In 1909, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore was the unofficial, but very real, spokesman for the Catholic Church in the United States, and he was fed up with the anti-Catholicism in this country that claimed that no Catholic was fit for public office since no Catholic could be free from being told what to do by the pope.
So, the cardinal wrote an article in The North American Review, at the time one of the most distinguished journals of opinion in the country. Recently, I found a copy of the article. It is very interesting as history, but it also reflects a mood among many American Catholics still today -- until it is read carefully.
Regarding Catholics who might be elected to political office, he wrote: "Suppose that the pope were to issue commands in purely civil matters, would not Catholics be bound to yield to him obedience? The pope will take no such action, we know, but were he to do so he would stand self-condemned, a transgressor of the law he himself promulgates. He would be offending not only against civil society, but against God, and violating an authority as truly from God as his own. Any Catholic who clearly recognized this would not be bound to obey the pope, or rather his conscience would hold him absolutely to disobey, because with Catholics, conscience is the supreme law which, under no circumstances, can we ever lawfully disobey."
What was the context? Cardinal Gibbons certainly held to transcendental and unchanging moral standards. He was a great believer in the authority of the Church. He presumed people would act with informed, humble and faith-filled consciences.
The context is broader than just the article, then and now. In 1909, Catholics were on top, economically and politically, in few places in America other than New Orleans, New York and Boston. Deep, harsh anti-Catholicism was part of the culture.
Much a part of the prejudice was the place of the papacy in Catholic beliefs.
Catholics yearned to be accepted by the American society generally. They rightly feared the effects of bigotry. So, they said that the Church could not dictate what they did in "politics." Al Smith said it in 1928 when he ran for the presidency. John Kennedy said it in 1960. Other politicians have said it before and since 1960, many still do today. More importantly, many Catholics even today think that Catholic politicians should ignore the Church's teachings when public policy is involved.
As Cardinal Gibbons said, we all must listen to our consciences. However, it is not as simple as that. We all also must inform our consciences.
Informing our conscience means first of all that we must admit that none of us is supremely wise or utterly free of the fears and inadequacies that beset every human. A terrible result of Original Sin is that we overestimate ourselves. If we are truly honest and perceptive, we will see our limitations.
Here the Church enters the picture because this is where God, in Christ, awaits to overcome, and supply for, our limitations.
The Church holds the teaching of Jesus passed on to the apostles, and if we recognize our limits as humans, it is foolish to accept our judgments at the expense of the Church's teachings.
Another problem is that all through U.S. history, people have accorded more status to the decisions of government than is justified. Governments, congresses and presidents make mistakes.
Cardinal Gibbons understood this fact. He called into question certain democratically elected laws in his day, becoming, for example, a great champion of workers who struggled under oppressive policies of employers.
He also strongly reminded political leaders of their responsibility to act morally, and he defined morality according to the Church's view of morality.
Follow conscience, yes indeed. But, be smart enough to inform the conscience.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.