The democrats are back in the White House and the general mood in the U.S. Catholic Conference is… difficult to assess.
No need to be prophetic now that nuclear arms have dropped from sight and all the bad guys around the world are, by universal consensus, bad. Increased attention to vaccinating children seems likely. Welfare activity—a hand up rather than a handout, of course—may perhaps grow before it shrinks, thanks to, ahem, retraining and investment in our future. The new president has even appointed his own wife to study our health care system, which became a crisis about a year-and-a-half ago, if memory serves, in the pages of the New York Times. All in all, not an entirely unpleasant prospect for the social-justice set.
The sole fly in the ointment is, or ought to be, the vigorous moves of the new administration on abortion and gays in the military. Gays is a topic for another day. But the near invisibility of the conference and, to a large extent, the bishops on abortion may already have convinced the Clinton White House that Catholics will shut up and play ball just as long as other concerns are being met.
And why not? That’s been the entente cordiale between Catholics and the Democratic Party for some time.
In fairness to the USCC and the NCCB, Cardinal Mahony did issue a forceful, if brief, statement on January 22 that did not mince words:
During the campaign, President Clinton vowed to reduce abortions in our country, saying abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ But surely you cannot reduce abortion by promoting abortion as just another method of birth control. You cannot reduce abortion by fueling a market for the tiny dead bodies of unborn children. You cannot reduce abortion by exporting abortion to the poor in the Third World…. Restoring government subsidies for the abortion industry cannot be called “pro-choice”—it is simply pro-abortion.
The major news outlets did not exactly fall all over one another in a rush to report this and other Catholic criticism. According to USCC sources, these are not idle words; if a health plan comes up that, say, includes abortion, the USCC will not support it.
Still, years of USCC advocacy of Democratic social programs, without making it unmistakably clear that abortion transcends all other issues, has created a pernicious momentum. It will be hard not only for the USCC but for social justice offices around the country to distance themselves from the administration’s initiatives.
Cardinal Bernardin, for example, recently told the erratic 30 Days that the Church must not put itself in the position of having no influence over the government.
There is nothing wrong in working with administrations whose policies you only partly support. But the Church as an institution has gotten the proportions between various issues so badly wrong over the past few years that it may be the complicity with social policies, rather than opposition to abortion, that effectively nullifies Catholic influence on public policy.
The problem, to revisit an old and very sick friend, is the seamless garment theory the bishops espoused in the 1980s. When nuclear war threatened millions of deaths and, at least to the USCC, the Republicans seemed more likely to start a war, splitting the difference between opposition to abortion (another Republican stance) and opposition to nuclear war made some rough, if in the last analysis incoherent, sense. Splitting the difference between opposition to abortion and support for social programs makes none.
Let’s take a concrete case. In the United States infant mortality for whites in 1990 was about eight per 1,000 births, for blacks about 18 per 1,000. Assuming that some program or combination of social programs could correct what is partly the result of past injustice, we could save about 7,000 more black babies out of roughly 700,000 born each year. Those are real lives whose disappearance hurts their parents, and are by no means negligible by anyone committed to justice and the protection of innocent human life.
Yet we know that in less than two days, the abortion industry destroys as many children as the complex effects of racism and current behavior destroy in a year. Furthermore, we can stop the abortion outrage; the infant mortality rate we can only hope to affect, and with much less assurance of success.
This same, admittedly crude calculation might be applied to a host of other social issues. The political result of failing to show the overwhelming importance of abortion is easy to see. People know that, if Catholics were serious about the unborn, abortion would be, by far and perhaps exclusively, the issue they most discuss. What the USCC has long done instead is ignore proportions.
Inequities abound in America for a variety of reasons that offend any decent person. Our relief programs often seem to be a cheap way to avoid meeting face-to-face our neighbors in distress. We are deeply callous; we are self-absorbed; we are, even many of us who claim to be Christians, hypocrites. But there is one issue—abortion—whose magnitude is undeniable. And we have sure means to stop it.
If the Church and the Democratic Party conduct business as usual, the result will be not only the continued slaughter of the innocents, but the self-destruction of one of the few remaining credible public voices for our central moral tradition in this marvelous, dear, and deeply ailing land.
The USCC is in an unusually cautious mood, more deeply worried about Clinton than has yet been made visible. Watch out for surprises.