Bishop Hying

Principles of natural law must guide the political process and the commonweal of our lives together

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on February 25, 2018


      Every February, the Indiana Bishops Conference holds a dinner during the legislative session for our state bishops and Catholic state senators and representatives. I enjoy this event very much, as it allows me to get to know and appreciate the gifted individuals who politically represent us and who share our faith.  During the meal, each bishop speaks briefly, reflecting on the vocation of political leadership from a Catholic perspective.

      Many of us have logically lost faith in the political process today, jaded by the cynicism, selfishness, conflict and dysfunction of some of our elected officials and government institutions. In many ways, it feels like the system is broken, as we have strayed from the original vision of our remarkable Founders.         For good reason in many cases, we distrust some politicians, suspect their motives and question their credibility, perceiving them to be ineffective at best. The problems facing our country seem intractable, immune to correction, while we watch political leaders fight each other in a bitter and debilitating gridlock. Our annual meeting renews my faith in the political process. Many public servants are generous and even heroic in their actions and careers.

      To speak of the nobility of the political process or the vocation of government service may seem naïve in the current context, but Catholicism has always viewed them in a spiritual light. While many Catholics throughout history have retired from the world as cloistered religious or hermits, the Church has always firmly planted herself in the gritty reality of the social order. Jesus Christ calls us to be leaven, light and salt in the world, illuminating, transforming, healing and loving everyone as we find them by living the saving message of the Gospel.

      In his seminal text, “The City of God,” St. Augustine defended Christianity against accusations that it was responsible for the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, and for the eventual collapse of the Empire. Many political leaders of the day saw the demise of Roman civilization as some sort of divine punishment from the gods for abandoning the old pagan religions and embracing faith in Christ.       Augustine posited that, on the contrary, the Christian religion is the most effective guarantor of a just and merciful social order and the protection of human values and rights. It is no coincidence that every repressive dictatorship, whether that of the Right or the Left, always seeks to marginalize and even destroy the Church. Oppressors will seek to stifle any voice that speaks of human dignity, the primacy of conscience and the inalienable rights received from God and not the State.

      Over the centuries, the Church has developed the philosophy of natural law, the conviction that God has inscribed the truth of the human person and the ability to discern right from wrong in the heart of every human being. Even an atheist can come to the conclusion that it is wrong to destroy a human life, to steal property from another or to be sexually promiscuous. If we study human nature and reflect on our collective wisdom and experience, we can perceive a moral law that is unchangeable. 

      Because we have lost the language of natural law in our national political discourse, any moral debate today regarding what should be legal or illegal comes down to public opinion in many cases. Anyone who invokes ethical principles against abortion or assisted suicide, for example, is often dismissed as attempting to impose their religious beliefs on others. Assisted suicide is not wrong because the Catholic Church says so; the Church says it is wrong because it violates the natural and moral law. Because we have no common philosophical moral language or principles to which everyone adheres, our laws simply reflect what seems acceptable and suitable to the majority at the time. 

      In this current socio-political context, legislators have a challenging task - to work for good laws which reflect the inherent moral order of the human community and help people to grow in all of their potential. Good laws help us to be both effective Christian disciples and good citizens. No contradiction should exist between the two, if a government and its laws are truly built on truth, justice and mercy.        Many centuries ago, St. Augustine articulated a political philosophy which envisioned political leaders and governments nobly working for the common good, so that the human community might flourish. Catholic legislators have the privilege and obligation to apply moral principles to their important work, as they discern which laws, programs and initiatives the government should propose to contribute to the common good, preserve human rights and help all people, especially the most vulnerable, weak and marginalized, to reach their fullest potential as children of God.

      If you have ever visited a medieval village in Europe, you see the church always standing at the center of town, symbolizing that God is at the heart of everything and that right relationship with him will order and guide all the complex webs of social relationship here on earth in justice, peace and mercy.           Although we do not live in a theocracy, the fundamental moral principles inscribed in our human nature must still guide the political process and the commonweal of our life together.  If not, we end up enduring dictatorships of one kind or another which disrupt the common good,  trample on human rights, push religion out of the public square and legislate as a tyranny of power. 

      Any exercise of power not harnessed to authentic love and truth becomes demonic. How necessary that we have public servants who work to order the earthly city according to the plan and purpose of the City of God.


       + Donald J. Hying

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