Perspectives: The Bishop Malone Statement

“But she is not really a Catholic” — words recently written about Geraldine Ferraro by Ben Omann. What do they mean?

Ben Omann is a partisan politician, not a theologian. As an obscure representative in the Minnesota legislature, he is hardly competent or authorized to decide on the validity of anyone’s religion. And since Congresswoman Ferraro was born and raised a Catholic and has been practicing her religion all her life, the allegation tramples on the facts.

From the perspective of national politics, Ben Omann counts for little, but his words (which appeared in a re-election advertisement) in this case count for a lot. Behind the words lies a widespread conviction that abortion ought to be outlawed. Part of the support for that conviction is a Catholic Church teaching that abortion is morally evil. For some the conclusion follows that any Catholic who does not favor making abortion illegal is, ipso facto. “not really a Catholic.” All around the country, this logic is used with increasing frequency.

Yet, despite a growing involvement of religion in American political debate, it is still rare for a politician to express disagreement by a direct attack on another’s religious faith. One pragmatic reason for restraint is the fact that Catholics, like most other religious groups, are found on all sides of controversial issues such as abortion. Many Catholics do not infer from their moral objections to abortion a mandate to make abortion a civil crime. Assaulting Ferraro’s or any other Catholic’s religious faith in this way ignores the political differences among American Catholics. For some nowadays, it seems that when the subject is abortion, religion and politics have merged.

Any attempt to read Ferraro out of her own church implies the same fate for millions of American Catholics. But to judge the validity of religious faith is out of bounds for a politician. Nor is it appropriate for a Catholic to judge the faith of fellow Catholics, and doubly inappropriate when politically motivated. Imagine what the Catholic Church would become if the she-is-not-really -a-Catholic idea would spread; it would become a church characterized not by faith, hope and charity but by nasty recriminations.

On the political level as well, this kind of attack is divisive and dangerous. In pluralist America, religious believers of all kinds join the rough-and-tumble of public policy determination, but they do not denounce the religious faith of their political opponents. By keeping religion out of political dialogue, we enhance the benefit of the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. Imagine a member of Congress on the House floor saying to Geraldine Ferraro, “You’re not really a Catholic,” and imagine that practice spreading to other politicians. The American polity would begin to split into religious factions. and the spirit of separation of church and state would be badly damaged.

Personal attacks on a public figure’s religion do not grow out of American political culture. Nor is their source to be found in the beliefs or habits of American Catholicism or other mainstream religions. Moreover, poison-pen attacks are out of character for the vast majority of politicians in this country. But they do not come from nowhere. Their genesis can be located in the recent incursions into public-policy dialogue by religious leaders, including Catholic bishops.

In the past decade or so, Catholic bishops individually, and collectively, have put the weight of their office behind political policy preferences. For instance, they have as a group supported a nuclear weapons freeze, national health insurance, and a human-life amendment; they have opposed capital punishment, the MX missile, and draft registration for women. Although bishops often say that they do not claim their policy preferences to be official church teaching, the dignity and authority of their office communicate to many Catholics just as strongly as the reasons advanced for this or that political judgment. Although the bishops are almost always careful in what they say and how they say it, they do not seem to know how their messages are received by the politicians and political activists in their congregations.

Historian Barbara Tuchman once described the teachings of turn-of-the-century European anarchists — and some unexpected consequences. In The Proud Tower, she said of the anarchist movement:

It had its theorists and thinkers, men of intellect, sincere and earnest, who loved humanity…. Whom were they calling? What deed were they asking for? They did not say precisely. Unknown to them, down in the lower depths of society, lonely men were listening.

The bishops’ listeners are not in the lower depths, they are not lonely, but they are, in Tuchman’s words, “susceptible to the Idea” and “driven to act.” (1) They hear the Bishops’ political prescriptions; (2) they accept the bishops’ religious authority; (3) they fuse religion with politics; and (4) they readily reach the conclusion that all of their co-religionists must think the same way — or else.

In August the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop James W. Malone, issued a statement that is sure to encourage still more religious politics. Referring to the U.S. Catholic Conference’s numerous political judgments, Bishop Malone said, “The Catholic Conference’s policy positions express the Catholic moral tradition.” Can it even be possible that contingent political judgments “express a religious tradition”? Malone continued, “With regard to many issues, of course, there is room for sincere disagreement by Catholics and others who share our moral convictions, over how moral principles should be applied to the current facts in the public policy debate.” Then he made an exception: On abortion, Catholics are not to be allowed this disagreement. The result? A green light to attack Catholics who disagree on proposed abortion legislation — attack them on religious grounds, not political grounds. Why? Because Bishop Malone has said Catholics are not allowed to disagree with the Catholic hierarchy on abortion.

The Ben Omann case shows that religious politics can get rough. How much responsibility belongs to Catholic bishops and other political-religious leaders is debatable. No doubt the bishops would reject the logic that leads from support for anti-abortion legislation to a personal attack on Geraldine Ferraro’s faith. But when will a bishop repudiate this attack? Bishops also probably believe their involvement in politics is needed to prevent the decline of morality in public life. But they ought to reconsider the insight of Alexis de Tocqueville who long ago saw that religion has more influence on public life, not less, when it keeps to its traditional role of shoring up the moral character of the citizenry. Possibly a few Ben Omann cases will encourage religious leaders to think once more.

  • Robert Spaeth

    Robert L. Spaeth came to Saint John’s University, Minnesota, as a visiting professor in Liberal Studies and director of Freshman Colloquium in 1977. He was appointed dean in 1979 and held that post for nine years. He resigned in 1988 to return to teaching. He died in 1994.

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