Perspectives — The Bishop Malone Statement

It is reasonable to hope that the 1984 campaign will be remembered as a moment of significant change in the way Americans understand the social experiment of which they are a part. Bishop Malone’s statement on behalf of the USCC reinforces that hope. Others will and should criticize aspects of its reasoning, both with respect to Catholic social teaching and with the way in which religiously-grounded values are to be related to the public arena. I limit my comment to the statement’s place within the current debate regarding the connection between politics and moral judgment, between moral judgment and religious belief.

With stunning rapidity — aided, not incidentally, by a presidential campaign and accompanying media blitz — the debate over politics-morality-religion is being advanced in a manner unprecedented in recent American history. Historically, one must advert to the “social gospel movement” toward the end of the last century and the beginning of this. That movement espoused a “progressive” vision of Christian America, opposed in policy specifics but similar in religious passions, to today’s friends of Christian America on the right. The 1960 debate over John Kennedy’s Catholicism was, I believe, in no way as comprehensive or as potentially culture-formative as the current debate. It now seems possible that the hackneyed slogan that “religion and politics don’t mix” has finally been laid to rest. The discussion has moved on to the nature of that mix and its policy implications. At least I hope it has. I am more than open to the possibility that a year or more from now the “religion and politics” controversy of 1984 will be viewed as a campaign brouhaha, a freak moment generated by political passions, or will simply be forgotten. But I do not think that will happen.

The current debate began with the evangelicals’ return from their exile (imposed by the 1925 Scopes trial) in the form of the neo -evangelical renascence of the late fifties. It claimed public attention with the 1976 election of born-again Jimmy Carter, was declared by the cultural elite to be a crisis in the 1980 Reagan campaign, and has reached a crescendo this year. Although triggered by the religious new right, Catholics bear the brunt of the responsibility for advancing the debate beyond religious warfare. There are many reasons for this, not the least being the prominence of articulate Catholics in the public arena. Catholic prominence is reinforced by the media’s reflexive focus on Catholicism because of its size and reputation for both triumphalism and general “mysteriousness.” This focus is not untainted by a not-so-vestigial anti-Catholicism in the American bloodstream, but I do not believe that is anywhere close to being the dominant dynamic engaged.

Whatever one may think in general about their politics and arguments, figures such as Senator Edward Kennedy and Governor Mario Cuomo are advancing the debate. Kennedy’s effort to isolate conceptually those issues that “are inherently public in character” is a particularly valuable contribution. With respect to abortion, pro-life forces should be grateful for his argument which so devastatingly undercuts his policy conclusion. Indeed a little remarked aspect of the present situation is the degree to which pro-abortionists have been thrown on the moral defensive. In some of their literature this has been acknowledged. It seems like only months ago that their hope was for the moral acceptance, indeed moral affirmation, of abortion as a positive good in combating all sorts of evils, such as over-population, especially the over-population of poor people. Now almost every discussion of abortion begins with the admission that of course it is a terrible thing, even an evil thing, but the question is what should or should not be done about it with respect to public policy. The moral initiative in the debate has manifestly — and one hopes, not temporarily — shifted to the anti-abortion side.

This is the context, then, for evaluating the Malone-USCC statement. It is a statement of the moment, responding to a particular controversy, and ought not, I believe, be analyzed as though it were a magisterial pronouncement for the ages. There is tactical astuteness in linking the “safeguarding [of] human life from the devastation of nuclear war” and “protecting human life from the attack of abortion.” At the moment, the latter is policy-specific, while the former is not. No public measure is presently being debated that has the stated purpose of encouraging nuclear devastation. There are very specific proposals in legislatures and courts aimed at protecting unborn life. While the logic of the linkage between abortion and nuclear war is undoubtedly problematic, the linkage advances the goal of giving priority to the question of abortion. That this will in fact be the effect of the statement is further assured by the articulate assertiveness of bishops such as O’Connor of New York and Law of Boston in interpreting the statement. One consequence is that Catholic politicians, such as Mario Cuomo, are being forced into the position of making the rather difficult argument that abortion has the singular status of being the only grievous human rights violation (which they acknowledge it to be) about which government should not or cannot do something.

In sum: As an authoritative exposition of Catholic social teaching, or as a program for addressing the problems of the naked public square, the statement is woefully inadequate. As a carefully calibrated response to a political controversy which engages immediate policy-specifics regarding abortion, the statement should be warmly applauded.


  • Richard John Neuhaus

    Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

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