Michael Gerson misses the mark on politics and Catholicism

Thursday, February 10, 2011; 7:10 PM

Michael Gerson's thoughtful and nuanced Feb. 8 op-ed column, "A Catholic test for politics," went a long way toward promoting civil discourse in politics. While I appreciate his recognition of the "distinctive Catholic teaching on politics," and the guidance it can offer even to non-Catholics like him, he doesn't quite get it right.

Mr. Gerson misses the mark with his backhanded slap at liberal Catholic politicians, whom he writes "elevate autonomy and choice as the highest political values" and as a result are at odds with ensuring the common good.

First, Catholic teaching clearly recognizes the rightful autonomy of the political community and celebrates choice as far more desirable than its alternative, coercion, in pursuing political ends for the common good. It's disingenuous to suggest that Catholics cannot simultaneously support civil society's autonomy from religious dictates while doing good in public life. Many Catholics do it every day.

Second, it is a hallmark of Catholicism that we are required to follow our informed consciences, even when we disagree with the church hierarchy. We are, in fact, required to make choices. This teaching has endured for millennia, but it is no less important today. As the recently beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman put it: "I shall drink - to the pope, if you please - still to conscience first and the pope afterwards."

Jon O'Brien, Washington

The writer is president of Catholics for Choice.

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