e-mail us


Bishops’ politics: more of the same

NCR Staff

Many of the bishops who recently approved the document “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics” see it as a bold new initiative in the abortion struggle, one that brings a certain clarity in the ultimatum it places at the feet of Catholic legislators. Indeed, the new document is unambiguous: There is no room anywhere in the political arena for compromise on the question of abortion.

The language used to support the measure during the discussion at the recent meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops often strained toward the lofty -- this was performance of a bishop’s duty, a pastoral service to the church and the world, a statement upholding life in a culture of death.

In many ways, the document is all of those things, but in the end, the statement’s stinging social analysis and compelling exhortation falls into the background, overtaken by its ultimate purpose as a political strategy.

The strategy is very simple: Give no quarter.

“Catholic officials who disregard church teaching on the inviolability of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent life,” the statement warns.

A little further on, the bishops write, “We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from church teaching on the inviolability of human life in the public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with church teaching.”

The original version contained an even more severe judgment, stating that Catholic public officials who disregard church teaching on abortion “jeopardize their own salvation, erode the community of faith and give grave scandal to the faithful.”

In its condemnation of abortion and its analysis of American culture the document contains nothing new, as documents from the American bishops go.

“U.S. economic and military power has sometimes led to grave injustices abroad. At home, it has fueled self-absorption, indifference and consumerist excess. Overconfidence in our power, made even more pronounced by advances in science and technology, has created the illusion of a life without natural boundaries and actions without consequences. The standards of the marketplace, instead of being guided by sound morality, threaten to displace it. We are now witnessing the gradual restructuring of American culture according to ideals of utility, productivity and cost-effectiveness. It is a culture where moral questions are submerged by a river of goods and services and where the misuse of marketing and public relations subverts public life.”

Some might, as did one bishop, take the writers to task for not documenting more diligently their cultural analysis. But that is a minor rub. One need not be at the cutting edge to see North America as a culture that is suffocating its soul under the sheer weight of material “success.”

The real rub comes when one asks what Catholics in general are going to get for this latest effort of their bishops. That would not be a fair question of a document that is setting out moral principle and leaving Catholics to puzzle out how to effect change in the real world.

It is a fair question, however, when the bishops not only set out moral principles but prescribe a precise political strategy.

An old strategy

And this strategy, while perhaps bolder than in the past, is hardly new. It is merely a more explicit and strident version of a strategy that so far has failed miserably.

In private, conversations, some of those most deeply involved with the official church antiabortion effort will concede that the investment of time and money and of political and moral capital in seeking a political solution to the abortion question has been a monumental flop.

During 12 years of the Reagan-Bush era -- when pro-life forces were courted by the White House and the bishops adroitly signaled to their constituencies the candidates they preferred -- the practical political gains were minimal at best.

Perhaps the most convincing argument against the strategy is that it failed to persuade Catholics that the answer lies in the political arena.

Not only did the bishops fail to make any major political gains against abortion, but those who took up their cause too often were the very ones who cast the votes that unleashed free-market excesses, reigned in the state’s compassion to the poor and immigrants, and were always there to vote yes on the next defense expenditure and the next overseas arms deal.

There are no perfect politicians. The political arena works on compromise and consensus. Absolute, all-or-nothing strategies mostly end up with nothing.

It doesn’t take a politician long to grasp the polls consistently showing that while Catholics may consider abortion repugnant, they do not want to make it illegal.

The bishops give no models of practical legislation. They don’t say who should be the target of such legislation: women seeking abortions, men who impregnate them, physicians who perform abortions? Nor do they specify what penalty would be levied against offenders.

Disconnecting issues

While the document insists that the stand on abortion is connected to all the other life issues, it just as quickly disconnects abortion from all other matters:

“Catholic officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies that promote respect for the human person at all stages of life. But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.”

The point might well be made in reverse: Does being right on one issue and wrong on all the rest entitle politicians to the full favor of the Catholic church? All life issues may be connected, but only one matters in the voting booth, the bishops seem to be saying.

The results of the bishops’ strategy were evident during the meeting and immediately after. One bishop told the assembly of his informal agreement with a local Catholic legislator. The legislator, who votes the wrong way on abortion, had agreed to stay away from Catholic gatherings.

Immediately after the bishops’ meeting, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie informed Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge that he was unwelcome at Catholic functions.

Run to its logical conclusion, such a strategy will effectively isolate the church from any meaningful political engagement and make it increasingly difficult for Catholics to win elections.

In previous statements on nuclear weapons and the economy, the bishops conducted elaborate consultations on all sides. When Cardinal Bernard Law, chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, was asked why the committee did not engage in more dialogue with Catholics before releasing a new document on abortion, he responded that more dialogue would not change the conclusions.

Law missed the point. The bishops did not change their conclusions on matters of war and peace or the economy. But it has been amply shown that the broad consultations -- the give-and-take required -- and the accompanying publicity resulted in revisions that contained more nuance and were more credible to the general public than the originals. And the discussion also had a significant effect on the way people thought about the subjects.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee expressed his disappointment that the document was not more an instruction for bishops “on how to wrestle with this issue in terms not only of our political leaders who perhaps have bad faith but also those who have good faith and are trying to reconcile their consciences with the positions they hold.”

He wondered how bishops were to deal with “imperfect legislation” not only in the area of abortion but also cloning, fetal experimentation, capital punishment, nuclear armaments and a host of other social justice issues.

He recalled that in overseeing development of the document Economic Justice for All, the bishops “had to put in a paragraph talking about contingencies, lack of information, uncertainties, when you go from the abstract principle to the concrete legislation.”

He also called for “a better analysis of the voting patterns of our Catholic constituency. I am tired of picking up the paper and seeing that Catholics voted only for their pocketbooks. ... I wonder if they are trying to tell us something far more simple. Are they trying to tell us that this issue will not be solved in the voting arena at this time?”

Weakland’s comment aptly raises the core issue: Is a singular emphasis on the politics of abortion the best way for the bishops to make a stand in defense of life? Ironically, it seems to offer public figures a free pass on other defense-of-life concerns, such as disarmament and economic justice.

The document’s all-or-nothing approach sends a new signal to politicians that, regardless of where they stand on other issues, they have friends among the U.S. bishops if they say they oppose abortion.

Bishops' statement on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Web site.

  • “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics” http://www.nccbuscc.org/prolife/gospel.htm"

Bishops' document Economic Justice for All. The document is posted on American University's listserver. Postings on this server are not necessarily the university's, and a link from the NCR does not imply endorsment or affiliation. If you would like to explore the AU listserver -- which includes extensive background resources -- further, use the second link. Use your browser’s “Back” button to return to this page.

  • Economic Justice for All http://listserv.american.edu/catholic/church/us/econ.justice"/
  • American University's listserver

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998