Fr. Thomas D. Williams is author of the new book Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience. Dean of theology and professor of moral theology and Catholic social thought at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, he is a Vatican Analyst for CBS News. He talked to National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez about President-Elect Obama, life, death, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What does the Obama victory look like from Rome?
Father Thomas D. Williams: Probably much as it does in the U.S. — a mixed bag! While Italians undoubtedly follow U.S. politics more closely than Americans follow Italy’s, still they know relatively little. They get almost all their information for the Italian daily papers and evening news, which are as biased as the mainstream American media, if not more so. In past months they have universally painted Obama as the savior not only of the U.S., but of the world. Since alternative media have yet to blossom in Italy the way they have in the U.S., people generally receive just one side of every story.
#ad#As just one example, today Italy’s far-left political party (the vestiges of the Italian Communist party) pasted large congratulatory posters featuring Obama’s picture all over Rome.
Today many people have come up to me to congratulate me on Obama’s victory, as if it could be assumed that all Americans are thrilled with the outcome of the election. Most only know that he is young, articulate, and black, with an emphasis on the latter. Few know what his positions are on key moral issues, and few can say what they think his impact will be on the American political landscape other than “change.” In this, I fear that the Italians mirror our compatriots quite closely.
A few people have approached me to sympathize today — mostly folks who have followed the campaign more closely and understand what was at stake in this election.
Lopez: Does anyone with a well-formed conscience have to concede a black man elected president is a good thing in and of itself because of our past sins?
Williams: I personally felt that it would have been a good thing for McCain to come forward at some point and say: “Look, America desperately needs to get over its racial biases and show itself and the world that skin color no longer matters. To do this, we need a black president. But not just any black president, and certainly not Barack Obama.” But that never happened.
Leaving aside other important questions, having a black president in and of itself is a good thing for America. I sincerely hope that it will allow race to diminish rather than grow in importance, though that remains to be seen. Martin Luther King Jr dreamed of a color-blind America, and we are still a long way from that.
Lopez: Did Americans do something bad last night?
Williams: It would be rash to make a sweeping moral judgment on a group of people like the American voting public. Morality entails two dimensions: an objective dimension and a subjective dimension. The first dimension concerns whether a given choice or action is right or wrong in itself. The second dimension involves intention and moral knowledge. Our Catholic tradition has always recognized the possibility of “invincible ignorance,” whereby a person does something wrong while sincerely and perhaps blamelessly believing it to be right. I doubt many Americans voted for Obama thinking they were doing something wrong.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t morally responsible for this choice. Some people may have allowed more superficial concerns triumph over more weighty moral issues in determining which way they would vote. All who voted for Obama will in some way share in the responsibility for his actions as president, at least as far as they were foreseeable. As far as life issues, marriage, and school choice go (to take three key moral issues), we already know where Obama stands and what he intends to do. Personally, I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.
Lopez: What should the so called values-voter do in this new political environment?
Williams: Although it may seem like insubstantial rhetoric, clearly we need to come together as a nation and work together as far as we are able. There are areas where we can agree and combine efforts for the good of the nation.
We should press the new administration to do the right thing, and continue to make our voices heard. The United States has a radiant history of vigorous social activism, and we have never let ourselves simply be pushed around by politicians. Culture and national character are too important to be left to the public authorities. I would hope that this will be even more the case in these next four years when so many tremendous matters are at stake. We cannot simply throw in the towel or abdicate our moral and social responsibility simply because the elections are over.
Lopez: How does a prolife type follow his conscience in the new Washington?
Williams: Unfortunately with this election pro-life efforts have suffered a heavy blow, and it is easy to become discouraged. I think at this point we must steel ourselves to work even harder, and not to lose hope. Some battles are worth giving one’s life for. We don’t know when victory will come, but this cannot temper our resolve.
New and ugly situations will arise where people’s consciences will be put to the test. The issue of conscientious objection for those working in the pharmaceutical, medical, or healthcare fields will grow more acute, and intense pressure will be brought to bear on those who attempt to resist the secular trend to moral conformism. Some will endeavor to create an environment that will oblige serious Catholics and other Christians to retire from certain fields, and people with deep moral convictions will be considered unfit for certain jobs because of their “moral absolutism.” All of this will require prayer, hard work, creativity, a willingness to suffer, and unflagging cooperation among those engaged in the pro-life effort.
Lopez: What does the Obama victory mean for the Catholic Church given his record on abortion?
Williams: The U.S. bishops will be facing an enormous challenge in the coming months. Not only do we now have the most radically pro-abortion president in history, we also have a Catholic vice-president who also supports abortion rights, in opposition to Church teaching.
The Church will continue to try to work together with those in office, while making clear its opposition to Obama’s unacceptable position on life issues. In November, at the annual meeting of the US Bishops Conference, the issue of whether or not to deny Holy Communion to pro-abortion Catholic legislators is on the docket for discussion, and will now be all the more important because of Joe Biden’s election as vice-president.
A look back at the history of Christianity helps put these times in perspective, and can instill hope in those who see only darkness. The Church has persevered in the face of intense persecution and governments that hunted down Christians in order to put them to death. We have not yet reached that point. It seems to me that the important thing is to stand firm in the truth, and to pray for courage to do the right thing regardless of the personal consequences.
As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans of his day, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
In the end, this is what we are called to do, and on this will we be judged.