Henry Hyde — Conscience of the Congress


March 1, 1988

“Without a strong hierarchy to guide the Church, you realize how terribly much on your own you are.”

Representative Henry Hyde, Republican from Illinois, is perhaps the most conspicuously Catholic member of Congress. Former altar boy, choir boy, and Georgetown University basketball star, he is today a powerful voice in the struggle against totalitarianism and abortion. He is the author of the “Hyde Amendment,” which outlaws federal funds being used to pay for abortions. He served on the Iran—contra hearing committee. In a recent interview, Hyde looked burly and striking as ever, with those animated gestures and shock of white hair. He discussed what it means for a principled Catholic to bring his faith to bear on issues of public policy.

Crisis: What is your view of the role that conscience plays in public life?

Hyde: If you believe something, you ought to believe that it is true. And you ought to share that truth with other people and save them from error. I don’t mean you have to be boorish about it or overbearing — you don’t have to throttle people or grab them by the lapel, but you have to believe in yourself, your ideals. You have to be able to express them and you ought to be eager to express them, and attempt to persuade others. That is what the political process is all about — persuasion.

I have great difficulty in justifying a sequestration or separation of public life from private life and private convictions. Of course, everyone has a private life, and it is not in the public domain. But if I am raised with certain moral teachings, if I believe them, I find it very difficult to leave them at home or in the car when you enter into your public life. Principles and moral values ought to pervade what one does and not just have occasional relevance. I find it hard to understand people who claim a religious affiliation, who claim to personally believe things but do not seek to implement their beliefs or act out their beliefs.

Crisis: Are there limits to this? Why, for instance, are Catholics mobilized against abortion and not against government promotion of birth control?

Hyde: First of all, I don’t know how convinced Catholics are of the moral truth of the Church’s traditional position on birth control, especially when you have prominent clergymen providing loopholes for people. There isn’t a phalanx of conviction that the Catholic layman has to deal with. You hear the clergy’s ambiguities and nuances, and theologians who sound a very discordant note on birth control achieve prominence in the Church and are tolerated and even elevated by the hierarchy.

We have literally been overwhelmed by the secular press and society into believing that the Church is somehow primitive, that we are culturally lacking, and that we wish to impose some horrendous archaic family standards on women. All of the rhetoric makes us somewhat ashamed of standing up for the truth. And because it is uncomfortable, because it is unpopular, we don’t hear our clergy talk about it on Sunday. I don’t think I have ever heard a homily in the last 20 years on birth control. Chesterton’s line applies here: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried. So there is no consensus even among Catholics on this issue.

Crisis: If there were a greater consensus, do you think birth control could become a political issue, or is it something, like belief in the Immaculate Conception, that should not be enforced by law in this country?

Hyde: I think that what happens between a husband and wife in the privacy of their bedroom is certainly a matter for them and their conscience. I do not think the state has any real role to play in those decisions. It would not be appropriate for the state to reach in and try to regulate through legislation that relationship. I have no problem at all with laws forbidding adultery and fornication. I think these things are harmful to the community at large. But within marriage there is the problem of enforceability and I don’t like to pass laws or seek to pass laws that would be unenforceable. That weakens the fabric of the law and respect for the law.

Now it gets a little more touchy when you reach the area of homosexuality which I think is contrary to human nature and good public policy. I have no problems with laws that criminalize that activity, unpopular as that stand might be. I think we have a horrendous health problem with AIDS that is a byproduct of promiscuous sodomy which is a lifestyle that some wish to legitimate. I think society has a real concern in that.

Crisis: What about the sale of contraceptives?

Hyde: In the famous Connecticut case of Griswold, where the state had a law forbidding the sale of contraceptives — if the state wants to do that I see no moral or constitutional reason to object to that.

Crisis: What means may one use in battles of conscience? Specifically, what do you think of civil disobedience in the name of protecting the right to life of the unborn?

Hyde: Oh, I think it is justifiable. But I think you have to be willing to accept the penalty of the law. If you obstruct traffic or if you sit in on an abortion clinic, I think that is a laudable way to dramatize your opposition to that evil. I don’t think one should go to violence, however, primarily because it is violence we are fighting against. Secondly, because to win this struggle on abortion, you need the great mass of uncommitted people who never think about the issues. If their only information is that we are a violent bunch of bomb-tossers and arsonists, we lose the psychological struggle for hearts and minds. We need to approach them through reason and common sense and through love. I think violence moves in the opposite direction. I don’t deny that there may be times when violence is called for, and I don’t condemn people who think that to save somebody’s life they have to perform some violent act. I just regret the incidence of violence because I think it is not helpful to the overall cause.

Crisis: The Iran-contra hearings involved you in a similar controversy, with people allegedly breaking laws in the name of a good cause.

Hyde: Yes; it is interesting that the appeal to a higher law seems to be available only to the far left now. If they want to throw blood on draft records or if they want to sit in on classrooms or if they want to obstruct traffic around the Pentagon, they do it to the admiration and adulation of much of the media. But if somebody violates a Boland Amendment or two to preserve freedom and decency in Central America, his reward is indictment and prosecution. “The end doesn’t justify the means,” I have always said, does not exhaust moral imagination. Harry Truman, when he sat in his office contemplating dropping the atomic bomb, was confronted with no good choice. He could either invade Japan to end the war at a cost of millions of lives, or he could drop the bomb and cost 130,000 lives, many innocent women and children. His choices were terrible. But I would indict the people who forced that decision on him rather than indict Truman.

Crisis: In the wake of the recent summit, would you say that the Soviet Union is an evil empire?

Hyde: I have always said that the Soviet Union is an evil empire. I think that it is almost a euphemism for what they believe and what they have done. I am sure that there are many sincere Communists who believe in the inevitability of the triumph of the classless society and all the things Marx predicted; but nevertheless, the price for their folly is a horrendous one in the coinage of human dignity and human rights and human life.

Crisis: How would you characterize South Africa, then?

Hyde: South Africa is a building catastrophe with genuinely tragic implications. You cannot defend, and I certainly don’t, a system that deprives people of elementary political rights because of the color of their skin. The white dominance of that country will one day end and should end, but it has to be a gradual transition working with moderate black leaders and a confidence building process that includes the coloreds as well as the blacks and the whites, moving towards an effective multi-racial society. Instead I see us hurtling toward the precipice of revolution, urged on by those who know the great beneficiary will be the Soviet Union. They are not interested in understanding the complexity and the difficulty of the problem of a small white minority and a vast black majority. They want the problem to be solved now and, I am convinced, many of them want a bloody revolution over there because they think that out of the ashes of the revolution we’ll have the Soviet South Africa with all that means.

I only wish that those freedoms, such as they are, that the black African has, namely the right to join a union, the right to strike, and the limited right of immigration, would be available to the average Soviet citizen. I also think religious apartheid is as invidious as racial apartheid, but we somehow exhaust our moral outrage once we have condemned South Africa and we don’t do much about the rest of the continent, much less the rest of the world. What’s going on in Ethiopia boggles the mind! And yet there is no moral outrage expressed by those who are in the vanguard of attacking South Africa. One questions their judgment, if not their sincerity.

Crisis: In general, do you find the policy statements that come from the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) to be helpful in forming your conscience on public policy questions?

Hyde: I am sorry to say that the statements of the bishops conference that I take note of, I usually do so to disagree with, and that is a disheartening experience. Without a strong hierarchy to guide the Church, you realize how terribly much on your own you are. I have always felt that the Church, as a mediator between us pitiful humans and Almighty God, performs an indispensable role. When that mediator isn’t there, is off in another direction, you find yourself very much alone and drifting; it creates anguish. Men to whom you looked up all your life as spiritual leaders you find are politicians in the same political swamps that I am in. They claim spiritual authority in exercising judgment that I find imperfect and flawed.

Their pastoral on nuclear deterrence, I thought, was wrong in most places. It was pacifistic, it was survivalistic, it was a sharp break from the Church’s traditional support for the defense of deterrence and this country. On the economy — of course, capitalism isn’t perfect because it is the product of human hands. But to compare it unfavorably to socialism and the flagging economies of most of the non-capitalist, non-market-oriented world is just inaccurate. But this is what we have come to expect from whomever dominates the thinking of the bishops. And of course, personally to believe things, but do not the seamless garment, which equates abortion with capital punishment and liberal welfare programs, was another horrible mistake. If it was designed to bring in liberals to fight behind the pro-life banner, it has utterly failed. It has only served to isolate some of us who in good conscience don’t adopt the liberal agenda on other issues.

Crisis: It is often said that Catholics “arrived” in American politics when John Kennedy was elected president, yet he had to stand before a group of Protestants and say that he would not allow his Catholicism to affect him in any way, and he pretty much kept his word. Do you think that we are now ready to have a Catholic president who wouldn’t say that?

Hyde: Probably not. I do not wish to be critical of another Kennedy — Judge Kennedy. But I was somewhat taken aback at a headline that said he had no position on abortion. I don’t know how an adult who is literate and involved in public affairs can have no position on it. So if it is true that he has no position, I am shocked. If it isn’t true, then I am still shocked that he would say that. It is sad that one has to explicate one’s views on something like that to a bunch of senators, especially Catholics on the committee, who are simply the trying to disqualify you. But it certainly indicates that certain views will not be tolerated. I am also concerned by what seems to be a resurgence of anti-Catholicism among evangelical groups. Between these and the liberal ideologues, I think it would be very difficult for a serious, believing, conscientious Catholic to be elected.

Crisis: What people and ideas have influenced you development in Catholic teaching?

Hyde: My mother was a very devoted Catholic. Her faith was boundless, and she communicated that to me. She also communicated her love of books. She wasn’t a learned woman at all, but she had books. I remember even reading a bit of Aquinas, which I didn’t understand at all. I was in the first grade at Saint Mary’s school in Evanston, and when the priest asked us whether we had any questions, I raised my hand and said, “Is the will greater than the intellect?” He said, “Why do you ask?” I told him I read in a book that Saint Thomas raised that question. He laughed, and I forget his answer. But I remember questions like that sticking in my mind. Later I became very fascinated by Fulton Sheen. For all of my life, though, I have just believed. I am convinced that God sent us down here for a reason. There is order and purpose in the universe, there is a Lawgiver behind the laws, and He established the Church to tell us how we get from here to there. These are the things I believe. I just regret that I don’t spend more time studying them.


  • Angela Grimm

    At the time this article was written, Angela Grimm was the director of the Catholic Center at the Free Congress Foundation.

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