Saturday, December 05, 2009

Wafer Wars and Bare-Knuckled Politics

The Roman Catholic Church has recently inserted itself into a couple of public policy/political debates with a ferocity not seen in many years. Today, in a Washington Post op ed, Joseph Califano takes aim at the Church for its aggressive pursuit of its policy agenda and more specifically at its use of the Eucharist as a weapon with which to browbeat Roman Catholic politicians into following its dictates.

Citing Rhode Island’s bishop, Thomas J. Tobias, who denied communion to Representative Patrick Kennedy, here is what Califano said:

American bishops didn't used to do this. Even when they disagreed sharply with policies pursued by Catholic officeholders, they were willing to sit down and discuss alternatives. I know. I saw this when I served as chief domestic adviser for President Lyndon Johnson and as secretary of health, education and welfare for President Jimmy Carter. In the 1960s, LBJ became the first president to aggressively promote family planning abroad and at home. Abroad, he refused to send grain to India during a famine until Indira Gandhi committed to a family planning program. At home, he ordered federal agencies to make contraceptives available to the poor. I was the (Catholic) White House aide responsible for enforcing those policies.

Johnson's actions prompted a stinging attack from Catholic bishops, who charged that he was coercing the poor to practice birth control. The president told me to "work something out" with the bishops, who were our needed allies in battling poverty and racial discrimination. At meetings with Father Francis Hurley, the bishops' top Washington staffer, and Detroit Archbishop John Dearden, leader of the American bishops, I assured them that we were offering an option to the poor, not coercing acceptance. We ultimately agreed that if the president phrased his policy in terms of "population control" (which allowed for more food and the church-approved rhythm method of family planning as well as contraception), the bishops would cool their rhetoric. LBJ kept his word, and when he later signed a U.N. declaration supporting population control, the bishops were silent.

Carter and I opposed federal funding of abortion unless the life of the woman was at stake, a position Catholic bishops shared. Congress authorized funds for abortion in that circumstance and in cases of rape or incest "promptly reported." My options were to resign or to enforce the law by issuing regulations that defined "prompt" reporting. Back then, women generally did not report rape or incest unless they thought they were pregnant, so I set prompt reporting at within 60 days. The bishops were furious, and their attack vehement. Some said that I should have resigned rather than enforce the law. But none suggested that I be denied the Eucharist.
Califano argues that Catholics in public office must be free to exercise their conscience in the decision-making process. They also have an obligation to listen to many voices, including those of non-Catholics. As Califano points out, we live in a pluralistic society, where citizens may have legitimate religious, political, and ethical differences of opinion. While nobody should expect silent acquiescence on the part of the nation’s Catholic hierarchy, neither should they use raw political clout – and especially not the threat of denying the Church’s most important sacrament – to its members as a way to impose their views.

On the other hand, the Church, like any other religious institution, certainly has both a right and obligation to use its moral suasion to convince and persuade. Here are Califano’s final, eloquent words on this, as a Catholic caught up on the dilemma:

As Catholics and as citizens, we have a right and obligation to assert our convictions on public issues clearly and vigorously -- to hope and to work that they should prevail. To expect less from a public official would ask that he leave his conscience at home.

But to have convictions of conscience and be guided by them is not a license to impose such convictions indiscriminately on others by uncompromisingly translating them into policy. If public policy is to serve the common good of a fundamentally just and free, pluralistic society, it must brew in a cauldron of competing values such as freedom, order, equity, justice and mercy. Public officials who fail to weigh these competing values serve neither private conscience nor public morality. Indeed, they offend both.

Where we cannot find unanimous answers, there is at least one point on which Catholic bishops and Catholic politicians can find common ground: insistence that those who search for the right answers are doing so with integrity and sincere conviction. That was what the church leaders I dealt with in the 1960s and '70s recognized, as their successors should today.
I can only add that coercion is an admission of defeat. All types of institutions resort to it when they know they are losing their influence on their followers. As the Catholic Church suffers a shortage of priests and religious vocations and its membership rolls among well-educated Americans remains flat, it is resorting to bare-knuckled bullying to substitute for real moral authority. And that is its biggest tragedy.


Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the Archbishop of New Orleans who excommunicated a segregationist politician (and two other lay segregationists) in 1962?

Pro-choice churches (no joke) can deny communion or excommunicate pro-life pols.

Kate said...

This situation isn't new. This story is as old as the Church itself and all the kings of Europe whom the Church tried to bully into submission with the threat of excommunication.

The wealthy Catholic families of America, like the Kennedys, Cuomos, Kerrys and the like, have great power in the form of great wealth, and I'm sure they give plenty to the Catholic Church. All they have to do is to withhold those bucks and stand fast. Eventually the Church will either give in, or these families will find another church to go to, and those bullying priests and bishops will be the loosers.

My advise to these families is: get organized and stick together. You've got a lot of power and can win this battle. And you won't just be winning it for your selves; you'll be winning it for all of us other liberal Catholics, too.