Conscience: “. . . a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church
Five years ago, Pope Francis stood in front of the members of the US Congress during his visit to the nation’s capital and told them: “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” His message seemed well received. But that was five years ago, and, while our political landscape was certainly divided, we could not have foreseen the current state of politics in our country.
The pope’s words seem especially pertinent right now as we watch the constitutional impeachment process of President Donald Trump play out before our eyes. For the past six months or so, it has been the lead story for most news outlets and at the forefront of most Americans’ attention. It is only the third time in our country’s history a president has faced a Senate trial over impeachment, the other two being Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and it has been polarizing for our nation.
A Sturdy Foundation
As of the writing of this editorial in late January, the Senate is currently hearing arguments regarding the potential removal of the president from office, so the situation is still very much in flux. But by the time you read this editorial, history will have spoken. It is a history that has stood upon the foundation of our Constitution for over 230 years.
It is important now for the same reason as when our country’s founders wrote the process into the Constitution. Power cannot go unchecked. If we do not uphold the very foundation upon which our country was built, we are setting future generations up for further trouble and discord down the road.
The problem is, though, that both in Congress and among the American people, we have begun treating our political future something like a high-stakes playoff game—Democrats versus Republicans, my team versus yours, we win and you lose. If the news doesn’t fit our version of the narrative, we denounce it and vilify the messenger. Through our behavior on both national and personal levels, we have managed to reduce our highest offices and ourselves to a new low.
That, however, isn’t the way our country will move forward and grow. Sometimes we need to demand accountability. This current situation is about drawing a line in the sand for the sake of future generations.
We the People
What is our role in this process? we may wonder. This impeachment is about more than just members of Congress. As Americans, we all play a part in shaping our country and its principles by our own behavior. Although Pope Francis was speaking to elected officials in Congress when he spoke the words above, we, too, are called to “preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.”
That is why, at a moment such as this, we need to find a way to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. We must ask ourselves: What is the desired outcome? Do we want to make our nation better, or do we just want to win at all costs? What does our conscience tell us?
It is a question that Pope Francis also hit upon in his congressional speech: “The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity, and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right” (1778).
“Just and right”—that’s a very simple benchmark. It is an intriguing lens through which to view our current situation and one to carry with us as we move forward, just as we always have and will. We must. Our future generations are depending on it.