In the United States, the President swears an Oath of Office. Although the Senate and House of Representatives are likewise required to swear an oath in the Constitution (Article VI, clause 3), the actual verbiage of the oath is not in said Constitution, unlike the Presidential oath.
This is the version currently sworn by U.S. politicians, Senators and Congresspersons:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Federal judges get to take not one oath, but two:
I, [state your name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.
I, [state your name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
It is my understanding that the “So help me God” parts are traditional as opposed to written in stone, and could potentially be passed over by an atheist or polytheist, if such came to pass.
“Interesting, Mr. C,” you say, “but where are you going with this?” Bear me out.
Former Archbishop Raymond Burke (who famously said he would deny Communion to then-Presidential candidate John Kerry) is back in the news. The Archbishop is now a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, the Catholic equivalent of the Supreme Court. From a recent article:
Turning to discuss the Democrat Party, Archbishop Burke warned that the party is “at risk of becoming the ‘Death Party,’ due to its positions on bio-ethical questions as Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in his book, ‘The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts and the Disregard for Human Life’.”
Archbishop Burke steadfastly supports his earlier stated position that Catholic politicians who vote to support legalized abortion should no longer receive Communion.
“Mine is not an isolated position. It is shared by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput from Denver, by Bishop Peter J. Jugis from Charlotte and a few others,” he answered, while noting that the bishops’ conference has not “assumed this position, leaving each bishop free to make his own decision.” He continued, “I have always maintained that there must be a united position in order to demonstrate the unity of the Church when facing this serious issue.”
As it turns out, this is a convoluted issue. While still a Cardinal, Pope Benedict seemed to support Archbishop Burke’s position. Since becoming Pope, he’s supported the decisions of bishops in South America that have sought to excommunicate pro-choice Catholic politicians. But despite this, he’s left the decision of whether or not to withhold Communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians to the bishops… which means, at the very least, that the Pope is not quite so concerned with “demonstrating the unity of the Church when facing this serious issue.” In the United States, the Council of Bishops still leans heavily towards keeping the Eucharist out of the political arena.
In 2004, following agonizing debate, the U.S. bishops decided that they could not arrive at a uniform national stand on this question, and therefore it would be up to each bishop to set policy in his diocese. That’s fully in keeping with Catholic theology, which regards each bishop as the supreme authority in his diocese, answerable only to the pope. Yet it also means that a national candidate could be treated differently depending upon which diocese he or she happens to be in on any given Sunday. Such disparities in turn fuel perceptions of division in the church, which is something the bishops always abhor.
Now, strictly speaking, this decision is something that ought to be up to the bishop, as they (at least theoretically) understand their diocese and the members more than anyone else does… but I have to admit I’d like to see the Pope make a firm decision on this point.
Here’s how I see it: let us assume for the moment that Archbishop Burke’s interpretation of canon law is correct. Then I see the following quandary:
If a Catholic takes the oath of office as described above, omitting the “so help me God” point, then they have a conflict of ethics and morals: they have agreed to abide by a code of ethics that puts the Constitution as the arbiter of their legislative actions, not the Church. If they throw in the “so help me God” line, they’re in a double conflict, ethics and morals vs morals, since violating their oath is now taking the Lord’s name in vain (which, after all, has high billing in the Top Ten). [edited to add] You may remember this is why a lot of people said at the time that they wouldn’t vote for Kennedy, since they didn’t think a Catholic could answer to the country, which JFK countered with, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.”
This whole argument presupposes that you agree that the question of when “life begins” is a metaphysical question, and thus voting to ban abortion on the grounds of your religious beliefs is in effect violating the establishment clause – but keep in mind that in order to keep your oath here you’d have to come up with a metaphysical argument against abortion that doesn’t rely on your religious beliefs. This is not easy, try it some time.
So I see the following possible courses of action:
- Don’t run for office or become a federal judge, if you’re Catholic.
- If you run for office, refuse to take the oath as currently worded.
- If you run for office and take the oath, accept the fact that you’re likely to be stuck in the unenviable position of withholding yourself from Communion and/or excommunicating yourself, or breaking your oath.
- Run for office, take the oath, vote against abortion, but get someone to explain how this isn’t a violation of your oath (tricky, but possible, I suppose).
I’m not so sure this is a logic tree the Pope is overly thrilled with, which is probably why there is no ironclad ruling on this point.