One of the quotations used by our Holy Father in his talk at the United Nations was by Paul VI when he
spoke, which was the first talk ever given by a Pontiff to the United Nations . The gist of the quote was that
Religion has much to offer the world by its carefully coded (and we believe at least in the case of the Judaeo-
Christian dispensation) and revealed moral structure of living. This is a very important statement. Because
much of what Pope Francis mentioned in his exacting and insight analysis
of what is wrong with the world is traceable to elements of the Moral Law, that is the common ground of many of the religions of the world.
By way of example, lets look at government corruption. Corruption is a systematic and structural acceptance of immoral behavior as if that is just the way we do things here. Sometimes, a great amount of aid is sent to a country in need. Good people with good motives send money and materials to a hard hit area of the world. It could be experiencing famine or disaster related circumstances. People feel good about helping. But later it is revealed that people in power had diverted the money and materials to their own families and constituents and that the in
tended target of the aid got very little. This is called stealing. And it is condemned by all the world religions.
Yet it happens on a national scale when the simple moral law is laid aside in favor of selfish motives.
There is a country in Africa (the name escapes me at the moment) that has had economic growth and prosperity over the period of a number of decades. This record stands in stark contrast to many of the countries in Africa that have a history of systemic corruption and even violence. When a writer who was well aware of the sociological conditions in African countries was asked why this country stands out he simply said: “It has had three honest, good persons in leadership.” That is how important the virtues that we extol in religion truly are!
We have such faith in programs as if they are the answer to the changes necessary in the world. The UN has lots of them. But if they are administered by immorally behaving people they will do little or no good in the long run. That is why Religious virtues are so important. I use the word ‘virtue’ instead of value very deliberately. A value is a passive thing that exists somewhere out there as a distant standard of behavior. A virtue has its only meaning when it is actually practiced. Value is about thinking and virtue is about doing. We have a lot of the thinking going on but little action. So when a candidate for public office in his private life is untruthful, say in an adulterous relationship, this is important to note if he or she wants my vote. Someone who does not keep his vow of marriage may not keep his promise to be truthful to electorate. One cannot separate so arbitrarily the personal and the public. For public behavior flows directly from private virtue.
Now I am not suggesting that we have to be perfect in every way in order to be a good candidate or someone ruling a country. But I do mean that how one manages their life gives us indications of how they will run something bigger than themselves. Someone who lies to his wife to whom he has publicly made vows in marriage may not be someone who will tell the truth when they are in political office as well. Moral choices still count!
That brings us to the almost proverbial statement made by politicians of our time about being personally against abortion but having to uphold the Law in the Public Square. The further refinement on this position is that because we are a pluralistic society of believers and non-believers, law must reflect this diversity and hence the decision to abort is better handled in private by the woman in question with the advice of her doctor. Hence, advocates of this opinion will say, the law coupled with increased access to birth control would make abortions safe and rare.
Now there is a truth to the proposition. When someone runs for office and is elected, he or she cannot simply choose the laws that they will uphold due to conscience. This is true since no one is compelled to run for office. But one still has a responsibility to join in the debate and the discussion on the issue in question in the public sphere to bring another understanding that may not be so apparent. A Governor can uphold the state law and the use of Capital Punishment while working to change that law. The same is true for those who are personally against abortion. While they uphold the law they can also voice their concerns. It is up to the members of the Public Square to allow this freely and not to strong arm the politician with the requirement of a censorious silence in the name of political correctness.
The second instance also requires the openness of communication to decide at what moment will this civil society say that life begins. We have a responsibility as a country to debate and finally come to a decision of when human life begins. It cannot be when the baby or child can exist independently of the mother because even a child of three or four cannot be on his or her own. This debate needs to be honest and transparent. A clearly perceivable moment is required. Conception, attachment to the wall of the womb, brainwaves, a heartbeat are all candidates for the statement of the beginnings of the human being. Once that is decided upon, then the laws of the country need to mirror that choice. This can only happen by the sharing of the personal and communal insights that make up those
opinions. Then a consensus can form around the one moment that most people can agree to regarding the beginning of human life (needless to say there will never be a 100% agreement). This is only one example of how the personal, working itself out in the private lives of individual persons, can shape the future of the public accord needed to enact laws reflecting this.
The point of this being that the personal is never really personal. One must use the personal in one’s dealing with the outside world. While one can make a distinction for a time between the personal and the public, eventually it moves to a resolution, the timing of which is another complex question.