Catholics make up about 30 percent of those who vote in national elections. These 30 million Catholics have the power to make our country a better nation— more welcoming to life, more supportive of families, and more effective in its programs to help the poor and marginalized.
Furthermore, Catholics who attend Mass regularly vote more often and express heightened concern for issues at the core of the Church’s social teaching. Once politicians notice that Catholics vote their values, the faithful will have an opportunity to influence their leaders.
But there are a few things to remember.
First, Catholics who vote should not worry about “imposing” their values on others. The U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the legality of slavery would never have been overturned if men and women of faith had chosen to keep their religious convictions private. The voters who supported Lincoln didn’t worry about “imposing” their faith in ending the scourge of slavery.
Catholics do not seek laws requiring citizens to attend church or observe Lenten fasts. On the contrary, Catholics advocate the protection of basic human rights through legislation and policy, such as the right to life and the right to educational freedom. Laws and policies embody the values we—as a nation—agree to live by.
Second, Catholics know that the protection of the unborn is the “dominant issue” among all political issues. Though some have criticized Catholics as being “single- issue” voters, the principle underlying the rejection of abortion extends to other issues, such as bioethics, population, euthanasia, and defense. The mandate to protect life in politics is unconditional and should be our foremost consideration.
Third, not all the policy positions taken by candidates are of equal importance to Catholics. As dominant-issue voters, Catholics should learn to give various issues their proper priority, thus preserving the hierarchy of values at the core of Church teaching.
There is no need for any Catholic who enters the voting booth to leave any part of the Faith outside. The tradition of Catholic moral and social teaching is a practical voting guide second to none.
Applying the Principles
Political judgments are rarely black-and-white—most require prudence (the application of a general principle to a concrete situation).
All Catholics bear the responsibility of making prudential judgments, but these judgments rely on information that is often not easily available. We need guidance, and the bishops offer it through the publications of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The USCCB represents a merging in 2001 of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), which were created in 1966. Since then, the bishops have released more than 100 pastoral letters and statements that take positions on dozens of public policy matters, ranging from hand-guns, racial prejudice, and U.S. relations with Panama to treatment of the aging, farm laborers, and war in the Middle East.
These statements are intended to educate Catholics on pressing issues of law and policy. Some confusion has also been created unintentionally by this official commentary on such a wide range of issues: Few Catholics make the distinction between binding statements of principle and the non-binding prudential judgments on policy issues.
The bishops themselves recognize the potential for confusion and have addressed it directly, for example, in their pastoral Economic Justice for All: “We do not claim to make these prudential judgments with the same kind of authority that marks our declarations of principle.” Instead, the letters are attempts at applying Catholic principles to concrete situations. But the authority of bishops in matters of faith and morals does not extend to their prudential judgments in other matters.
Don’t misunderstand me: Catholics need the education in social teaching offered by the bishops. We can learn from the bishops’ examples of how to think prudentially and how to gather the expertise and data necessary to put principle into practice. But the habit of prudence belongs to individuals, not to a group. Prudence is not prudence when it is handed down like a rule to be followed. Individual prudential judgment follows from principles and cannot be commanded or dictated.
The U.S. bishops have clearly stated, “Decisions about candidates and choices about public policies require clear commitment to moral principles, careful discernment and prudential judgments based on the values of our faith” (Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility).
What’s important to recognize, first of all, is the commitment to principle at the core of policy recommendation. What must be considered is how effective a policy will be in implementing the principle that underlies it.
Should a political candidate talk publicly about his faith? Should an elected official allow his or her faith to inform political decisions? These are questions that have been discussed for decades, but the debate has grown more heated in recent years.
The Church’s position is clear: “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals” (Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, 4).
The Church teaches very clearly that the political order is not separate from the divine order revealed by faith (Gaudium et Spes, 74). Yet some well-known Catholic politicians over the past decades have argued that Catholic values should remain personal, not political. These same politicians, however, claim a Catholic basis for policies addressing, for example, a preferential option for the poor, yet wholeheartedly reject Catholic teachings on the protection of life.
This insistence on compartmentalizing faith restricts our compassion and concern to our immediate family. A religion with “love thy neighbor” as its central tenet cannot remain restricted to one’s family.
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or means, is gravely contrary to the moral law (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2274)
Those who treat abortion as just one of many issues are misleading Catholic voters. Abortion is unique among policy issues because it is not a matter of prudential judgment. From a Catholic perspective, politicians are not making an application of a principle to a specific situation: All instances of abortion are morally wrong.
Those politicians who are pro-abortion but want to be known as Catholic will try to minimize the importance of the issue by citing a long list of issues, with abortion being only one among them. Their method of convincing voters of their Catholic credentials is to trade disagreement on this issue with agreement on several others. But as the bishops point out in Living the Gospel of Life (1998), this would be like saying that you can build a house without a foundation, simply because all the other parts of the house are strong.
When we look at persons who are in need of food and shelter we immediately feel it our duty to help them. Why? We naturally sense the moral obligation to help persons protect and recover their dignity. This fact of human solidarity in Church teaching—the necessity of community in seeking the common good—never changes.
The natural law at the basis of our moral judgment inclines us to respond to human need; the same inclination is at the basis of our desire to protect life before it is born. Commitment to social justice arises from the same moral vision as the defense of innocent life.
In short, there’s continuity between providing someone with food and shelter and the willingness to defend his or her life when it is threatened. The Church often employs the phrase “social justice” when addressing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.” (CCC 1928).
The demands of social justice begin with the right to life and end with the right to be protected from euthanasia or the temptation of assisted suicide. It’s a mistake to detach the idea of social justice from the protection of vulnerable life: The moral obligation to protect the unborn and to feed the hungry springs from the same source—the inherent dignity of the human person (CCC 1929).
The Church’s pronouncements on abortion as an evil are spoken with the highest level of authority—there is not the least hint that either a Catholic voter or a Catholic candidate can ignore them. The reason that abortion is the dominant issue in determining the vote is twofold:
First, the protection of life—the right to life—is a moral principle that sits at the foundation of morality itself. This right is “inalienable,” meaning that it cannot be removed, even by the choice of the mother or father.
Second, the Catholic injunction to oppose abortion is unqualified: Individuals are not required, or allowed, to make prudential judgments of the principle to a specific case. Appeals to private “conscience” cannot override this infallible teaching.
The president and Congress must take whatever action they can to reduce the number of abortions and, in the future, put an end to abortion for good. For the moment, no step is too small.
The Church allows support for politicians “whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known” and who take an “incremental” approach to restoring the culture of life (Evangelium Vitae, 73).
In other words, it’s permissible for a Catholic voter to vote for a politician who attempts to pass, for example, the ban on partial-birth abortion. The support for such a ban is not to be construed as political indifference to the millions of other abortions.
Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
Intentional euthanasia, whatever its forms or motives, is murder. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator (CCC 2324).
The Church views euthanasia and assisted suicide as the direct killing of a human being and, therefore, an immoral act. Support for euthanasia and assisted suicide is not a matter of prudential judgment—there are never any reasons that justify such killing: “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable” (CCC 2277).
A Catholic politician’s support of these practices is promoting the culture of death and is not acceptable in the view of the Church.
Scrutinizing the position of Catholic politicians on this issue is very important. What was once unthinkable—the state endorsement of euthanasia—became a reality when the state of Oregon enacted a law legalizing physician-assisted suicide in 1997. Since then, similar legislation has been introduced in other states. This is an initiative that every Catholic citizen and politician must oppose.
Those who have watched the spread of the culture of death since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 were not surprised that the same attitude that led to the legalization of abortion has opened the door to arguments in support of euthanasia.
The intrinsic dignity and sacredness of human life—the inalienable right to life—have been replaced by the primacy of personal preference and the protection of pleasure. In Evangelium Vitae (1995), John Paul II spoke directly to that issue: “When the prevailing tendency is to value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being, suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs.”
Rather than subjectively ending the lives of those who suffer, John Paul II has said that true compassion calls us to share in their suffering. In so doing, we may use appropriate levels of palliative care—pain relief—as long as we do not remove their personal experiences of life and death.
The ban against euthanasia does not mean that caregivers and families cannot stop extraordinary medical procedures used to keep their loved ones alive. To reject such treatment is not euthanasia, “it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC 2278).
Choosing to stop such treatment is a prudential judgment belonging to the patient’s family and the assisting physician. The need to make such judgments demonstrates how laws allowing euthanasia harm the relationship between doctors and patients. The Hippocratic Oath, taken by physicians since before the time of Christ, specifies that the physician “do no harm.”
The euthanasia option fundamentally changes the relationship between doctor and patient: Patients can no longer trust their doctors to absolutely seek life over death.
But what if a patient seeks help in hastening his or her death? Some argue that this consent justifies what is known as assisted suicide. Yet Church teaching is clear in its rejection of suicide ever being morally permissible, even under conditions of extreme suffering. “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life . . . [and] is contrary to love for the living God” (CCC 2281).
Just as a person should not “put someone out of his misery” by means of euthanasia, he should not assist someone in committing suicide.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide belong to those sets of moral obligations that allow no exception to Catholic teaching. They are among those acts that “are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (Gaudium et Spes, 27).
Thus, along with abortion, a politician’s support for euthanasia disqualifies him or her from the Catholic vote.
Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God (CCC 159).
Bioethics is taking center stage in the arena of public policy and morality. The past few years have witnessed highly visible debates on human embryonic stem cell research and cloning. Since the future of such research has a direct impact on the life and death of human persons, it’s a life issue for all Catholics.
In recent years, the Church has been highly supportive of technological advances in medicine, pursued in conformity with basic moral principles and respectful of the inherent dignity of life: “Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God” (CCC 2294).
Catholics take seriously what science reveals about human embryogenesis and intrauterine human development. Human life begins at conception, and the gift of a child is linked with the conjugal act. Therefore, the Church opposes abortion and embryo-destructive research and rejects reproductive procedures that attempt to substitute for the marital act, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and artificial insemination. In this way, the Church upholds the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the marriage union.
With the use of so-called assisted reproduction, we can see a link between these ideals and the practices that threaten to undermine them. The most disturbing is the use of cryopreservation (i.e., freezing) to store “spare” embryos. This practice, in effect, sentences an embryonic human being to a state of permanent suspension—literally frozen in time. For many, these embryos represent biological material for scientific experimentation, such as stem cell research.
The Church’s message is one of enthusiastic support for biomedical science, yet firm opposition to killing in the name of research. To experiment on unused, unimplanted, or frozen embryos violates Church teaching and “reduces human life to the level of simple ‘biological material”‘ (Evangelium Vitae, 14). The fact that surplus embryos have been effectively orphaned does not reduce them to the status of expendable research material, nor does it remove their right to be protected by law.
U.S. government policy limits federal funding for research to stem cell lines that were created prior to August 9, 2001. The Bush administration successfully prohibited federal funding for research involving embryo destruction after that date. However, federal law does not restrict privately funded embryo-destructive research, although there are prohibitions on such research in some states.
What makes the practice of using embryonic cells especially abhorrent is the fact that scientists have made significant progress on adult stem cells to the point that they now offer a promising alternative. Many people are alive today as a result of therapies using adult stem cells, while no one has ever been cured of any disease by embryonic stem cell therapies.
Some researchers seek to “harvest” tissues and organs by creating life through a cloning process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. The Church teaches that cloning is morally wrong: “These techniques, insofar as they involve the manipulation and destruction of human embryos, are not morally acceptable, even when their proposed goal is good in itself” (Pope John Paul II, Address to International Congress on Transplants).
Members of the U.S. Congress are now facing the issue of whether human clones, once they are created, can be killed for the sake of medical research or benefit. Immediate attention to this matter is critical.
No Catholic can justify such a policy.
Thus the Church condemns as a grave offense against human dignity and justice all those activities of governments or other public authorities which attempt to limit in any way the freedom of couples in deciding about children (Familiaris Consortio, 30).
In recent decades the issue of overpopulation has led the United States to spend millions of dollars on population control efforts. Much of this money is given to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work in developing nations to address what they see as problems of over-population. Abortion, sterilization, and contraception have become part of U.S. foreign policy.
The so-called Mexico City policy, implemented in 1984 by President Reagan and reinstated in 2001 by President George W. Bush, restricts federal money earmarked for family planning from being spent on abortion overseas or on military bases. It specifically prohibits funding for programs that force, promote, or advocate changes in laws to legalize abortion. As a result, many NGOs are now barred from receiving federal family planning money from USAID and similar organizations.
As with voluntary sterilization, unnatural contraceptive techniques remain entrenched in government-funded family planning programs. In fact, the United States annually spends $425 million on contraception around the world. Yet the Church teaches that contraception is immoral.
The many Church documents that address the problem of contraception stress the self-giving that stands at the heart of the relationship between a husband and wife. Contraception is a deliberate refusal of this gift. “This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love” (Familiaris Consortio, 32).
Artificial family planning techniques do not work and they do nothing to benefit a person’s character. The best way to deal with destructive behavior is to change the behavior, not to render the behavior seemingly innocuous. In fact, recent statistics highlight the fact that increased contraceptive use does not result in decreased recourse to abortion, and condom use alone has not been successful in curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Abstinence programs, which the Church does applaud, have recently been successfully employed to fight the plague of AIDS, most notably in Africa. Despite this success, natural family planning (NFP) has never been employed by any of the federally funded NGOs around the world, even though the Foreign Assistance Act was amended in 1981 to ensure that NFP methods were included in the global family planning discussion.
Controversies over population policy became quite visible during the pontificate of John Paul II when the Holy See participated in a succession of world conferences on population: Cairo (1994), Beijing (1995), New York (1999), and Beijing (2000). During these conferences the Holy See delegation united with key allies, including most Muslim countries, to keep the documents from enshrining such things as a “universal women’s right to abortion” and an unfettered right of adolescents to “reproductive health services.”
Despite their efforts, each conference incrementally added more “reproductive rights” until, in arguably the worst event, the UN called for the training of health-care workers to perform abortions and make them available. To make matters worse, the Vatican’s repeated calls to include conscientious objection protection for pro-life healthcare workers were totally ignored.
Population policy also has a domestic side. At least 23 states have mandated that employee insurance policies cover contraceptives, including the abortifacient “morning- after pill.”
For a Catholic institution, such as a hospital or university, such a mandate is a clear violation of conscience. While some states have included a “conscience clause” that allows a business to opt out on religious grounds, some do not, and some are so poorly written that the Catholic Church does not qualify. The threat is real since a federal mandate would override all the conscience clauses of the states and require all religious employers to provide contraception, including the USCCB.
The Death Penalty
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor (CCC 2267).
Capital punishment is probably the most misunderstood moral issue in the Catholic Church. This confusion stems from the change made in the Catechism in 1997 to bring the teaching into conformity with the encyclical Evangelium Vitae.
The change was widely reported in the media and by some Catholic commentators as the Church declaring total opposition to the use of the death penalty. This view is incorrect and is not supported by the words of the revised Catechism or Evangelium Vitae itself.
The Church’s position can be summarized in this way: The Church acknowledges that criminals must be punished and leaves open the possibility that alternatives to the death penalty may not be sufficient to protect the common good. However, thanks to advances in the judicial and penal sys¬tems, it is becoming more possible for the state to fulfill its obligation to protect the common good by “bloodless means.” Modern penology has made the necessity of capital punishment “very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Evangelium Vitae, 56).
However, what is true in the United States and other developed countries may not be true in less developed parts of the world where prisons provide security for neither those on the inside nor the outside. Prudential judgment is required to apply this teaching to circumstances.
Political candidates best represent Church teaching when they recognize the necessity of protecting the common good from aggression and providing the necessary resources for the improvement of prison care, while still upholding the inherent dignity of individuals.
Elected representatives have a threefold responsibility: first, to recognize the preference of bloodless means in treating the worst criminals; second, to ensure judicial sentences are commensurate with the crimes and the threat to the common good, and third, to provide the resources needed to keep prisons secure for inmates, staff, and the public.
We have nothing to lose by ending the practice of capital punishment.
Yet, if we are to rely on life-imprisonment, the underlying sentencing policies must prevent dangerous criminals from returning to general society until the threat they pose is removed. The only way to completely eliminate the death penalty is to ensure that the penal system truly protects society from the most dangerous of its inmates.
The primary purpose of punishment is to prevent further harm, but the Church also holds forth the hope that those being punished will experience moral renewal in the acceptance of a just punishment: “Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party” (CCC 2266).
The Holy Father and the bishops hope that this view of punishment will itself be a witness to the culture of life. Rather than seeing justice in reflexive eye-for-an-eye terms, they urge Catholics to understand the cost of violence, even when violence is sanctioned by the state in the name of protecting the common good.
The Church urges us to go beyond the action that is justified to the action that is a better witness to the moral order.
All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed (CCC 2308).
The Church has never taught pacifism as an option for those in charge of the common good, only for individuals in certain circumstances. Military servicemen, for example, serve with honor and “contribute to the common good of the nation” (CCC 2310). Just as a person is entitled to self- defense, so too is a government responsible for protecting its people. The most powerful of all protective methods is to wage war against those who pose legitimate and significant threats. In certain cases, war can be a moral duty.
When war threatens, Catholics are obliged to apply these criteria in shaping their opinions on whether conflict is justified. It’s entirely appropriate for Catholics, lay and religious alike, to voice their opinions on the justness of a potential or actual conflict. Yet these opinions are prudential in nature.
Not all wars are just, according to Church teaching. Therefore, all Catholics and political leaders must consider carefully their reasons for going to war, the process by which they arrived at their decisions, and all probable outcomes. As a guide, the Church has delineated specific criteria for a just war.
According to the Catechism, the four conditions for a just war are 1) “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain”; 2) “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective”; 3) “there must be serious prospects of success”; and 4) “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (CCC 2309).
Note that these considerations apply to more than the reasons for war but also to the way a war is fought and its outcome. With the development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, the human cost of war has multiplied many times over. The potential for vast destruction of innocent life is ominous, thus a nation’s response to an aggressor must be proportionate and limited.
Those who offer their opinions on war do not always have the data needed to fully inform their prudential judgments. While the published opinions of bishops or priests inform the decisions of political leaders and Catholic citizens, their opinions are not binding, except in certain circumstances such as that of Nazi Germany where the regime itself was morally indefensible. Ultimately, the authorities responsible for the common good of U.S. citizens are the president and Congress, who must use the vast resources at their disposal to make wise and honest choices. The Catechism recognizes it is their collective, prudential judgment upon which the decision to wage war is based.
If we want to ensure that the United States goes to war rarely and in a just manner, all Catholics should consider their elected officials in light of the principles listed in the Catechism. Political candidates should be willing to defend the country against aggression, but they should demonstrate an even greater inclination toward peace. Candidates should also be prepared to take decisive and proportionate actions in the face of credible and imminent threats.
The Church alludes to the option of “international authority” in avoiding the decision to go to war. The only such authority at the present time is the United Nations, a deliberative body whose various actions are empowered by the agreement of its member nations. Despite this influence, the UN has only authorized two of the many wars since its founding: the Korean conflict and the first Persian Gulf War. Nonetheless, it is an important player in the deliberative process, since it represents the only stage upon which all nations participate diplomatically in avoiding war through non-violent means.
Defense and Terrorism
Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense (CCC 1909).
A nation has a duty to defend itself and the lives of its citizens as part of serving the common good. To achieve this goal, the military capacity of a nation should be at least equal to that of its enemy. The Catechism allows for this: “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense” (CCC 2266). The alternative renders the government powerless to fulfill its primary obligation. For if a nation’s military is unprepared or its capacity to respond is poor, the aggressors will most likely prevail.
This does not mean that governments have complete latitude in planning their defenses. Those entrusted with the defense of the common good are expected to act within a moral framework when waging war. For example, the Catechism allows for the use of arms when the common good is threatened (CCC 2265), but these weapons should not have the potential to become an even greater threat than the original source of danger (CCC 2309).
In the past, nuclear weapons were considered a viable deterrent to a more traditional type of war. The enemies were easily identified and clearly defined. Yet, in this new age of terrorism, how do nations defend themselves against isolated attacks and hidden aggressors? As terrorism becomes an almost daily occurrence in places like Iraq, Israel, and Pakistan, the social teaching of the Church, like every other body of thought on national defense, is in a development stage. What is “morally acceptable” when it comes to terrorist groups who are willing to take innocent life in order to intimidate nations, influence policy, and affect the outcome of elections?
The present debate over preemptive attacks is an example of this internal discussion within the Church. Some bishops, especially those in the United States, have questioned the legitimacy of using preemptive attacks to remove the threat from states supporting or shielding terrorist organizations.
But the Church has long taught that terrorism is never a just form of war: “The purposeful taking of human life is an unjustifiable assault on human life. For the same reasons, the intentional targeting of civilians in war or terrorist attacks is always wrong” (USCCB, Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility). While recognizing the legitimacy of one soldier taking the life of another soldier under the condition of war, the Church does not recognize the legitimacy of terrorist attacks under any circumstances.
In response to the attacks of September 11, the bishops reminded political leaders to look beyond military solutions: “Without in any way excusing indefensible terrorist acts, we still need to address those conditions of poverty and injustice which are exploited by terrorists” (USCCB, Living with Faith and Hope After September 11).
The bishops recognize that poverty and inequality are not the sole, or even the chief, causes of terrorism, especially in the case of Muslim extremists. Nevertheless, these are conditions that are “exploited” by terrorists looking to clothe themselves in political legitimacy. Without a strategy that includes diplomatic and intelligence cooperation among the nations of the world, terrorist organizations and cells will always find “rogue” states to train and house their agents.
Peace is not merely the absence of war; it’s not only achieved through defense, but through communication, respect, and solidarity.
In short, the best defense against aggression combines three elements: first, a military prepared to implement a proportionate and effective response; second, international diplomacy that identifies and resolves the causes of conflict before military action becomes necessary; and third, a foreign policy that seeks to correct social conditions that foster aggression and terrorism, through international cooperation.
Some there must be who devote themselves to the work of the commonwealth, who make the laws or administer justice, or whose advice and authority govern the nation in times of peace, and defend it in war. Such men clearly occupy the foremost place in the State, and should be held in highest estimation, for their work concerns most nearly and effectively the general interests of the community (Rerum Novarum, 34).
Judges are either elected directly by the people or nominated and approved by our elected leaders (i.e., the president and the U.S. Senate). In recent years, prolonged political battles have been waged over presidential nominations to federal courts of appeals. Future U.S. Supreme Court nominees will likely face fierce scrutiny and political battering, even to a greater extent than the tumultuous nominees of the past.
The issue that often has driven the debate is abortion, now followed closely by homosexual marriage. Since these are the current flashpoints in the battle over judicial nominations, it’s not surprising that the religious commitments of court nominees have been so closely scrutinized. Given that evangelicals and faithful Catholics are united in defending unborn life and marriage between a man and woman, the judges from those faith traditions have been attacked.
The role of a judge is to interpret law, not create it. The separation of powers in the Constitution gives Congress the power to make laws, giving courts only the limited power to interpret them. Judges are expected to overlook their personal beliefs and base their decisions on the law alone.
It’s especially unfortunate when Catholic politicians lead the fight against those justices who have demonstrated strong commitments to Catholic teaching. Public officials who treat a judicial nominee’s Catholic faith as an obstacle to serving as a judge not only demonstrate a bias against religious beliefs but also reveal a misunderstanding about Catholic teaching on judicial responsibility itself.
In fact, faithful Catholics, who are grounded in the concepts of following rules and exhibiting humility, should be especially well-suited for judicial service because they would naturally eschew the qualities that lead a judge to being an activist.
The most serious problem in the judiciary is the presence of activist judges who use every opportunity to misconstrue, contort, and stretch the law to create the maximum amount of legal justification for abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual marriage. Those who nominate and confirm judicial activists try to shape the courts because they cannot get what they want in the political process. Activist judges disenfranchise voters of faith.
Catholics both within government and without must be on guard against an attitude that holds law to be whatever the legislator says it is. This reduction of law can endanger democracy and morality by removing the objective foundation of morals and law as given by nature and recognized by reason.
Eternal laws are the government of all things by God and form the basis of the social moral order. Their assimilation to human society through reason gives the immediate basis of political morality; natural law is the foundation of a sound political vision. Human laws that contradict the natural law—for example, American laws legalizing abortion—have no authority for Catholics. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted St. Thomas Aquinas on this point in his influential “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
What does this mean in our system of democratic government? First, our elected officials must make laws that respect natural law. Second, individuals who use the judiciary to create rights or obligations that have no basis in our Constitution are acting improperly.