Overcoming moral schizophrenia, The Anchor, April 13, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
April 13, 2012

During his customary press conference on “Shepherd One” with journalists traveling with him on the plane to Mexico, Pope Benedict was asked about the Church’s response to widespread narcoterrorism and the massive social disparity between rich and poor. Both realities, the journalists implied, were incompatible with Catholic principles in a country in which the vast majority of citizens are Catholic. In his response the pope not only gave a concise primer on moral theology, but also on the importance and the scope of the Church’s involvement in politics and public morality that is bound to extend far beyond the Rio Grande.

“Inasmuch as politics should be a moral reality,” the Holy Father said, “the Church fundamentally has to do with politics.” Even though this insight is obvious, it is nevertheless bound to be controversial in an age in which many hold to a separation of Church and state so strict as to try to mute the Church in public questions and reduce the Church’s influence only to questions of private morality. Because political decisions are good and evil, however, the pope says that the Church must be involved.

The Church’s “first thought” with regard to politics is “to educate consciences and thereby to awaken the necessary responsibility.” The Church has a “great responsibility … to teach moral responsibility and to expose evil.” With regard to drug trafficking and violence, he said, the Church has to unveil the “idolatry of mammon that only enslaves people and to expose the false promises, untruthfulness and cheating that are behind drugs.” Few journalists and citizens would object to the Church’s prophetic work in these areas. Many in fact have praised the heroic involvement of some Church figures in the moral war against the drug culture and the mafia that profits from and violently protects this fallen way of life. Likewise, with respect to the vast socioeconomic disparity between rich and poor, most applaud the Church’s efforts to apply the Church’s social teaching to help people discover the “essential models for political collaboration, especially in order to surmount this social, antisocial division that unfortunately exists.”

This involvement, however, shows the importance of the Church’s educating consciences “both in individual and public ethics,” the pope said. “And here, perhaps, something is missing.” Then the pope used an expression that certainly caught the journalists’ attention. “In Latin America, and also elsewhere, among many Catholics a certain schizophrenia exists between individual and public morals: personally, in the private sphere, they are Catholics and believers but in public life they follow other trends that do not correspond with the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society. It is therefore necessary to teach people to overcome this schizophrenia, teaching not only individual morality but also public morality.”

Over the course of the last few decades in our country, this type of schizophrenia has been popularized as a civic duty by certain prominent Catholic political figures who claimed that they were personally opposed to practices that the Church justly condemns, like abortion, but that they were publicly tolerant or supportive of these same practices. But it has also been practiced by many believers who consciously violate in their public decision-making and behavior what they know the Church teaches as objectively immoral. Benedict exposes such lack of internal consistency for what it is: a type of schizophrenia in one’s conscience and moral life. And the pope’s choice of terminology is not only highly descriptive but also quite important as a first step in seeking to address the underlying issues to believers, society and the Church from such a lack of moral and intellectual integrity: few aspire to be labeled by anyone, not to mention the pope, as morally schizophrenic.

But Pope Benedict’s understated point about “here, perhaps, something is missing,” is an indication that in some places the Church has been failing in her mission to educate consciences properly and help believers and others overcome this moral schizophrenia, this fissure between faith and life, between the properly informed judgment of conscience and one’s behavior in both private and public life.

In his public addresses to statesmen in his foreign travels, Pope Benedict has personally been trying to make up for what is “missing” in this educational responsibility of the Church. The principles he elucidates are applicable not just to those in public office, however, but to everyone.

When he visited Westminster Hall in September 2010 to address the political, diplomatic, academic and business leaders of Great Britain, he cited St. Thomas More, whom he said is “admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience,” saying that the dilemma he faced is a “perennial question” that all political leaders must face with regard to what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God. The question is about the “ethical foundations of civil discourse” and action, which he said must be “more solid than social consensus,” because social consensus for generations tolerated the immorality of slavery and “many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century.”

The foundation must not be just a poll of popular sentiment, but the truth about the moral good. Pope Benedict sketched out how religion can “help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles” — in other words, how the faith can assist in the proper formation of the conscience of those involved in political decision-making — so that reason won’t “fall prey to distortions as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.” Without this education of conscience, reason purified and challenged by religion, there is not only an acute possibility of morally schizophrenic leaders but also those who fail to follow the conscience privately as well as publicly.

Likewise, when he spoke to the Bundestag in Berlin a year later, Pope Benedict sought to continue to educate leaders about the moral reality of politics. He cited King Solomon’s prayer for a listening heart to govern God’s people, so that he might be able to discern between good and evil. This, he said, tells us “what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work as a politician must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace.

Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he would have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right. Success can also be seductive and thus can open up the path towards the falsification of what is right, towards the destruction of justice.” He went on to say, quoting St. Augustine, that without justice a state is nothing but a great band of robbers. Alluding to the Third Reich, he added, “We Germans know from our own experience … how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the state became an instrument for destroying right — a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss. To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician.”

The question of how to recognize what is truly right and thus to serve justice when framing laws, he said, “has never been simple,” but, basing himself on St. Paul’s insight in Romans 2, he indicated that the path to this recognition is found in the natural “law written on their hearts” and “conscience.” The natural law has been discovered anew, he said, by the universal ecological consensus of the immorality of environmental destruction, something that should lead us to recognize a similar law, accessible by reason, about the ecology of man. This law written on the heart should inform the conscience, which he described as “nothing other than Solomon’s listening heart.” This is a heart that listens to God and discovers the truth about moral action, both privately and publicly. He suggested that all public servants ask for this listening heart, in order to lead themselves and others rightly. Solomon recognized he couldn’t be an effective leader if he were a moral schizophrenic. No one can.