Irreconcilable differences Wrestling with American prolife politics

LAST DECEMBER BISHOP RAYMOND BURKE then of the relatively small, mostly rural Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, made national and international news with a simple directive: Catholic legislators in his diocese who continue to support abortion “may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion,” he said. And should they present themselves, he added, “they are not to be allowed to receive until such time as they renounce these most unjust practices.”

The directive precipitated a series of similar condemnations by other bishops in the following months.

Many prolife advocates rejoiced that the church was finally putting some teeth in its doctrines. But the movement did not go nationwide. Some bishops said they had no intention of following Burke’s lead; others remained silent. And many lay Catholics, including more than a few prolife advocates, said withholding Communion was a terrible idea.

When the question is abortion, nothing comes easy, and the quick answer is usually the wrong one.

One reason the discussion in the United States has remained at such a level of rancor and outrage is that the issue seems so simple—so given to slogans and sound bites. Human life is precious and must be defended from beginning to end. What could be clearer? On the other hand, women have a right to choose what is best for them and for their families. What could be more obvious?

On the one side life, on the other freedom, each deeply rooted in human nature, each a principle not to be easily surrendered. But principles cannot be imposed or lived in the abstract. They have to move from the level of theory to the level of practice; they must be incarnated in human situations. And when that happens, they lose much of their simplicity—and some of their clarity.

The Catholic Church is firmly committed to a prolife position. We have the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “From its conception the child has the right to life. Direct abortion—that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means—is a criminal practice, gravely contrary to the moral law.”

We have Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, a document of the U.S. bishops’ conference, expressly written as a guide for the 2004 elections: “Human life is a gift from God, sacred and inviolable. Because every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, we have a duty to defend human life from conception until natural death and in every condition.”

And we have the consistent statements of Pope John Paul II over the past 26 years: “The church intends not only to reaffirm the right to life—the violation of which is an offense against the human person and against God the Creator and Father, the loving source of all life—but she also intends to devote herself ever more fully to concrete defense and promotion of this right.”

Inconsistency reigns
U.S. church leaders and prolife activist groups have long been concerned that great numbers of Catholic elected officials are ignoring this prolife doctrine with statements that appear to be pro-abortion. They talk of “a woman’s right to choose,” but in Catholic understanding a woman does not have the moral right to choose the termination of her unborn fetus. They talk of not allowing their religious views to influence their public decisions, but Catholic teaching is very explicit that faith convictions should have a place in serious public decisions, especially where life and death are concerned.

On this inconsistency, prolifers have not been silent. Catholic columnist John Leo has commented, “The bishops must be in shock when they look around and see that an entire generation of Catholic politicians has turned out to be enablers for the spread of a practice that the church clearly defines as intrinsically evil.”

Organizations like the American Life League have cited canon law and Vatican documents in their public attacks on “The Deadly Dozen”—a group of Catholic U.S. senators whose voting records are consistently pro-choice. The list includes Richard Durbin of Illinois, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Edward Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

This year the principal target is, of course, Kerry, as he runs for president. Whereas John F. Kennedy was opposed in 1960 for being “too Catholic” to govern a pluralistic nation, Kerry is scorned for “not being Catholic enough.”

Kerry’s heightened position in the public eye was undoubtedly a major factor in Bishop Burke’s action, which gathered momentum for a time as other bishops ratcheted up the demands. In the Colorado Springs diocese, not only are Catholic politicians who support abortion banned from Communion, Bishop Michael Sheridan has said, even Catholics who vote for politicians who support abortion (or gay marriage) will be banned until “they have recanted their positions and confessed their sin.”

These declarations threw some Catholic officials into a state of near panic. The governor of Massachusetts agreed to cease receiving Communion. The majority leader of the New Jersey Senate announced he was leaving the church. And several pro-choice Catholic congressmen began compiling a scorecard to show how many Catholic social teachings they did endorse. Others said they couldn’t go around imposing their religious beliefs on the nation.

Concern faded when other bishops openly disagreed with their colleagues. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said, “I would find it hard to use the Eucharist as a sanction. You don’t know what’s in anyone’s heart when they come before you.”

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati said he “would not deny the sacraments unjustly to anybody. We need to be very cautious about denying people the sacraments on the basis of what they believe, especially when those are political beliefs.”

And Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote, “It is not the role of the minister of the Eucharist to evaluate the interior readiness of the communicant.”

Polls apart
If the bishops are not in agreement on how to treat abortion, it should come as no surprise that neither are the laity. A CBS/New York Times poll in 2002 reported that only 32 percent of Catholics believe that abortion should be entirely outlawed, while 40 percent would accept it with certain limits and 25 percent thought it should be generally available. Still, across the board, Americans are growing more disenchanted with abortion; for example, a 2003 Gallup poll reported 70 percent in opposition to partial-birth abortion.

But Catholics have shown no major differences from the rest of the population. Bob Dugan, an investment advisor in Syracuse, New York, says, “I’m opposed to abortion as a Catholic, but I can’t tell some woman she can’t make a decision, given her circumstances. And I can’t get excited about a prolife movement that insists on bringing every fetus to life—and then just stops there.”

A delicate balance
One need only consult Catholic moral theologians to begin to grasp why easy answers won’t fit. Franciscan Father Thomas Nairn, a professor of ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, says the Vatican may be pressing the U.S. bishops to crack down on Catholic politicians because it is still uneasy with the American political system that strictly separates church and state.

“There’s a fear,” he says “of the kind of absolute separation that occurred in Europe where governments were not only independent of churches but openly hostile toward religion.” As a result, elected officials were expected to keep their religious beliefs so private that they would never have any effect on legislative decisions.

Catholic moral theology assumes that Catholic public officials will be influenced by the church’s social teaching in their public as well as their private lives. It also assumes they have a right to make “prudential decisions” on all the issues of the day, including abortion, says Nairn. This means balancing a whole range of life-related issues, including health care, housing, education, employment, the economy, war, and the environment.

Sometimes that could mean choosing the lesser of two evils in a bill. A long tradition of pastoral theology exists in the church, says Nairn, and it is often appropriately used to opt for the better of two bad choices.

Does this mean a Catholic legislator could ever vote in good conscience for a bill that supports abortion? Within certain limits that is possible, says Franciscan Father Kenneth Himes, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. “I would assume we are talking about a person who believes the taking of human life is wrong and that the unborn fetus is a human life at some point, since those are very basic Catholic beliefs.”

Suppose that before this legislator comes a bill that gives some continuing authorization for abortion but in addition provides a range of life-enhancing services for pregnant women: for example, prenatal, maternal, and postnatal care, as well as counseling for pregnant teens and young married parents. The legislator, says Himes, might determine that the potential aid for mothers, babies, and families in this piece of legislation will in fact deter abortion in the long run by making it a less attractive option. He or she would be on solid moral grounds if voting to pass the bill, says Himes.

In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II approved such action in a very similar case. “When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law,” he wrote, “an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law.” That is, he or she could vote for a law despite the fact that it does permit abortion. Noted the pope, “This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”

Or consider a proposed law or constitutional amendment that would make abortion always and everywhere illegal. A Catholic legislator would seem to have no choice but to vote for its passage. But might he or she make, on the basis of good information, a prudential decision that this law would be universally disobeyed or that it would result in a tidal wave of unsafe, illegal, and back-alley abortions or that it would lead to a rash of convictions and imprisonment for women who had abortions or that the law would spawn widespread disrespect for law in general? Indeed, says Himes, the legislator could vote in good conscience against such a proposal.

One might argue, of course, that an anti-abortion law will not have all or any of these negative effects, and the theoretical lawmaker would likely be labeled a disobedient, pro-abortion Catholic—and might even be denied Communion. But it is the individual lawmaker, not his or her critics or bishop, who must make a prudent decision on the basis of his or her own knowledge and beliefs. The goal would be to do what’s feasible to lessen abortion in the long run, and he or she might decide an easy, immediate anti-abortion vote would be counterproductive to the goal.

Himes insists this is not some new kind of situation ethics but one based on principles deep in Catholic tradition. It is a tradition that holds human life in the greatest esteem, he says, but it does not absolutize life without qualification or separate it in every instance from other critical considerations. “The church,” he notes, “does not absolutize life outside the womb,” as exemplified by the just war tradition, which accepts the killing of enemy combatants along with the deaths of innocent civilians as collateral damage; it has long accepted the right of a person to kill if necessary in self-defense, and until the past century it was supportive of capital punishment.

“My reading of these matters is that the legislator has to operate in the realm of experience and has to be allowed a certain measure of discretion to determine what’s feasible and what’s not,” Himes says. “He can’t be compelled to go chasing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

The need for nuance
Lisa Sowle Cahill, professor of Christian ethics at Boston College, agrees with Nairn and Himes that an automatic no on anything connected with abortion is too simplistic and not in keeping with traditional theology. But she wonders why responsible Catholic legislators or candidates do not make an effort to explain the rationale behind the “prudential judgments” they are making.

“I suspect the reason is that they themselves lack a nuanced understanding of the flexibility Catholic moral theology gives. They may equate Catholic thinking with what the prolife right tells them it is,” she says, and consequently, “the discussion never gets raised to a higher level.”

Himes says he can’t believe that some Catholics in the public eye have not sought guidance from pastors or theologians in an effort to form a correct conscience. In fact, John Kerry met privately with Cardinal McCarrick last April, though the subject of conversation was not disclosed.

What troubles Himes as well as Cahill is the absence of any evidence of prudential decision-making and nuanced thinking on the part of many Catholic politicians, including Kerry, who are supposed to be wrestling with these issues. If they have in fact used prudential judgment as described in the kind of practical cases mentioned above, Himes says, one would expect at the very least they would indicate in some way their views through public statements promoting alternatives to abortion, by taking issue with their peers who embrace every pro-choice initiative that comes along, or, better, by outspokenly supporting those prolife measures that they see as discouraging or ending the practice. In other words, one would hope and expect that, as the pope says, their “absolute personal opposition” to abortion is “well known.”

History 101

The original clash between Catholic doctrine and American politics occurred in 1928 when, for the first time, a Catholic, Gov. Al Smith of New York, was a presidential candidate. Protestant critics asked: How could a Catholic, with his first loyalty to the pope, govern fairly? The question was not entirely without merit. The official church teaching at the time was that civil governments had an obligation to give preferential treatment to the church—a position the U.S. Constitution had gone to some pains to reject. Smith had no answer to the question, and he lost in a landslide.

Thirty-two years later, in 1960, another Catholic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, faced a similar challenge. The doctrine that paved the way for Smith’s defeat was still in place. Would he, as a Catholic president, attempt to impose church teaching on all Americans? Fortunately a new approach to church and state relations, developed by the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, was much discussed at the time. It claimed (and this later became official church doctrine at Vatican II) that church and state need not be united; that both, in fact, would do better—as they had in this country—if they remained separate. Kennedy sought advice from Murray and used it in a pivotal campaign speech before influential Protestant ministers in Houston. He said he would not seek or accept instructions on public policy from the pope or any other religious leader. “I will make my decisions in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest,” Kennedy said. The ministers were relieved, and Kennedy won, though just barely.

Beginning in the 1970s with the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, a new clash developed in view of the church’s strong condemnation of abortion. Would Catholic elected politicians support the law of the land or use their positions to prevent abortions? A powerful prolife coalition of Catholics and evangelicals developed, insisting Christians have a moral obligation to oppose abortion. Kennedy’s appeal to conscience was not valid in this area, they said, because the issue was the deliberate killing of human beings.

In the 1980s New York’s Catholic governor Mario Cuomo declared in a much-quoted speech at the University of Notre Dame that he opposed abortion but believed any effort to make it illegal would be useless; he preferred to promote social legislation making abortion a less desirable option. Also in the 1980s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago attempted to transcend this single-issue hot potato through outlining what he called a “consistent ethic of life,” which came to be known as the “seamless garment.” Abortion is but one of many life issues, he contended, and faithful Christians should be equally concerned about health care for the poor, jobs, peace, poverty, and a dozen other priorities. Some Catholic politicians found solace in Bernardin’s initiative, while others tried to distance themselves from the debate under cover of Kennedy’s claim of neutrality. But prolife advocates have insisted on opposition to abortion as the litmus test of every politician’s worthiness for office.

The nomination of Catholic John Kerry for president has brought all these unsettled, simmering matters to a fresh boil.

Robert McClory

Kerry has said he believes as a Catholic that life begins at conception and considers it “a tragedy in the lives of everybody when abortion is looked on as alternative to birth control or...having a child.” But he has never explained how his consistently pro-choice voting record is helping to stop the tragedy. When confronted about his record, Sen. Durbin has said he would counsel a pregnant woman to carry her child to full term but does not believe the government should prevent her from making the choice.

No retreat, no surrender
Other moral theologians and large numbers of lay Catholics believe there should be no exceptions in the anti-abortion, prolife position. They welcome strong punitive measures against overt pro-choicers and others who make concessions or distinctions.

Jesuit Father Patrick Boyle, professor of moral theology at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago, says no Catholic can support any pro-choice position under any circumstance. “A human conception must be preserved no matter what its source or what its condition,” he says, “and that includes cases involving rape, incest, or health of the mother.”

The sort of distinctions made by theologians like Himes and Nairn are wrong, he says, because they probably would justify a good end (limiting some abortions) by bad means (supporting other abortions). “Look,” says Boyle, “I’m a hard-ass on this. I was a chaplain in the Vietnam War. I saw firsthand what war does to young kids, and I have a feel for life that goes across the world. Life is the one entity that’s holy, sacred, inviolable.”

If more people were passionate about life, he says, “the wars in Bosnia and Iraq would never have happened; life is the highest value, and it trumps every other value.” Boyle believes bishops and priests ought to withhold Communion from pro-choice politicians because “they are giving scandal, they are leading other people to question church teaching.”

Lay Catholics, including legislators, have wrestled with these issues for so long it is difficult to fit most people into either the prolife or pro-choice camp, and some refuse to be so identified.

Boyle’s position is echoed by Martin Geraghty, a Chicago area commercial real estate broker. “The church has an obligation to teach, to evangelize, to say certain things are wrong,” he says, and abortion is wrong, always wrong.

“When Catholic legislators contradict fundamental teachings on the value of life, they separate themselves from the church and they give scandal to people who think because Catholic legislators can be pro-abortion, so can they.” Geraghty says the scandal has gone on too long, and he rejoiced at the strong public stand taken by some bishops. “Any bishop not doing what Bishop Burke did is derelict,” he says.

Yet, although he hopes for a constitutional amendment completely banning abortion, Geraghty says he could live with lesser legislation that would allow abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or when a mother’s health is endangered. “I see the logical inconsistency in what I’m saying here,” acknowledges Geraghty, “but we have to bring the constituency along to the point of recognizing the horrors of abortion.”

An absolute ban at this time, he says, could be so divisive “it would drive every Catholic out of public life.”

Not holier than thou
Bart Stupak is a six-term Michigan congressman who also agrees with Boyle—up to a point. His absolute personal opposition to abortion is well known. “I vote, practice, and speak prolife,” he says. “I believe life begins at conception, and some say I have the best prolife voting record in the House of Representatives.” But he is reluctant to condemn or even criticize his fellow Democrats in the pro-choice camp.

“You have to look at the totality of the party’s position,” he says. “You have to look at how our people, including those who disagree with me on prolife, vote on things like war and poverty and education and health care. I’ll tell you it’s way better than anything coming from the Christian right.”

Stupak says he can understand why some of his pro-choice colleagues voted to allow abortions to be performed in military hospitals overseas in order to avoid the inevitable alternative of back-alley procedures. “I can’t advocate abortion in any form,” he says, “but I see their argument, and these are people I have to seek coalitions with and make concessions to in order to push forward on a lot of important social legislation.”

Stupak added that withholding Communion from pro-choice legislators is a wrong-headed idea. “All we do by that is drive people away,” he says.

Dr. Martha Willi, an ophthalmologist in Peoria, Illinois, would give public officials the widest measure of discretion. “I reject these prolife and pro-choice labels altogether,” she says. “They usually mean whatever the other side wants them to mean.”

There are many ways to end the tragedy of abortion, she says, citing her own experience as a medical resident in a San Francisco hospital in the 1960s. Women were seeking abortions at the time, she explains, because pregnancy would inevitably cause them to lose their jobs. “Only one group was working to make that kind of workplace discrimination illegal,” she says. “It was the National Organization of Women, and I joined.”

The campaign to change the law was successful, and Willi has continued as a NOW member ever since. Although NOW is uncompromising in its pro-choice stance, Willi says she is energized by the group’s continuing effort to alter the societal circumstances that still influence women to have abortions.

Stepping carefully
Logical inconsistencies seem to attend almost every aspect of the abortion dilemma. A simple no will not stop it, and a simple yes is morally unacceptable to people of conscience. Even the Vatican appeared a bit hesitant on how to proceed in a recent document, A Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding Participation of Catholics in Political Life from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

On the one hand, says the statement, “A well formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” On the other hand, it states later, “The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good.”

In June Ratzinger weighed in with his personal clarification. Those who consistently campaign and vote for permissive laws on abortion and euthanasia may be guilty of “manifest grave sin,” he said, and “should not be admitted to Communion.” However, he added, it is up to the bishops to use their own prudential judgment in discerning and acting on these matters, and in any event denial of Communion should occur only after the bishop meets with, instructs, and explicitly warns the offending Catholic.

At their meeting in Denver later in June, the U.S. bishops’ conference by a vote of 183-6 decided to leave it up to individual bishops whether or not to deny Communion, since “there can be different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.” The U.S. bishops are expected to determine more explicit norms only after the November election.

Robert J. McClory is professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and author of Faithful Dissenters (Orbis, 2000).

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