by Hilary White

NEW YORK, April 12, 2006 ( – A prominent Jesuit professor of philosophy at New York’s Fordham University, in an interview with Rome-based Zenit news, has clarified the so-called ‘problem of conscience’ for Catholic politicians who want to support abortion on one hand and remain in good standing with the Church on the other.

Father Joseph Koterski told Zenit they can’t have it both ways. “The crucial factor is not fidelity to one’s chosen moral principles, but rather fidelity to moral principles given to us by God.”

Fr. Koterski was responding to the “Statement of Principles” released in February by 55 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives that placed the personal conscience of individual lawmakers above the moral law. Catholics faithful to the teaching of the Church, especially pro-life advocates have noted that the result of this inversion has been to excuse any decision a lawmaker may make as long as he “feels good” about it.

This argument has been used for decades by Catholic politicians in support of abortion, homosexual “marriage” and a number of other issues related to the moral law. It was pioneered by a US Jesuit priest, Fr. Robert Drinan, who served as a congressman between 1971 and 1981 and was one of the most vocal supporters of legalized abortion, including partial birth abortion in the US.

Koterski told Zenit that politicians, indeed everyone, has the duty to form his conscience according to the moral precepts laid out by the Church. “Unfortunately, a common misunderstanding has grown up in modern culture about the notion of conscience. And I think that this misunderstanding is at the root of the notion that politicians may disagree with and even work against Church teaching through an appeal to conscience.”

He said, “The misunderstanding occurs when one thinks of conscience in terms of fidelity to one’s chosen moral principles.”

The “Statement of Principles,”– only the latest offering from a political culture that has fully absorbed what Koterski calls an error – reads, “We seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church’s role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas.”

Kotserski said this attitude is a basic mistake in understanding the nature of the moral law. “Clearly, acting in good conscience does mean fidelity to moral principles. But in the Catholic understanding of conscience, we are not simply permitted to choose some set of moral principles to which we want to be faithful. God chooses the moral principles we must use in our moral deliberations for us.”

Read the full interview with Fr. Koterski


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