About two weeks ago I was channel surfing and happened upon
the broadcast of the Archdiocese of New York’s Annual Alfred E. Smith Dinner.
John McCain was just beginning his remarks and the camera panned the long head
table. My jaw dropped as I saw the rather bulky red and black clad figure of
Cardinal Eagan sitting next to the pro-choice Democratic candidate for
president: Barack Obama. I thought back
almost 25 years to the 1984 presidential campaign when Geraldine Ferraro was
banned from the dinner because of her pro-choice views. I remembered the 2004 Presidential campaign in
which John Kerry’s candidacy led a few bishops to announce that pro-choice
Catholic politicians were not "fit" to receive communion. It was impossible, they claimed, to be a
Catholic and vote in favor of legal abortion.
The Era Before Kerry
The attempt of some
bishops to apply sanctions under church law to policy makers who vote
pro-choice and the rejection of this strategy by most bishops exposed the long time Achilles heel of church
pronouncements about abortion politics. Of course, the position of the church
on the act of abortion was relatively clear: abortion was wrong in all
circumstances, objectively sinful. If certain conditions were met, the person
who procured the abortion and those who performed the procedure automatically
excommunicated themselves. But what
about Catholics who neither had nor performed abortions, but supported of its
legality? This included people like Supreme Court Justice Brennan, Senators
Kennedy, Leahy, Mikulski; members of Congress Pelosi, de Lauro, Kucinich, and Catholics who voted these politicians into office. Were they
subject to sanctions and if so which ones?
Almost all church lawyers said "no." Canon law was narrow and precise and the
canon related to abortion did not apply to these people. Bishops may be
frustrated by the fact that these elected officials visibly thwart the policy
agenda of the institutional church — but how Catholics vote is not genuinely
subject to excommunication or exclusion from the sacraments. Of course, the
governing system of the church is feudal; each bishop is a little prince in his
diocese and can arbitrarily break church law with impunity.
From Mario Cuomo to John Kerry and now Nancy Pelosi and Joe
Biden, Catholic politicians have made sometimes eloquent, sometimes awkward
cases for why support for legal abortion was consistent with church teaching.
All formally said they accepted church teaching on abortion even when they did
not understand what it was or adopted a somewhat disingenuous understanding for
convenience or casuistic purposes. But they either claimed they had to protect
the right of those in other religions that did not have the same teachings to
practice their religion, or they had to uphold the constitution. Or most
recently, they explain that they believe the best way to prevent abortion is to make it less
necessary, by supporting family planning, economic benefits for women who carry
pregnancies to term and more humane adoption.
For the most part these tactics worked. Formal sanctions
were almost never imposed. Most Catholic institutions were careful not make
trouble: they did not give honorary degrees to pro-choice Catholic policy
makers, most parishes did not invite these politicians to make speeches on
church property and pro-choice Catholic politicians did not receive awards.
Once in a while, there was an eruption that filled the newspapers. Until 2004, academics,
priests, and influential lay people hid their heads in the sand and said
nothing to defend these policy makers when such eruptions happened in the
liberal Catholic community. They had learned from the 1984 presidential
campaign, when a number of leading Catholic scholars, 24 nuns and four priests
defended Geraldine Ferraro in a full page New York Times ad, that if the church
was going to go after anyone it would go after theologians and nuns and
priests. The nuns who signed the ad
spent two years fighting Vatican attempts to
get them kicked out of their orders. The theologians found that offers to speak
or teach at Catholic colleges dried up.
Frankly, in that time period the only defender of pro-choice
Catholic policy makers was Catholics for a Free Choice. Of course, at Catholics
for a Free Choice we were frankly and fearlessly pro-choice. And we made no
bones about the fact that we believed it was not only legitimate for Catholics
to believe that abortion should be legal, we also believed it could be and was
moral in a wide range of circumstances. We were out there both politically and
theologically. Our primary loyalty was to the women who face unintended or
unsupportable pregnancies and to supporting their right as moral agents to
decide when abortion would be morally justifiable in their situation. Any support we could give to politicians
needed to also protect women. There was
no way we could throw these women to the wolves by claiming that women
did not have a moral right to choose abortion but politicians and voters had a right to choose
to vote for legal abortion. What hypocrisy that would be!
This position was too tough for most active progressive Catholics
who were working for democratic reforms within the church or for the "big"
social justice issues like peace and economic justice. Some were pro-choice,
but just thought it would compromise their other work to speak out; others were
afraid they would lose their jobs or status, some couldn’t figure out whether
they were for or against abortion and some, a minority in my opinion, were
against legal abortion. In this sense their behavior was more circumspect than
that of Catholics whose identity and work were less connected to the
institutional church. Only a third of the Catholic Members of Congress were
adamantly anti-choice and many of the strongest supporters of
choice were Catholic legislators. Anti-abortionists, for example, were outraged
that at a time when there were only five Catholic Senators, all five voted
against the initial ban on "partial birth abortion." Later Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan changed
his position; still later, Senator Patrick Leahy changed his.
Among all Catholics, support for the overall
right of women to decide about abortion is comparable to that of non-Catholics. These Catholics are far more progressive on
abortion than the progressive Catholics leaders who maintained silence on the
abortion issue throughout most of the political firestorms and attacks by
bishops on Catholic politicians.
Progressive Catholics Outraged at Threat of Sanctions Against Kerry
The 2004 election changed that. Progressive Catholics were
outraged at the threat of sanctions against Kerry, but more disturbed that the
sanction talk may have contributed to the reelection of Bush, whose positions on
war, poverty and other social justice issues were an affront to Catholic social
teaching and a challenge to the issues these Catholics cared about. They were
also mobilized by the Democratic Party’s newfound interest in religion and
some wanted to be part of the action. In the wake of the 2004 election they met
with Party leaders and joined with progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis and
others in early efforts organized by the Center for American Progress to engage
center-left religious leaders in support for the Democratic Party and its
social justice agenda.
The progressive evangelicals and Catholics involved in
these efforts were skittish on the Party’s support for abortion rights, but over time independent faith groups developed and found a "middle ground" position: express moral disapproval of abortion and suggest progressive economic approaches to reducing the number of abortions. This strategy has been implemented for the past for years by two Catholic groups that emerged -
Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance
for the Common Good. These groups advertise their acceptance of the church’s
position against abortion and contraception. In the case of Catholics in Alliance, they go further
and say they are for legal protection for the unborn. At the same time, they strongly
promote the idea that Catholics can vote for candidates who are solidly pro-choice.
There is no doubt that these positions are moderately useful
in convincing the very small slice of Catholic voters who would be likely to vote for Democrats except for their position on abortion (probably less than 10% of the Catholic
population) to vote for Democrats. But do these positions serve women,
especially poor women, well, and do they advance the role of Catholics in
reforming the church?
Do Progressive Catholic Groups Advance Church Reform?
The most recent indicators that these groups are more of an
obstacle than a prod for church reform and women’s reproductive choice can be
found in their reactions to statements by Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden about
Catholicism and abortion.
Both Pelosi and Biden made strong statements
defending their stands on choice on Meet the Press, speaking not only as
legislators but as theologically well-educated Catholics. In answer to a question about when life
begins Biden said: "As a Catholic, I am prepared to accept the teaching of my
church…I’m prepared to accept as a matter of faith that life begins at the
moment of conception." As I listened to Biden I thought I heard a slight
emphasis on the phrase "as a matter of faith." How elegant of Biden: he did not
claim that the idea that life begins at conception is a medical fact.
bishops promptly issued a statement in which they asserted Biden needed to go
further. The idea that life begins at conception is not, they said, just a
matter of faith – it is a "biological
fact:" "When there is a new human organism, embryology textbooks confirm new
life begins at conception."
About a month earlier, just before the Democratic
Convention, Pelosi noted on Meet the Press that "as an ardent practicing
Catholic this is an issue I have studied for a long time. And what I know is
over the centuries the doctors of the church have not been able to make that
said at three months. We don’t know. The point is that shouldn’t have an impact
on the woman’s right to choose." Pelosi was immediately criticized by the arch
conservative Cardinal of Denver, Charles Chaput, one of those who had suggested
in 2004 that pro-choice Catholic voters
should not receive communion.
One would think that progressive Catholic
leaders working for the inclusion of Catholic social justice values in
electoral discourse would have been delighted at the forthrightness and
intelligence of these pro-choice Catholic policy makers — who both asserted their
duty to serve women’s moral agency (Pelosi) and to respect science and religion
(Biden) and also explained the nuance of Catholic theology which allowed them
to be pro-choice. Instead, the worst form of clericalism emerged. How dare
these Catholics "do theology"; they should stick to politics. Chris Korzen, the spokesperson for Catholics
United, complained that "there is a
legitimate conversation to be had about how best to translate the teachings of
the Catholic faith into public policy, but as far as the church is concerned
doctrine is off limits."
What then do Korzen and Catholics United think the
role of the faithful is: obedient sheep that blindly follow the bishops? It
would seem so — he went further, saying, "When public officials make
those comments the bishops need to correct their errors." I am left asking,
"What errors? As an educated Catholic with a degree in theology are you trying
to tell Americans that something Pelosi or Biden said was a theological error?
Surely you are too intelligent to believe that Catholics cannot believe that
there is room within the teaching on abortion to allow women to exercise their
moral adulthood and decide whether abortion can ever be a moral choice."
The slavish and inappropriate obeisance that Korzen,
et.al. show to ultra-orthodox understandings
of church teaching and abortion are unfortunately not limited to that single
issue. Yes, these leaders proudly assert that they want to see abortion
criminalized (Catholics In Alliance for the Common Good website: "CIA is prolife. We support full
legal protection for unborn children as a requirement of social justice and a
matter of essential human rights.") However, they accept that that is not
likely and as an alternative they think it reasonable for policy makers to seek
to reduce the number of abortions by providing economic assistance to women who
continue pregnancies and making adoption easier. What is missing from this
prescription? In spite of the fact that about 95% of Catholics believe that
contraception is moral, these progressive Catholic groups are so locked into the institutional
church that they cannot support the measure most likely to reduce
This is really soul numbing politics and soul numbing
theology. It is faith in the service of the powerful – in this case good policy
makers. But it is not in service to the millions of women in the US andworld
wide who need their right to decide and to live affirmed. And it is not in
service to the people of God who need their right to do theology, to speak freely
and to dissent from damaging church teachings and policy upheld by those who
would claim moral leadership.
Progressive Catholic electoral activity is yet another
example of the dangers of mixing politics and faith.