‘I do not speak for my Church on public matters — nor does my Church speak for me.” So spoke Sen. John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, when anti-Catholicism among ordinary Americans was nearly as widespread and intense as it remains among the chattering classes today.
Kennedy’s statement still makes good theological and political sense as far as it goes, which isn’t very far at all. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the bishops have always spoken for the Church in matters of faith and morals, based on their three-fold ecclesial mandate to teach, govern, and sanctify. What’s problematic, then as now, is Kennedy’s overall argument in his celebrated Houston speech that religious faith is a wholly private and compartmentalized matter, completely separate and distinct from the exercise of citizenship and the vocation of public service.
Nearly a half-century later, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi claims to speak for the Church as an “ardent, practicing Catholic” — a self-description and role Kennedy expressly disclaimed — by presuming to state what the Church teaches
on particular matters of faith and morals. That’s a far cry from the necessarily contingent “public matters” of practical application and prudential judgment — like whether to raise the minimum wage, for instance — that Kennedy alluded to.
So far more than two dozen Catholic bishops have rightly taken Pelosi to task for badly misstating the content of authentic Church teaching on matters of exceptional clarity and gravity, as expressed during her August 24 interview on Meet the Press, conducted in Denver on the eve of the Democratic convention. Pelosi’s remarks and some initial responses — notably those of Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput — are amply detailed on NRO (see, for instance, here, here, here, and here).
The ensuing controversy involves a host of internal Church issues mainly of concern to the Catholic community. These include the proper formation and exercise of conscience; the maintenance, transmission, and development of Church teaching; the exercise of legitimate dissent (ideally rare, respectful, and reluctant, according to Cardinal Avery Dulles); the need to learn how to “think with the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia); and the autonomy of the Church itself — and that of all other religious groups — as a matter of religious freedom under the First Amendment.
But what’s chiefly at stake is whether American Catholics have — or ought to have — a distinctive understanding of citizenship informed by faith that shapes their participation in public life, whether as private citizens or public servants.
If that’s the case, then Catholics can make a distinctive contribution to American political life, based on respect for life, respect for human dignity, and respect for the natural moral law (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”) shared by the Founding Fathers. What’s more, Catholics can supply a healthy perspective on political conflict through their understanding that politics at best serves proximate rather than ultimate ends. To cite St. Augustine, Pelosi’s favorite theologian, we have no permanent City here. But if that’s not the case, then Kennedy was right to maintain that what one shares on Sunday mornings has nothing at all to do with what one does during the rest of the week.
These considerations may supply some useful context for the upcoming “conversation” between Pelosi and her local bishop, the Most Reverend George Niederauer, archbishop of San Francisco. The two of them reached this agreement with an exchange of letters this past Friday (see here and here).