will prefer to wage peace — to devote resources, talent and time to cross-cultural exchange, collaboration, relationship-building across national borders. We have much to learn from other cultures, just as we have much to offer. Partnerships in science and technology, economic development and education will be a priority. Strategic investments in key regions — a Marshall plan for the Middle East, for example — are down payments on a table and sustainable peace. So, too, are renewed efforts to strengthen barriers against the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction; this, too, will be a priority of my administration.

We have another question, Senator. Joe, from Michigan, go ahead.

Yeah, hi. I lost my job a few months ago and now all I can find is part-time work that doesn't pay beans. So what are you going to do for me?

Joe, I realize Americans vote their pocketbooks, or so goes the conventional wisdom. So be it. I encourage Americans to think of economic, physical and psychological security as interrelated, however. In the long run, the middle class grows and the economy flourishes because it serves people, incorporating greater and greater numbers while providing meaningful and productive jobs, fair salaries and ample benefits.

Tax policy must be designed to strengthen and expand the middle class, but the government cannot ignore the crying need for affordable and accessible health care for all Americans. I will propose measures to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid, as well as policies that extend health care coverage to children, pregnant women, workers, immigrants and other vulnerable populations. To rectify the weaknesses of welfare reform, I shall propose tax credits, child care, health care and safe, affordable housing for those who have moved into work in low-wage jobs.

Such plans and proposals are ambitious — some would say radical — not least because they make the unfashionable demand that privileged and affluent Americans take their share of responsibility for the common good. In my administration those currently left behind will become a priority once again — not by returning to the welfare state or failed attempts at social engineering of the past. Rather, I will strive to persuade corporate and political leaders that job training, concern for human social and economic rights, reform of international commerce and globalization must be our priorities if our affluence is to survive the new era of global interdependence and integration.

Senator, we're almost out of time, so let's wrap things up. You've given our listeners plenty to think about. As for me, I'm trying to work out those economic policies you threw out. They do strike me as pretty radical. Do you have any final words?

If my proposals are radical, I trust they will be sufficiently radical. My Catholic faith as well as my American patriotism demand no less from me.

Scott Appleby, former director of Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, is now dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs.