Friday, October 10, 2008

High-Profile U.S. Catholics Challenge Some Church Officials' Abortion Politics

Tom Roberts, the National Catholic Reporter's News Editor and Editor-at-Large, has posted an outstanding analysis of the success high-profile U.S. Catholic lay leaders and organized lay groups are having in challenging some church officials' position on the duty of political leaders to outlaw abortion. He also notes support for them from at least one high-profile theologian at Notre Dame. Most of Roberts' paragraphs follow.

For the first time since the abortion issue began to dominate the Catholic political discussion 35 years ago, groups have organized and high-profile Catholics have gone public to insist that Catholic teaching does not prohibit a vote for a pro-choice politician.

Much to the contrary, in fact, groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United note that the teaching explicitly prohibits bishops from endorsing or opposing specific candidates, from instructing Catholics on how to vote or from arguing that Catholics need consider only one issue in determining how to vote.

The same point was emphasized in
a talk given Oct. 4 in Kansas City, Mo. by Notre Dame theologian, Father Richard McBrien who cited last November’s election policy statement, which reads: “The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues. ... Catholic voters should use the framework of Catholic teaching to examine candidates’ positions on issues affecting human life and dignity as well as issues of justice and peace ...”

“I think they’ve changed the conversation on abortion,” said Peter Steinfels, long time church observer and writer of the Beliefs column for The New York Times, referring to emerging Catholic lay voices.

Referring to figures like lawyers
Douglas Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi, both of whom own unassailable pro-life credentials and have publicly endorsed Barack Obama, Steinfels said, “I think that by disconnecting their moral opposition to abortion from their political support for Republican candidates, they’ve actually returned emphasis to the moral question.

"They’ve provided a witness to the moral seriousness of what’s involved in abortion.”

How much that witness influences Catholics, who have a solid record of voting for the popular vote winner, will be apparent in the post-Nov. 3 analyses. We’ll also know then whether a vocal minority of bishops will have convinced Catholics that, as Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton put it, “pro-choice candidates have come to support homicide” and that seeking a legal ban of abortion is the greatest good.

Former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke also declared recently from his new post in Rome that Democrats risked becoming
“a party of death.”

Steinfels said of bishops who appear to see only one political approach, a total legal ban, to the abortion issue: “I think they’re going to harm the church in the long run and the pro-life cause.”

More distressing to him, however, is the silence of the majority of bishops who refuse to publicly explain that the bishops’ own documents on political responsibility prohibit a one-issue approach as well as either endorsing or condemning individual candidates.

“I feel there is a kind of leadership failing on the part of other bishops who are not happy with that kind of statement,” said Steinfels, referring to the bishop of Scranton. Privately, other bishops will say they disagree, said the journalist and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

“The only way in this media conscious world – if they’re not going to allow the Bishop of Scranton to speak for the U.S. hierarchy – is they’ve got to take a public stand.”

Kmiec, a former official in the Reagan White House who worked on briefs seeking to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, announced his support for Obama last spring.

“I believe him to be a person of integrity, intelligence, and genuine good will. I take him at his word that he wants to move the nation beyond its religious and racial divides and that he wants to return the United States to that company of nations committed to human rights.”

In a later panel discussion, Kmiec defended his decision to support Obama, despite the candidate’s pro-choice position on abortion and Kmiec’s earlier work to overturn Roe v Wade.

“We have been at the business of trying to find the elusive fifth vote on the Supreme Court for 30 years,” he said. “We haven’t found it and even if we do find it, overturning Roe would not save a single life, but instead merely return the question to the state. While that would be important, it is not intended and never was intended to close the American mind or, for that matter, the Catholic mind to different or alternative ways to discourage abortion.”

He said one thing he liked about the Democratic Party platform this year “is that it incorporates some of these alternative ways, alternative ways that for far too long have been closed to the Catholic imagination, if you will, because of the way in which the abortion discussion has been conducted.”

Both Kmiec and Cafardi, a civil and canon lawyer and former dean at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh, emphasize that it is wrong to conclude from Catholic teaching that Catholics can not vote for Obama because he is pro-choice. Each also asserts that overturning Roe would not end abortion, but merely turn the question back to the states, so that abortion would remain legal in some states and illegal in others.

Given that circumstance, they say, they have opted for the candidate and the party that has placed a new emphasis on programs that would aid in reducing the number of abortions.

Of course, when Catholic politicans like Rudy Giuliani, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have made arguments similar to those of Kmiec, Cafardi, Steinfels and McBrien, bishops of the ilk they are challenging have been quick to slap the politicians down, claim they are disloyal Catholics and in some cases deny them access to communion. It will be interesting to watch whether any of these bishops try similar tactics against the individuals Roberts profiles.

At least one of the lay leaders covered above has taken a pro-active step to head off such a move. A Catholic News Service link within Roberts' article notes that the day before Roberts' posting, Cafardi resigned from the board of trustees at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, as a direct result of his support for Obama.

While the university did not exactly force Cafardi to resign, its president made it clear they were taking heat from the Catholic right both about Cafardi's endorsing Obama and Carfardi's argument that Obama's approach to reducing abortions is politically more achievable than trying to outlaw them nationally. Cafardi said he resigned to prevent those Catholics from "using my association with Steubenville to try to harm that great university."

What may transpire between now and election day is anybody's guess.

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