The headline above Katherine Gregg’s Providence Journal story on Father Robert Marciano’s recent Presidential election homily, “Warwick priest: A vote for Clinton would put ‘immortal soul’ in peril“, fails to convey an important detail about what Fr. Marciano actually said (though the story itself does provide an accurate quote). While the headline refers to the soul in a general way, Fr. Marciano in his homily referred only to his own…
I cannot vote for Mrs. Clinton since my immortal soul would be in peril by cooperating in the destruction of innocent human life.
Fr. Marciano follows the powerful example of St. Thomas More — who was martyred, by the way, for refusing to say what the government of his time wanted him to say — in speaking explicitly of the danger to his own soul. St. Thomas More’s understanding of the soul and the role of individual conscience is captured beautifully in a famous exchange from the film “A Man for All Seasons“…
The Duke of Norfolk: “Oh confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage [of Henry VIII] was lawful or not but – dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!”
Thomas More: “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
(The line is based on correspondence attributed to St. Thomas More).
To a believing Catholic, the conscience spoken of by St. Thomas More does not allow for unconstrained individual choice. A properly formed conscience must follow God’s laws and every individual bears the responsibility of learning those laws and following them to the best of his or her ability. Ultimately, whether one has done enough in forming and following one’s conscience to gain entry into heaven is decided by a single judge: not a priest, bishop or even the Pope, but God Himself.
As to what can be known about the state of souls prior to God’s judgement, theological debate is ongoing as to whether many people are able to fulfill the requirements for salvation, or whether only a few make it to heaven.
But it is precisely because no one on earth can say with absolute certainty who is saved and who isn’t that a priest has a responsibility to move as many people as he can towards a greater chance of salvation by encouraging everyone to more closely conform their consciences and their actions to the teachings of the Church. And if a significant danger to the salvation of many arises in the form of political leaders who pursue their own earthly gains by ignoring and even opposing church teaching, then a priest has an unavoidable responsibility to point out that cavalierly following such leaders may indeed lead away from the path of salvation.
We should take Fr. Marciano at his word, when he says that his understanding and acceptance of Church teaching means that he would have to violate his own conscience to vote to place into positions of influence certain candidates who strongly oppose key Church teachings. And because Fr. Marciano cannot know the precise state of anyone’s conscience but his own, we should also take him at his word when he limits his certainty of knowledge of when conscience has been violated to himself, while at the same time he encourages his congregation and his community to move in a direction where the salvation of as many souls as possible is most assured.
Trading the scare-quotes in the Projo headline for two additional characters, i.e. “Warwick priest: A vote for Clinton would put my immortal soul in peril” would have much more accurately conveyed this tradition of Catholic belief that Fr. Marciano is a part of.