In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Nancy Pelosi voiced her opposition to allow health care providers and entities to refuse to perform abortions for reasons of conscience. Knowing full well the efforts by the Catholic Church to encourage support for such conscience exemptions, Ms. Pelosi said, “I’m a devout Catholic and I honor my faith and love it … but they have this conscience thing.”
With respect to the House Minority Leader, Ms. Pelosi not only needs a lesson in Catholic catechesis, but in American civics as well.
According to Catholic teaching, “Conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (Gaudium et spes, n. 16.) To force one to act contrary to his conscience is to enslave him; it suppresses his freedom, undermines his liberty, violates his dignity. For these reasons, the Catholic Church has consistently insisted that the sanctity of conscience be preserved and protected in civil society. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience.” (No. 1782.)
Thomas More, the Catholic patron saint of statesmen and politicians, refused as a matter of conscience to swear to the Act of Supremacy and it cost him his life. As anyone familiar with Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is aware, before he fell to the executioner’s axe, More said, “I die his majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” Thomas More could very well called the Saint of Conscience.
For Catholics, conscience is hardly an idiosyncratic hang-up, much less a “thing” to be derided by a public official.
And this conscience “thing” spoken of by Ms. Pelosi is not just a Catholic thing. From the earliest days of the republic, our country has been firmly committed to the preservation of the liberty of conscience. The inalienable right to liberty invoked in the Declaration of Independence speaks to the freedom of conscience and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for the free exercise of religion before naming the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and petition. According to James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” conscience is “the most sacred of all property.” (Property, Mar. 29, 1792.)
The fundamental right of conscience does not just cover individual conscience, but institutional conscience as well. Soon after the Louisiana Territory was acquired by the United States in 1803, the French Ursuline nuns of New Orleans wrote to President Jefferson seeking assurances that “the spirit of justice which characterizes the United States of America” would allow them to continue in their spiritual and corporeal works of mercy.
Thomas Jefferson replied on that “the principles of the constitution and the government of the United States are a sure guarantee [that your religious institution] will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.” Jefferson concluded: “be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.”
Our country’s dedication to the liberty of conscience, and the price we shall pay for undermining it, was best summed up by former Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone:
“All our history gives confirmation to the view that liberty of conscience has a moral and social value which makes it worthy of preservation at the hands of the state. So deep in its significance and vital, indeed, is it to the integrity of man’s moral and spiritual nature that nothing short of the self-preservation of the state should warrant its violation; and it may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by the process.”
-U.S. v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 170 (1965) (quoting Stone, The Conscientious Objector, 21 Col. Univ. Q. 253, 269 (1919)).
The Protect Life Act, the bill that Ms. Pelosi so strenuously opposed, but nonetheless passed in the House, prohibits discrimination against health care professionals and entities for their refusal to participate in abortions, undergo training in abortion, and providing referrals for abortion. With the majority of American citizens opposed to abortion on demand, such an accommodation of conscience rights not only makes sense, it’s a critical stance to take.
One need not hold any religious beliefs to be pro-life, but for Christians the teaching against abortion is hardly a recent one. It has its ultimate, non-Scriptural roots in the Second Century document, the Didache, commonly called the “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” There we find the unequivocal mandate: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” The Catholic Church and other Christian churches have not wavered from this teaching for 1800 years.
For Ms. Pelosi and others to have to so little regard for the religious and conscientious beliefs of Americans on this important moral issue is more than disconcerting, it’s deeply disturbing. It is one thing to pursue aggressively abortion on demand; it is another to force pro-life individuals and institutions to carry out this demand. Indeed, for the government to coerce citizens to act in a way they think to be immoral and wrong, is itself immoral and wrong.
The right to freedom of conscience, no matter the underlying issue at stake, is, or should be, a right cherished by all. It is not a “thing” to be discounted. It is not a “thing” to be mocked. The day our government thinks it can trample underfoot the right to conscience is the day it stamps out what our country and Constitution has always held most dear.
Geoffrey Surtees is an attorney with the American Center for Law & Justice and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC. Jordan Sekulow is Executive Director of the American Center for Law & Justice and writes for On Faith’s blogging network at the Washington Post.