Perspectives — The Bishop Malone Statement

The U.S. Catholic Conference statement on Religion and the ’84 Campaign may have come about because some politicians — notably, some Catholic politicians — cannot seem to differentiate between legally determined religious practices and general moral principles. Legally determined religious practices, as one Catholic governor has pointed out, cannot and should not be forced on others. But general moral principles, from which have historically flowed the legal determinations of the polity, can and should retain their force independent of whether they are held by the specific politician or not. And churches have the right to remind the polity of general moral principles.

The USCC has quoted Gaudium et Spes as authority for its present stance, noting that the Church “has the right to pass moral judgments, even on matters touching the political order, whenever basic personal rights or the salvation of souls makes such judgments necessary.” This affirms the right and responsibility of a bishop not only to educate his flock to doctrine and moral principle, but also to remind them that their own prudential judgments must be grounded in both.

Because of their tendency to confuse theology and biology, some Catholic politicians are arguing that personal belief can be “Catholic” while political stance need not be. Educated or not, the fact that a Roman Catholic must, by definition, be against abortion is a pesky little secret that a lot of politicians don’t want let out. The open argument that a woman “has a right to her own body” denies both biology and theology, and goes well with the subliminal argument that the economy cannot support any more “unwanted” children. This is what the pro-choice politicians are banking on, not on any enlightened understanding that women deserve the same respect and dignity as men, a correct understanding that has nothing to do with abortion.

People are greedy. They do not want to assume the public responsibility of more children in adoption agencies, more children on welfare, more children of want clogging up their already overburdened social welfare agencies. Many politicians hope you will forget your moral principles and fall prey to the “poor people deserve abortions too” mentality which, while it appears egalitarian, is actually elitist. It guarantees that the “worst” kind of unwanted child — the unwanted child of a poor woman — won’t end up on your town’s welfare rolls.

What the bishops can, must, and will remember is precisely what the USCC statement recalls: “With regard to the immorality of the direct taking of human life our views are not simply policy statements … they are a direct affirmation of the constant moral teaching of the Catholic Church.” There can be no confusion here, and the statement rightly rejects the doublethink argument that a political candidate can say his or her personal views cannot affect public policy determinations, because “the implied dichotomy — between personal morality and public policy — is simply not logically tenable.” It is precisely these sort of statements, bouncing over the years from Massachusetts to Michigan to Rhode Island to New York, which have been allowing a lot of political candidates to work both sides of the electoral street.

Of course a public official sworn to uphold the will of the polity cannot by administrative fiat change law. But if he or she is willing to be marketed as a Roman Catholic, then he or she ought to be willing to make the kinds of political sacrifices which come with the package. There is little more distasteful than politicians comparing value systems, except perhaps politicians who campaign with a personal understanding of Canon Law.

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When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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