While lecturing in Australia in June, I was overcome by a sense of déjà vu. The Australian newspapers were dominated by a bitter controversy between a Catholic prelate and Catholic politicians regarding embryo-destroying stem-cell research. For a moment, my jet-lagged brain wondered if I was trapped in an eerie rerun of the 2004 U.S. elections. But I soon realized that this was something different. In fact, the Australian debate played itself out in a colorful and candid way that is virtually unimaginable in our more staid American context. That said, the fracas in the land down under might provide American Catholics warily eyeing next year’s presidential and congressional election with some food for thought.

In early June, Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, called a press conference to urge Catholic politicians to vote against a bill that would expand embryonic-stem-cell research. He offered several reasons for opposing the research, arguing that it had not proved as successful as research on adult stem cells and that it involved the “grotesque” manipulation and deliberate destruction of human beings. And he went on to add a vague threat: “Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realize that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the church.”

As it turned out, the “consequences” cut both ways. Several prominent Catholic MPs publicly stated that they would not heed the cardinal’s call. On the other side, a Catholic MP who opposed the bill went out of her way to emphasize that her decision had nothing to do with the cardinal’s intervention, which she deplored as an “authoritarian legalistic edict.” Other reactions were quite extreme. One Catholic cabinet minister compared Pell to “that serial boofhead Sheik al Hilaly,” a controversial Australian Sunni Muslim leader who has denied the existence of the Holocaust and likened immodestly dressed women to “uncovered meat.” Another decried the cardinal’s remarks as reminiscent of the Dark Ages, a time when “people have been burned in oil in the name of God.” The bill passed the Lower House of the New South Wales Parliament with an overwhelming 65-26 vote on June 7; three weeks later it passed the Upper House with a 27-13 vote. In every possible respect, Pell’s statement backfired.

Clearly, the cardinal was not attempting to impose an esoteric religious belief on the population by force or terror. He judged that the law permitting expanded stem-cell research was inimical to the common good, and he offered reasons for that judgment. It was not improper for him to communicate his views on this matter, not only to his fellow Catholics, but also to his fellow Australians. In Australia, as in the United States, citizens are free to express their judgments about whether a law or policy promotes human dignity and true human flourishing, and to inform those judgments with their religious convictions. Presumably, the cardinal wanted politicians-all politicians-to vote against the bill because they were convinced by his moral and practical arguments.

So far, so good. But what if politicians aren’t convinced? Here comes the problem. The cardinal appeared to be saying that only Catholic politicians who voted against the bill would remain in good standing in the church. No matter how vague, his threat of “consequences” put some Catholic politicians in a position of having to choose between their own private good and their best assessment of the common good. It is this threat that backfired on the cardinal.

No representative democracy can flourish if it does not systematically protect public officials from efforts to make them choose between their private welfare and the public good. Laws against threatening and bribing public officials are designed to do just that. Threats involving religious sanctions are far from being the greatest threat to the integrity of the political process, but they can be real nonetheless. In the United States, the First Amendment might well protect the legal right of religious officials to make such threats-or even to offer corresponding bribes (for example, offering membership in the Knights of Malta to a politician who votes the right way). But the fact that a particular course of action may be constitutionally protected does not make it morally right, or even effective.

Given the Catholic tradition’s commitment to “natural law”-to the conviction that moral norms ought to make sense to all people of good will-bishops ought to place a high priority on convincing politicians to do the right thing for the right reasons, not merely out of a fear of religious sanction. At the same time, Catholic politicians have a responsibility to listen carefully and respectfully when bishops make a case concerning what course of action best furthers the common good on issues such as stem-cell research.

A year before our own national elections, what can we learn from Cardinal Pell’s misstep? The time for the bishops to act is now, not immediately before the election. Why not invite all Catholics in Congress to a day-long conference on stem-cell research, at which the church’s position is fully and fairly presented? And why not invite a few smart people with opposing views, so that there can be dialogue and debate? That may seem hokey, but it’s one way for the bishops to encourage Catholic politicians to act on the basis of reasons rather than threats.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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Published in the 2007-09-28 issue: View Contents
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