Winter 2009, Vol. 11, No. 3

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Table of Contents

From the Editor:
How to Pray

The Mormon Proposition

No Saints Need Apply

Picturing Palin's Faith

Bishops at Bay

Downplaying Religion
in Mumbai

What is Lashkar?

The Beat Goes On

Riverside's Black-White Divide

Scandalous Days
in the OCA


New books

Bishops at Bay
by Patricia O'Connell Killen

Election Day left the American Catholic bishops uneasy—just how uneasy became clear a week afterwards, when the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, issued their message to President-elect Barack Obama and the incoming Congress.

Brief was the bishops’ acknowledgment of the election as a “moment of historic transition.” Brief too was the reaffirmation of their desire to cooperate with the government on economic justice and opportunity, on immigration reform and treatment of the undocumented, on education, health care, peace, and religious freedom. 

The central topic, consuming most of the statement’s 830 words, was the damage that would result to the nation and the church should something called the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA)—“more radical than the 1973 Supreme Court decision (Rove v. Wade) itself”—become law. 

In terse language, the statement presents a grim scenario: No restraints on abortion would exist. The “freedom of conscience” of doctors, nurses, and health-care workers opposed to abortion would be trampled. Catholic Charities and Catholic health-care institutions would be threatened. And tens of millions of Americans who oppose abortion would be alienated.

Moreover, FOCA would disrupt social order by upsetting the delicate balance between majorities and individuals. The free exercise of religion would be limited, and the proper relationship between government and faith communities destroyed. FOCA would assault “constitutional order and the common good, which is assured only when the life of every human being is legally protected.”

The specter haunting America was, in short, a thoroughly secular and dehumanized society, devoid of moral values, unable to recognize and respond to the claims of the weak and vulnerable, and thus unable to conceptualize and sustain the common good. Writing in the National Catholic Reporter November 13, John Allen noted the “special sense of urgency—driven by what many bishops and their pro-life advisors regard as a looming nightmare.”

Many journalists nonetheless wondered why the bishops chose to lay such stress on a piece of legislation that most observers deemed dead in the water.

“FOCA has as much chance of passage as the 0-10 Detroit Lions have of winning the next Super Bowl,” wrote National Catholic Reporter columnist Joel Feuerherd November 28. A “strong coalition of both Republicans and Democrats who either oppose abortion rights or do not want to see them expanded” largely assured that the bill wouldn’t reach President Obama’s desk in any form.

Likewise, on December 5, Ben Arnoldy of the Christian Science Monitor wrote that it was both highly uncertain “that FOCA will move in Congress, much less get passed in its current form” and “highly unlikely” that Obama would be “picking an abortion fight early on.”

Was something else going on here?

David Gibson, writing on Commonweal magazine’s blog dotCommonweal November 12, judged the bishops’ statement on FOCA to be politically savvy because it constituted “a recognition that any attempt to address the range of other issues that divided the hierarchy (and the flock) would simply spill out into more public divisions. Hence, nothing has been settled, but at least they have a big common enemy in FOCA, and that’s often as useful as anything, at least in the short term.”

Pursuing the argument a couple of weeks later on Beliefnet, Gibson contended that FOCA provided a focus for conservative bishops and their allies while they regrouped after an election that “exposed divisions in the church and within the pro-life movement.” Agreeing that it was virtually impossible for FOCA to reach Obama’s desk, he suggested that the bishops had positioned themselves to “claim ‘credit’ for defeating FOCA when it does not become law.”

Indeed, John Allen’s own reporting on the USCCB meeting out of which the statement emerged tends to support an interpretation of the bishops’ FOCA statement as a cover for division in their ranks. Two bishops “associated with public challenges to Obama during the campaign” were defeated in races for committee chairmanships while two “who struck a more Obama-friendly line by advising Catholics not to be ‘single issue voters’” went one-for-one.

The campaign against FOCA at once provided the bishops with a touchstone of consensus and cover for conflict over how best to advance their pro-life agenda. This conflict has to do with more than strategic decisions and tactical plans. It is about the proper relationship between the authority of bishops as moral teachers and the authority of the informed consciences of the American laity. And it all revolves around the issue of abortion.

Is abortion so grave an evil that Catholics are precluded from voting for a pro-choice candidate under any circumstances? Some bishops believe so.

In a letter read at all Masses in his diocese, Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton declared that “abortion superseded all other issues for Catholic voters.” Bishop Robert J. Hermann, interim of St. Louis, likewise asserted that Catholics were morally obligated to vote for a candidate opposing abortion. 

But as New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels noted November 7, stating this position so starkly to their flocks contradicted Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, a document unanimously adopted by the USCCB in 2007 to serve as the official guide on political responsibility for Catholics in the election. Even as it makes clear that abortion is an “intrinsic evil,” Faithful Citizenship teaches that politically responsible moral reasoning cannot be reduced to single issue voting. It calls on Catholics to “form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil.”

During the campaign, independent Catholic organizations such as Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which appealed to Faithful Citizenship in supporting Obama on explicitly Catholic grounds, garnered the ire of prelates such as Cardinal George. These vocal Catholic laity, many of whom agree with the bishops that abortion is wrong but do not think it should be re-criminalized, were ready to remind bishops and Catholic voters alike that reasoning morally in Catholic terms about public issues is complicated.

Douglas Kmiec, a well-known Catholic law professor who served as White House counsel to two Republican presidents, endorsed Obama and argued that “proportionate reason”—a classic Catholic term of moral disputation—made him a legitimate choice for Catholic voters. Kmiec infuriated conservatives by taking issue with Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leader among hard-line bishops, over whether a Catholic can legitimately work to promote life only by legal means (e.g., by reversing Roe v. Wade) or also through the option of social and economic policies that could reduce the number of abortions.

Nor did all bishops abandon Faithful Citizenship. Steinfels reported that Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany noted that the perception that “abortion was the only issue that should determine a Catholic’s vote” was not true to the document.

In line with this view, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton quickly corrected Fr. Joseph Illo of St. Joseph’s Parish in Modesto who, in a letter to his parishioners, suggested that anyone who had voted for Obama should go to confession before receiving the Eucharist. “Our position on pro-life is very important, but there are other issues,” Blaire told the Modesto Bee November 29. “No one candidate reflects everything that we stand for.” Similarly, Monsignor Martin T. Laughlin, administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., disciplined Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, for making the same claim. Nor were Hubbard, Blaire, and Laughlin alone in expressing concern about narrowing the application of Catholic moral teaching to one social issue.

In the event, the majority of Catholic voters—namely, the 52 percent who voted for Obama—did not agree with those bishops who consider abortion to control their choice of  candidates. To be sure, there is no way to determine which Catholics simply ignored the bishops and which, after having thoughtfully considered their pronouncements and Faithful Citizenship reached a different, conscience-informed conclusion. The same can be said of the nearly half of Catholics who, according to an August poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, think that abortion should be legal “in all or nearly all cases.”          

What’s clear, however, is that episcopal authority is limited—and that some bishops would like to restore it to what it used to be. At the November USCCB meeting, for example, Bishop Martino urged his fellow bishops to consider the use of “canonical measures” such as excommunication to deal with Catholic politicians who do not support their teaching on abortion the same way some Catholic politicians who opposed integration of parochial schools were dealt with during the civil rights era.

But the strategy of imposing harsh ecclesial sanctions is likely to work only with those Catholics who see submission to episcopal authority as an essential, defining feature of the faith. And between past invocations of excommunication over integration and the current struggle over how Catholic teaching promoting life should be enacted sits the Second Vatican Council, the laity’s embrace of the authority of individual conscience when it comes to birth control, the ongoing erosion of bishops’ credibility in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and growing concerns over diocesan finances.

Recognizing this, some bishops prefer reasoned discourse as the most effective, if not the only viable strategy for exercising their moral teaching authority in the highly voluntary religious setting of 21st-century America. Hence, Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, in whose diocese Vice President Biden resides, refused to “politicize the Eucharist” by telling the pro-choice politician that he should not receive communion. “I don’t want to alienate people,” Malooly told the Irish Times November 13. “I want to change their hearts and minds.”

Clearly, the bishops are not themselves of a single mind. Those who consider conformity to a unitary position on abortion as determinative have turned a critical eye on Faithful Citizenship. They accurately recognize it as a document in the tradition of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin’s “consistent ethic of life,” first enunciated 25 years ago when the Chicago prelate became chair of the USCCB’s committee on pro-life activities.

In the wake of the election, these bishops are ready to reframe the presentation on abortion in different terms. Perhaps with them in mind, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who heads the working group charged with the task of reviewing and revising
Faithful Citizenship, expressed to Steinfels concern that people prefer “black and white answers” to the whole legacy of moral analysis and reflection that Catholicism offers.

In their post-election statement, the bishops offered as an alternative to FOCA’s threat of dehumanization and social chaos the vision of a thriving community respecting the dignity of all. But real life is much more complicated than that vision, as the Catholic moral tradition itself recognizes. The notion that such a community would come about with re-criminalization of abortion is no easier for thinking Catholics to accept than is the evangelical notion that all social ills would be erased were all citizens to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. 

The USCCB statement and the conflict it masks are best understood as part of a longstanding, contentious Catholic conversation about what counts as “authentic” Catholic teaching and practice.

Forty years ago, in a book entitled The Catholic Crisis, sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea pointed out that Catholicism, like other social institutions, grows “through conflict between opposing tendencies” and “a slower, longer-term drift representing an extension of established positions.” But, O’Dea continued, “because of the great emphasis the Church has placed upon explicit definition and upon uniformity and authority, such development often takes place more subtly and more covertly than would be the case in more democratic and less ideationally oriented institutions.”

To understand change in Catholicism, he noted, one needs to be attuned to nuance and particularly to how, in the workings of the church, “ideas which are at least in potential conflict are often presented together as though the possibilities of conflict did not exist.”

Today, the practice of nuance, the abutting of conflicting ideas in documents, and a discourse that reflects both, are clearly at play in the bishops conference. Yet it is impossible not to notice an erosion of confidence in the church’s traditional way of confronting change. And the more bishops lose their confidence in that traditional way, the greater the risk that the USCCB will move toward single-issue teaching and politics—a disastrous long-term strategy for any religious institution in the United States. 

Astute observers of Catholicism will do well to be attuned to how the USCCB revises Faithful Citizenship. That, more than the public campaign against FOCA, will reveal the balance of power among the bishops, and will signal the future of their teaching authority on moral issues and of their pastoral influence generally, as well as the vitality of the church in America.


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