St. Thomas More & Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania: The Fellowship of Conscious

Bear with me a moment while I quote from the movie A Man for All Seasons (1966):

The Duke of Norfolk – “Oh confound all this, I’m not a scholar, I don’t know if the marriage was lawful or not but damn it, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!”

Sir Thomas More – “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscious, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

In our lifetime, things have changed: mindsets, attitudes, tolerances, beliefs – and the impossible, with all the speed of a meteor plummeting towards earth, became possible. So it was in the time when Thomas More was Chancellor of England. The world turned upside down. A prince, who defended the Catholic Church, during the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation suddenly reformed, recanted his faith, and required his subjects to do the same upon penalty of death.

Pope John Paul the Great, in his Apostolic Letter “Proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians,” states that “precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power… His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue… What enlightened his conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality.”

Every public servant, especially elected officials, must cross the threshold of the truths St. John Paul II addressed in his Apostolic Letter. The time comes, when power, or the pretense and temptation of power, must be digested and regulated by the power-holder else the euphoric inclination to thirst for more power, like any drug addict can tell you, takes possession of his very soul.

Bob Casey, the late governor of Pennsylvania, had to cross that threshold, too. His father, Alphonsus Liguori Casey, was born in Carbondale, the heart of coal mining country, in the northeastern part of the state. As a boy, Alphonsus started in the mines at eleven-years-old. He worked with the mules, bringing coal cars from the dark depths of the earth to the surface. Like all the jobs in the mines, it was dangerous; thousands of men and boys were known to be killed in Pennsylvania alone during the time of the great coal barons.

The mule would often shrug and kick off the reins of his burden. It was the boy’s job to put the reins back on. One day, Alphonsus’ luck ran out. He bent down to collect the reins and was met with a kick in the face that sent him over the next coal car. A mule’s kick, directly into the face, is deadly. Somehow, Alphonsus survived the ordeal and later, although orphaned because of the death of his parents, went on to obtain a law degree. Yet, the scars on his face remained a permanent sign of who he was and the character of the immigrants who came before him: Irish, Poles, Italians, Croats, Hungarians, all came to the mines in Pennsylvania in search of a life free from old European class based systems. It was both a shock and an opportunity to them to find that in America, class was replaced with a new elite based not on title and property, but solely on money.

Alphonsus, after passing the bar, came back to his beloved miners to fight for them and established a successful practice. But, there was no silver spoon. The father taught the son the lessons learned over many years of deprivation and intolerance dating back to the first Casey to arrive on American shores from Ireland after the Great Famine. Bob Casey never forgot the scars on his father’s face from the mule that should have killed him. Nor could he ever forget the plight of the common working man and his family. More importantly, he never forgot the faith that sustained his ancestors and saw them through times of hunger and disease, and brought them from antiquity into the future – the promised land and liberty’s shores.

Bob Casey experienced and realized the American dream once taught about in our schools – you know, what used to be called the Horatio Alger story. He, himself, became a lawyer. He ran for political office, in particular for governor four times, before finally being elected to that office, and then something special happened.

He actually began delivering on the promises he campaigned upon: union rights, universal health care, helping the poor, the downtrodden, unwed mothers. He signed into the law the CHIP program: the Children’s Health Insurance Program, where, when families earn too much to qualify for medical assistance, they can bridge the gap between public and private insurance. Later, this became the national prototype adopted by all the states.

Bob Casey was the poster boy for progressive (read liberal) politics in America. But, there was one thing, a “stubborn thing,” as John Adams called facts: Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was adamantly pro-life.

This was his threshold: life was to be defended from conception until natural death. Casey held steadfastly to this conviction in one of the most difficult periods in American history.

As political discourse in antebellum America was driven by the question of slavery, public policy in the 1980’s was reduced to a choice between defending a woman’s right to a “safe” abortion or standing in the way of  human progress. Many of us kept our mouths shut and quickly became wall flowers. Fearing retribution in our institutions, our communities, even our places of worship, we left the dance and pretended not to notice. It was more convenient to stay away from the controversy.

This was the beginning of the EMILY strategy in the Democratic Party (Early Money is Like Yeast): a successful plan to fund women running for office who championed the right to choose and rid the republic of patriarchal primacy.

The Equal Rights Amendment movement was born. It denounced any office holder or political aspirant who dared to disagree with its precepts. The ERA juggernaut and abortion rights advocacy were ingratiated, accepted and adopted into the platform of the Democratic Party. Since that time, Democratic Party officials, or those trying to run under that party’s slate, were chastised, admonished, even banished, if they did not kowtow to the Planned Parenthood agenda. The silent voices of the most maligned, innocent and abandoned of our children, the unborn, were vanquished from polite discourse, the public media, in all its forms, and our schools and universities, including many of those pretending to be under the umbrella of the Catholic faith.

And there stood Robert Patrick Casey of Pennsylvania – his world turned upside down. Yet he refused to sign away his soul to join the fellowship. It would have been so easy. Many did sign on, either because the right-to-life meant nothing to them or because it was politically expedient to do so; the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Gore, both staunch pro-lifers at one time, certainly did, and both of them took the political capital they gained from this to seek the White House. Casey could have done that. He didn’t.

Like his contemporary, Ronald Reagan, Casey was popular (ironically, thanks to two young political operatives named James Carville and Paul Begala). Unlike the republicans, however, the democratic governor couldn’t hide under a tent that no longer tolerated dissenting opinion. For national democratic leaders, Bob Casey was an anomaly. They simply dismissed him. Pretended he wasn’t there at all.

At the Democratic National Convention, in 1992, the Clinton team refused to let him speak. That was how Team Clinton worked. There was no more debate. There was no division. Everyone got their talking points, delivered from on high, and subjects were expected to stand behind their king. Delegates danced around the convention floor sporting large pins, depicting Gov. Casey dressed like the pope.

Two lawyers: kindred spirits separated by a scant four-hundred years.

One adopted a wise policy of qui tacet consentire videtur (who is silent is seen to consent), and in his silence spoke volumes. The other, roared like a lion for the premier human rights issue of this or any age, but his voice was quickly corked up into a bottle, like a ship in a vacuum, by the fellowship and sisterhood of his beloved party. More was beheaded for his conviction; Casey was ostracized and politically castrated.

They both served with dignity and honor during trying times. They both bore witness to the truth. They both taught us that public virtue is an obligation. And, they both were enlightened by the fact that politics cannot be cleaved from morality for convenience sake.

If only we had more like them today.

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St. Thomas More and Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania: The Fellowship of Conscious

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