The Political Consequences: Shaping Public Choices
Some commentators on the consistent ethic saw it primarily as a political policy. They missed its primary meaning: It is a moral vision and an ethical argument sustaining the vision. But the moral vision does have political consequences. The consistent ethic is meant to shape the public witness of the Catholic Church in our society.
The first consequence is simply to highlight the unique place which Catholic teaching on a range of issues has given the Church in the public arena As I have said before, no other major institution in the country brings together the positions the Catholic bishops presently hold on abortion, nuclear policy, and economic policy. Our positions cut across party lines, and they contradict conventional notions of liberal and conservative. I find that a healthy contribution to the public debate, and I believe we ought to stress the point.
The second public consequence of a consistent ethic is to establish a framework where we can test the moral vision of each part of the Church in a disciplined, systematic fashion. We will not shape an ecclesial consensus about the consistent ethic without the kind of vigorous public debate which has gone on in the Church in the last two years. But our debate will sharpen our ecclesial moral sense, and it can also be a public lesson to the wider society if it is marked by coherence, civility, and charity.
The third public consequence of a consistent ethic is that it provides a standard to test public policy, party platforms, and the posture of candidates for office Here is where the challenge to moral reasoning, pastoral leadership, and political sensitivity reaches its most delicate level. But we should not shrink from the need to make specific the logic of the consistent ethic.
We are a multi-issue Church precisely because of the scope and structure of our moral teaching. But it is not enough to be interested in several issues. We need to point the way toward a public vision where issues can be understood as morally and politically interdependent. I propose the consistent ethic not as a finished product but a framework in need of development. I invite more debate about it, precisely at this concrete level where specific choices on issues are made, where candidates take positions, and where citizens must evaluate them.
I believe our moral vision is broader and richer than we have made it appear at this concrete, practical level of politics. Precisely because we are not yet in a national election year, we need to think about how a consistent ethic can be set forth in a convincing way. It will cut across conventional party lines, and it will not lead to crystal clear judgments on candidates, but it may give the Church, as an institution and a community, a better way to engage the attention of the nation regarding the intersection of moral vision, public policy, and political choices.
To think through the meaning of such a position, we need bishops who foster the debate, political leaders who enter the discussion, professors and policy analysts who can clarify categories, and members of the Church who exercise the supremely important role of citizens. It is my hope that we can have this kind of ecclesial and public debate in the months ahead.
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