The bishops and the pols
Some American Catholic bishops are asking Catholic politicians to refrain from taking Communion if they cannot accept their faith's teaching on abortion. Protection of fetal life has been theologically developed and defined over the years as essential to Roman Catholic belief, in a way that, for instance, Pope John Paul II' s opposition to the death penalty has not. The bishops must be in shock when they look around and see that an entire generation of Catholic politicians has turned out to be a group of enablers for the spread of a practice that the church clearly defines as "intrinsically evil." This includes much of the Democratic establishment, from Ted Kennedy and John Kerry on down, as well as some important Bush appointees and Republican governors, including George Pataki in New York and California's Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The dilemma for the bishops was framed by two governors, both now out of office: Mario Cuomo in New York and Gray Davis in California. In a remarkable 1984 speech on abortion at Notre Dame, Cuomo correctly said: "To be a Catholic is to say 'I believe' to the essential core of dogmas that distinguishes our faith." Cuomo was trying (unsuccessfully, I think) to carve out some space for Catholic politicians who are "personally" committed to a pro-life belief, though in the real world they function politically as pro-choice supporters. But as a serious believer, Cuomo understood that if you wish to be Catholic, you simply can't brush aside the church's historic witness against abortion. As framed by Cuomo, if Catholic politicians are fearful of imposing their beliefs on others, they should at least take some action to persuade--making the antiabortion case in public forums or trying to work to reduce the demand for abortions. Attempting to change the law in the absence of a consensus is indeed a dubious business, but how about working within the current consensus--backing parental-consent laws or opposing the barbaric practice of "partial-birth" abortions? Both stances are heavily favored by voters.
Alas, after making the point that Catholic politicians must do something on abortion, Cuomo did next to nothing himself, presumably because you can't be a national politician in the modern Democratic Party if you express any qualms at all about abortion. This explains why so many ambitious Democrats, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Jesse Jackson, traded in their antiabortion position for the "choice" stance, the only one allowed by the now rigid national Democratic Party.
Davis, replaced by Schwarzenegger after his recall last year, skipped all of Cuomo's angst and the usual hand-wringing about not imposing his personal beliefs on a pluralistic society. He simply ignored what the church and his local bishop had to say, repeating over and over that he is "100 percent pro-choice and proud of it." He became the first major American Catholic politician to define his abortion stance by simply telling his church to take a hike. When the bishop of Sacramento suggested that Davis refrain from taking Communion, Davis put out a statement suggesting that the bishop refrain from "telling the faithful how to practice their faith."
Drawing a line. The bishops probably fear that Kerry will turn out to be a version of Davis on the presidential level. Kerry says the church's pro-life teaching is a sectarian doctrine that must not be imposed, etc., etc. So far, he seems to have avoided any indication that a moral issue of some weight is involved or that reducing the number of abortions might be a good idea. He said at a NARAL Pro-Choice America Dinner, "We need to honestly and confidently and candidly take this issue out to the country, and we need to speak up and be proud of what we stand for." The "we" in this sentence seems to indicate those promoting the missionary activity of the abortion lobby.
The archbishop of St. Louis says he would not give Communion to Kerry, and Kerry's own archbishop in Boston urged the candidate to refrain from going to Communion. The bishops want to draw a line, but making Kerry's well-established abortion stance a major issue in an election year would surely appear partisan. The bottom line is that the bishops are stuck with a Catholic governing class uninterested in the tenets of its own religion. Even the language of Catholic moral discussion has mostly disappeared among Catholic pols. They increasingly speak in the language of the abortion-rights movement. There is nothing much the bishops can do quickly about this. It may sound weak, but the bishops probably should raise their voices a bit and just keep trying to persuade Catholic pols, present and future, to take their religion seriously.
This story appears in the May 17, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.