National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

One-issue agenda sidelines Catholics

It is maddening to some, and understandably so, when a bishop singles out a Catholic politician and publicly chastises the elected official by name for being pro-choice on abortion. What about war? What about the death penalty? What about the poor?

Why doesn’t Bishop So-and-So rebuke Senator What’s-His-Name over those issues? Tell him it’s a sin to bomb Baghdad, that his very soul is endangered by his support for capital punishment, that health care for all is a human right.

You get the idea.

But put yourself in the bishop’s spot. He is the leader of a church that teaches abortion is always wrong, that it is “intrinsically evil.” Catholic teaching on peace and war, or the death penalty, or the best means to lift the poor out of poverty always contains a bit of wiggle room. Church teaching on abortion does not suffer from such lack of clarity.

And, given the teaching on abortion, the issue is not a minor concern: More than 1 million abortions are performed annually in the United States; 35 million-plus over the past three decades. It is, by the church’s reckoning, an evil of enormous proportions. The teaching entertains none of the serious questions that science and theology might raise about the earliest stages of pregnancy. It is absolute in its conviction about life deserving full protection of the law from the moment of conception.

In many a bishop’s diocese, there are elected officials, members of the Catholic church, who say they too believe what the church teaches, but who, perhaps out of respect for the beliefs of those who don’t see abortion the same way, perhaps for political survival, refuse to take legislative steps to oppose it.

So here’s the contradiction: No right-minded person could believe what the church teaches about abortion and not take steps to restrict it. It would seem an easy decision. It isn’t.

One problem is that even for those who believe everything the church teaches about abortion, the position has proven extremely difficult to sell in the wider culture where the laws operate. The deeper problem is that the church has not only failed in persuading the wider culture, it has failed to persuade its own members of its position to any significantly greater degree than it has the general public.

The danger coming into a campaign season is that abortion will become the only measure the church takes of politicians. How unfortunate if the most noticeable contribution of the Catholic community to this country’s politics becomes a standoff between bishops and politicians. We have written repeatedly on this page of the misfortune of that approach. It leaves the rest of the “Catholic” agenda behind while gaining little on the abortion front. And the outlook is that little of substance will change no matter how strenuous the objection from church leaders (see NCR cover story “Politics and the pro-life movement,” Jan. 17).

In the end, too, a face-off leaves little room for persuading or making the case. Any chance of gaining a legislator’s confidence, of gaining a hearing, is lost because the church position is absolute and unyielding.

The misfortune is compounded when legislators simply ignore the bishops, rendering them irrelevant on the matter. It also is not difficult to imagine that compassionate Catholics, whose faith informs their opinions on public policy, avoid seeking public office because they’d rather not get set up to tangle with the absolutes of the Catholic hierarchy on abortion.

Perhaps pro-choice Catholic politicians should acknowledge their disagreement with the church and argue their position. It is disingenuous to argue, as so many have, that private conviction, even religious belief, has no bearing on their activity in public office. Who wants that kind of legislator? If that is the case, what does that person bring to the table? What undergirds his or her approach to public policy?

On the other hand, it is equally futile for bishops to make abortion, important as it is, the one-issue litmus test of a legislator’s worth. Politics benefits enormously when it is informed by moral thought and reasoning and even by the passion of those who want to see justice done and have little patience for the protocols of the halls of power.

But the moralist who trades in absolutes would not last long in those halls. Compromise lies at the heart of the political craft. Few politicians will take to the public pulpit to champion an unpopular cause that their counterparts -- leaders in the moral realm -- have sold with only limited success to their flocks.

Bishops who choose to confront, in a highly public way, pro-choice elected officials, shed more heat than light on the debate. It’s the bishop’s job to teach -- and they should continue to unashamedly present Christ’s message to their flock, and apply it to modern circumstance, whether the issue is abortion, war, or economic justice.

Publicly challenging specific individuals to repent is not pastoral. It’s punitive and counterproductive. Such an approach is likely to result in a hardening of positions and a resistance to necessary dialogue as well as to programs and approaches that might reduce the number of abortions.

The bishops need to persuade, not badger. For the politicians in the pews are not the only ones who have little confidence in the bishops’ political approach. They are simply the most embarrassing.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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