Realism: Dodging the quesion of conscience

“I will make my decision in accordance with what my conscience tells me is in the national interest and without regard to external religious pressures or dictates.”  Kennedy, Houston, September 12 1960

Kennedy spoke about shutting out the Church so that he could make a judgment of conscience for the national interest. The national interest is a stern master. In Centesimus annus Pope John Paul II argued that the fall of the Soviet Union came in part because of the appeal to necessity or stern “national interest” with the bracketing of a deeper source of conscience.

The events of 1989, he said, are “a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena.” The events of 1989 revealed the success of those who followed the Gospel and renounced violence. And yet the influence of Machiavelli is widespread — Machiavelli sought to over turn the principles of ancient and medieval political philosophy by accusing the moral man of foolish idealism.  The behavior of actual men and regimes do not permit a reasonable man to act morally. He also says that the man who is not willing to practice evil will be ruined by those who are willing to practice evil. Thus, the prince must know how to do evil; and also the prince must practice hypocrisy, appearing to be a man of honor, justice and faith, but knowing how to be the opposite as the situation and necessity demand.

Maritain calls these the “Machiavellian lies”: first, that the just man must be weak and second, that the successful man must practice evil and deceit. Maritain’s critique is based on an empirical or historical claim. First, history shows us that the just man can be strong; Gandhi and King refute Machiavellean lies. In the Soviet Bloc, the emergence of Solidarity and Lech Walesa provide yet another witness to the strength of love and justice. Second, the doers of evil prosper for the span of life of a man, but not for the extent of a regime. Both Hitler and Stalin claimed to learn from Machiavelli and be practitioners of his art. Maritain refers to this as the “artistic” or “technical” view of politics. Politics is simply an art of manipulating men and materials to achieve one’s goals. Rationality is nothing but technical rationality. Is this what Kennedy had in mind by calibrating conscience to national interest?

To such a view he contrasts the moral or internal view of politics — in this view politics is a matter of virtue or character. It requires prudence defined in the ancient sense — a thoughtful regard for what is possible in the light of principle and as conditioned by the good character of the statesman. The artistic view leads to immediate success or the success of life span, but it is dubious if the doers of evil can actually sustain a regime over many generations. Maritain referred to the Soviet bloc as  “a huge Machiavellian robot” which possessed vast external power but lacked the internal power of truth and virtue. He predicted their demise in 1950s.

The appeal of political realism emerges whenever there is a sense of emergency or necessity. We often encounter in times of war or peril. The same Machiavellian lies are put forward. It is argued that virtue and character will be too weak and that a great social benefit or utility requires the violation of a moral norm. The problem of teen pregnancy is considered a technical issue requiring nothing more than the right medical advice and birth control methods. Termination of pregnancy through abortion is a necessary policy for achieving great social benefits. We have created our own brand of a “totalitarian robot,” whose reach is not through tyrannical oppression but through a system of educational brainwashing and social control. The culture of death practices the technical approach to moral and personal problems. The response of conscience to the lack of love and use of another human being is stifled. The connection between abortion and contraception is a clear example. (EV §13) The challenge to live chastely is dismissed out of hand. God forbid a politician speak the truth about sexual morality, family, and abortion.

 Pope John Paul II  asks whether modern man is “threatened by an eclipse of conscience? A deformation of conscience? By a numbing or deadening of conscience?” The brutalizing effect of political realism contributes to such an eclipse of deadening of conscience and must be seen as a principle of the culture of death.

John Paul II draws a deeper hopeful lesson from the recognition of realism in the political order – “the events of 1989 are an example of the success of “the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by moral principles.” The people learned to draw strength from suffering and sacrifice. Rocco Buttiglione explains that John Paul’s Polish heritage and history simply highlight the limit of power and force and the superior strength, in the long run, of a spiritual culture and a dedication to the whole man. The very existence of Poland, through its spiritual culture, is a sign of contradiction to the surrounding states who have dominated it through force for a span of centuries. In an address to UNESCO he said “I am the son of a Nation which has lived the greatest experiences of history, which its neighbors have condemned to death several times, but which has survived and remained itself. It has kept its identity . . . not by relying on the resources of physical power, but solely by relying on its culture.” Poland as a nation is a sign of contradiction in the midst of the Machiavellian lies of the modern state. Culture is the key to human flourishing, and the well being of any nation. The Church’s contribution is education and through formation of conscience. This includes politicians. We all need formation, and the ongoing formation.

Politics must not separated from morality, because citizens are concrete subjects of action. Their unity of faith and life bring into the public sphere the testimony of conscience and a generous spirit of service..

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