As a catechetical student in a parochial school during my formative years, the nuns, priests and “lay teachers” (a term that always sounded odd) stressed that a moral person not only avoided committing the actual sin, but also just as purposefully tried to evade something called “the near occasion of sin.”
My adolescent mind had a hard time getting around that last part.
In a world rife with temptation, how does one actually do that? Where does one have to draw the line? (Parenthetically, is that what Mike Pence is trying to do with his personal policy on lunch with women not his wife?) It seems an impossible task.
This is a prime example of a “moral conundrum.”
No one escapes unscathed.
It is a daunting challenge, but not an unworthy one. It is an indispensible consideration that informs our efforts to behave in an honorable manner and is essential to our humanity.
How does this relate to public corruption?
Officeholders and civil servants are customarily charged with not only staying clear of any overt conflicts of interest, but also the appearance of any such conflict – the latter serving perhaps as a pertinent illustration of the “near occasion of sin.”
Again though, where does one draw that line?
Lawyers are paid to parse the difference between behaviors that objectively may be of questionable morality, but are not necessarily illegal.
Theirs is the professional occupation that predominates among our legislative representatives. Is it then all that surprising to find that the legal restraints they place on their own activities might be less than exacting?
Even with that considerable home court advantage, in New York alone over just a recent handful of years, two Senate majority leaders, an Assembly speaker, several close aides to the sitting governor – indeed, more than 40 state government officials in both major political parties over the last decade according to the Associated Press – have been convicted of public corruption related crimes.
Just this past week, a prominent western New York congressman was indicted and has effectively given up his seat by deciding not to continue his re-election campaign.
Evidently that line as presently sketched invites too many to try and straddle it.
As if to further demonstrate the depth of the problem, the more prominent of these convictions were initially overturned on appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court eased these already loose standards by practically--and legally--conflating recognizable instances of public corruption with “politics as usual”.
Unfortunately, it has become commonly acknowledged that the price of access to lawmakers is campaign contributions.
Alarmingly, that seems to have been largely accepted as a fact of life by the nation’s highest court. If our own collective attitude also has become a shrug of the shoulders, then perhaps almost nothing else really matters.
We very well may be losing our republic -- and the democratic values that underpin it -- to a slickly and intricately crafted, but no less crass, pay-as-you-go form of officially sanctioned near-bribery that winks at the law and pretends to be something it’s not.
Countless government office seekers have claimed to recognize this crisis and called for campaign finance reform.
Candidates of both major parties, including our sitting governor and both legislative leaders, have made attractive-sounding suggestions that good government advocates have promoted for decades.
Yet once in office, all we hear is one excuse after another, with loads of finger pointing to explain why it never gets done.
Clearly, the governor and legislative leaders, regardless of party, have no real intention to address it.
This same malignancy exists at the federal level and it’s demonstrably growing worse, despite empty promises to “drain the swamp.”
Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate majority leader, derisively equated the public’s interest in this issue on a par with “static cling”.
However, Pew Research has found agreement about the necessity for reform among 75 percent of all voters regardless of political affiliation.
A majority of challengers to incumbents this year have taken notice of this by publicly and voluntarily foregoing bulk “dark money” political action committee (PAC) donations and--at least according to the early polls – are finding it a potentially winning strategy.
So, if you want to get justifiably outraged about something, make it this.
History shows that we must take responsibility individually for this and do it ourselves.
Regardless of party, simply vote against any candidate accepting PAC money and vote for those that refuse it.
It’s really the only way to begin “draining the swamp” and ending “business as usual”.
John Figliozzi is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.