The Failure of Catholic Political Leadership

The night before the president’s first veto, hundreds of Catholics gathered in the pouring rain outside the White House in a silent candlelight vigil to pray that Clinton would reconsider his announced opposition to banning partial birth abortions. Several American cardinals were present. The American hierarchy had placed high priority on banning partial birth abortions as a modest first step in the direction of bringing the unborn within the protection of American law. A few weeks after the veto, all of the active American cardinals came to Washington to urge Congress to override the veto. This was the first—and only—time in U.S. history that all the nation’s active cardinals have appeared together to speak out on a matter of public policy.

Their witness appears to have had no impact on President Clinton and on those Catholic members of Congress who supported the president. Indeed, Clinton went so far as to refuse the cardinals the courtesy of an invitation to the White House. Clinton was gambling that the ingrained indifference of most Catholic politicians to life issues was not going to be overturned by a rally, no matter how many red hats were in attendance.

The Catholic members of the House and Senate who acted to protect partial birth abortion were used to receiving “cover” for their deeds from politically prominent Catholics. For example, at a critical moment, Fr. Robert Drinan published articles in the New York Times and the National Catholic Reporter supporting Clinton’s decision to veto the ban on partial birth abortions and urging members of Congress to sustain that veto. Drinan is a Jesuit priest, a law professor at Georgetown, and a former member of Congress. He gained wide public recognition in the early 1970s as an outspoken Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee that recommended the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. What received less attention at the time was the fact that he was one of the first notable Catholic politicians in the country to begin opposing pro-life initiatives and supporting legalized abortion and its public funding.

Fr. Drinan’s Bad Example

Unfortunately, Drinan did worse than set a bad example for Catholic politicians. He enabled them to rationalize support for pro-abortion legislative initiatives, on the ground that they were doing nothing that a Catholic priest in good standing was not able and willing to do. Moreover, Drinan provided a much-imitated model for Catholic politicians who wished to support the pro-abortion movement while claiming to be faithful to Catholic moral teaching. When a constituent would write to his office expressing pro-life views, Drinan would respond with a letter giving assurances of his full agreement with the Church’s teaching that abortion is gravely wrong. The letter would reveal nothing of Drinan’s consistent support for pro-abortion policies and opposition to pro-life initiatives. Drinan’s legislative record on the subject was mentioned only when he replied to constituents whose letters to his office expressed pro-abortion sentiments. What Drinan was developing in practice was the “personally opposed but pro-choice” position that was later to be defended formally in a famous speech by New York Governor Mario Cuomo at Notre Dame University.

Drinan left Congress in 1980 after the Holy See issued a general order requiring all priests to abstain from seeking or holding political office. He went on to become president of Americans for Democratic Action. In that connection, he sent out a fundraising letter urging the moral necessity of electing candidates to Congress who favored legal abortion and its public funding.

Drinan continued this line of argument in his articles supporting Clinton’s veto of the ban on partial birth abortions. He claimed that the ban “would allow federal power to intrude into the practice of medicine.” Remarkably, he argued that banning these abortions would “detract from the urgent need to decrease abortions.” Repeating the discredited pro-abortion propaganda on which Clinton had relied in justifying his veto, Drinan suggested that partial birth abortions are rarely performed in the United States and then only when necessary to save women’s lives or prevent grave injury.

This time, however, Drinan’s efforts landed him in trouble, forcing him in the end into a humiliating retreat. New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor, writing in his own archdiocesan newspaper, dramatically called Drinan to account: “You could have raised your formidable voice for life; you have raised it for death…. Hardly the role of a law-maker. Surely, not the role of a priest.” James Cardinal Hickey, archbishop of Washington, D.C., where Drinan resides and teaches, demanded that Drinan “clarify” his position since his published comments, the cardinal’s spokesperson said, had “caused public confusion about Church teaching on abortion.”

Not long thereafter, Drinan issued a statement “withdrawing” what he said in the New York Times and the National Catholic Reporter. After noting that he relied on what turned out to be false information concerning “the true nature and widespread use of partial-birth abortion,” Drinan reaffirmed his “total support” for the Church’s “firm condemnation of abortion.”

The sad truth, however, is that his admission came more than 25 years too late. By 1997, Drinan’s efforts, his bad example, and the profound scandal he had given, beginning in the early 1970s, had done immeasurable damage to the pro-life cause.

Brennan and Other Kennedy Catholics

In the early 1970s, while Fr. Drinan was doing grave mischief in Congress, a prominent Catholic layman was doing similar harm in the far less public setting of the Supreme Court. Although it is difficult to obtain perfectly reliable information about the justices’ deliberations, by all accounts, Associate Justice William J. Brennan was a key player in creating a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade. Not only was Brennan a Catholic, he was appointed to the Court in the 1950s by President Eisenhower precisely because he was a Catholic—he filled the so-called “Catholic seat” on the Court. For most of his tenure, he was its only Catholic member.

Yet Brennan consistently worked to manufacture constitutional rights to activities condemned by the Church on moral grounds: pornography, contraception, sodomy, and abortion. Like Drinan, he claimed to be a faithful Catholic, fully supportive of the Church’s moral teaching. Nevertheless, he repeatedly acted to undermine principles of public morality that the Church teaches are central to justice and the common good. Each time, he rationalized his actions by claiming that his judicial decisions did not reflect his own political views but the constitutional principles he was sworn as a federal judge to uphold. However, his extreme view of individual liberty (on issues such as abortion) is simply not compelled by the Constitution itself. After the opinion in Roe, which Brennan formally joined, was handed down, Catholics—including Catholic politicians—who wished publicly to join the elite consensus supporting abortion while claiming to be faithful to the Church’s moral teaching could point to another prominent person—in this case the nation’s highest-ranking Catholic jurist—as a model.

It was even more difficult for the Catholic hierarchy to deal with Brennan and other Catholic laymen than it was to deal with Drinan. Public criticism of them, and a fortiori public action against them, was all but ruled out because of the likelihood that it would backfire. Anti-Catholicism remained, and remains, a fact of American life—especially among American elites. Powerful individuals and interests who remain contemptuous and suspicious of the Church, particularly of her moral teachings, are always ready to make a hero of any Catholic public figure who defies the bishops. This is particularly true when they can depict the bishops as intervening in political affairs and attempting to tell Catholics how to vote. Many American Catholics have themselves internalized a (mis)conception of the constitutional “separation of church and state” according to which religion, and religious authorities, should have nothing to say about the conduct of public life.

Many non-Catholics and Catholics alike seem to believe that full Catholic participation in public affairs is conditioned on the bargain struck by John F. Kennedy—the first and, so far, only Roman Catholic president—when he spoke to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston during his campaign for the presidency in 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote— where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference…where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.

Kennedy went on to say:

Whatever issue may come before me as President…on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with…what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to do otherwise.

Thus, at least as this speech was interpreted, Kennedy embraced the enduring, popular misconception that the Catholic Church seeks to impose her views on (rather than reason with) Americans and declared his independence from any such interference with his conscience, which was itself apparently free to disregard Church teachings. He gave no positive account of how his Catholic faith would help make him a good president; rather, he accepted the view that religion should be separated from public life.

Kennedy effectively declared his Catholic faith irrelevant to his public life. For this and other reasons, few today cling to the old image of John F. Kennedy as a model Catholic. Still, he was a very public Catholic whose campaign and election largely set the terms of the American electorate’s understanding of the relationship of politics and religion— at least as far as Roman Catholicism was concerned. And these terms, though altered a bit in recent years and certainly subject to further alteration, are realities with which faithful American Catholics and their ecclesiastical leaders have had to deal. And they make the job of bringing Catholic witness to bear in public debates over bioethical issues very difficult indeed—especially where the Church finds herself in sharp opposition to elite opinion.

Bernardin’s Seamless Garment

Let us next turn to the crucial period from 1983 to 1987. The key figure in our story now becomes the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. Bernardin, who was general secretary of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) from 1968 to 1972 and its president from 1974 to 1977, was thoroughly familiar with its operations. He agreed with critics that Catholic teaching as a coherent whole had not been adequately communicated in previous pastoral letters and statements. He was aware that the bishops’ approach had been too “scattershot.” When he was appointed in January 1981 chair of an ad hoc committee to draft a pastoral letter on the arms race, he sought to avoid replicating these problems. As Bernardin saw it, the goal of the pastoral was to “present a theory which is in conformity with the totality of the Church’s moral teaching.”

Bernardin designed a “consultation” process with “experts” and laity far more extensive than the USCC had previously undertaken. Partially due to this consultation and to the fact that the first draft was leaked to the press, “it would be difficult to find a document more widely researched and discussed during its formation, from the very beginning.”

The pastoral went through three drafts, numerous meetings and consultations, and scores of amendments. The Challenge of Peace, as it was called, was finally issued in May 1983. It was controversial from the outset. While some objections were spurious (such as the demand—this time heard more often from political conservatives than from liberals—that “religion be kept out of politics”), there is at least one valid objection, which may justly be made to many of the USCC’s documents to this day. Although the bishops “set forth…the principles of Catholic teaching on war,” including, quite rightly, the Church’s strict teaching regarding the absolute immunity of noncombatants from direct attack, they went on to make “a series of judgments, based on these principles, about concrete policies.” Many of these judgments involved assessments of fact and prudential judgments on which reasonable people and faithful Catholics can, and do, legitimately disagree. This was a recipe for confusing the faithful about what teaching of the bishops is binding in conscience and what is not. This confusion is bound to be—and, undeniably, has been—promoted and exploited by people who, in varying degrees of bad faith, have sought to rationalize their support for abortion and their efforts in its cause.

Cardinal Bernardin’s famous initiative for a “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life” appears to have grown out of his experience with The Challenge of Peace. A few months after that document was issued, the cardinal used the occasion of a lecture at Fordham University in New York to announce the “seamless garment” initiative. It was to have important ramifications for the development of a Catholic bioethic in America.

The cardinal noted that The Challenge of Peace provides a “starting point” for shaping a consistent ethic of life inasmuch as it “links the questions of abortion and nuclear war…. No other major institution presently holds these two positions in the way the Catholic bishops have joined them. This is both a responsibility and an opportunity.”

He went on to argue that “the long term ecclesiological significance of the pastoral rests with the lessons it offers about the Church’s capacity for dialogue with the world in a way which helps to shape public policy on key issues.” In proposing the seamless garment initiative, his purpose, he said, was to “argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires concern for the broader attitudes in society about respect for human life.”

There is not a great deal to disagree with in what Cardinal Bernardin said thus far. But then he made the intellectual move that would bedevil the seamless garment initiative and, eventually, rend the garment:

The issue of consistency [of application of moral principle] is tested…when we examine the relationship between the “right to life” and the “quality of life” issues…. Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us…. Such a quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care.

Bernardin’s analysis has been subjected to searching criticism by many, including John Finnis. As Finnis observed, it is at best tendentious to assert that people active in the pro-life cause must be “equally visible” in other good causes. Moreover, the cardinal’s suggestion that a sound “quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions [emphasis added]” is ambiguous to the point of being misleading. On a great many political and economic issues, choice is between, or among, not (or not only) good and bad policy options but (also) a range of choices, all of which are consistent with a morally proper “posture.” And even with respect to certain issues that do admit of a uniquely “best” policy option, identifying that option may depend on empirical and prudential judgments that are reasonably in dispute among people who share a sound “posture.”

We do not believe that the purpose of Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless garment initiative was to provide “cover” to Catholic politicians (and others) who wished to advance the pro-abortion agenda while claiming to be faithful, or at least friendly, to Catholic social teaching. Unfortunately, however, an unintended side effect of the initiative was that it provided precisely such cover. The best example of someone seizing it is that of Mario Cuomo, the very public Catholic politician who served two terms as governor of New York.

Cuomo’s Sophistry

On September 13, 1984, barely one year after Cardinal Bernardin announced his seamless garment project, Cuomo delivered his famous speech on abortion at the University of Notre Dame. At the time, Cuomo was the leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and a much-touted presidential possibility. The central point of his speech was to claim that while he “personally” accepted, and lived by, the Church’s teaching on abortion, he considered it wrong to deny his fellow citizens, including many who did not accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, the choice of whether to have an abortion.

Noting that the Church does not insist that every immoral action be prohibited by law, Cuomo depicted the question of abortion’s legal treatment as a matter of prudence akin to the range of questions with which the seamless garment was concerned. It was a question on which, he suggested, reasonable people, including reasonable Catholics, could disagree. According to Cuomo, what made a politician truly pro-life and truly someone prepared to act in the spirit of the Catholic teaching was not his opposition to legal abortion or its public funding. Though Cuomo acknowledged the bishops’ clear teaching on those issues, it was, rather, the politician’s stance on the whole range of sanctity and quality of life issues. And here, he implied, liberal Democrats, such as himself, who shared the bishops’ stated positions on capital punishment, welfare, housing, taxation, defense spending, and international human rights policy had records far superior to those of pro-life conservatives whose only specific areas of policy agreement with the bishops had to do with abortion and related issues.

Cuomo prides himself on being something of an intellectual, and there is no denying that he is a bright fellow. He must know then that, at its root, this is utter nonsense. He must be aware that the Church’s teaching on abortion truly does “translate” straightforwardly into a specific public policy—the unborn, like the rest of us, are to be afforded equal protection under law; abortion is to be generally prohibited and never publicly promoted—in a way that her teachings regarding care for the poor or the requirement of fairness in distributing tax liability, for example, simply do not. But the fact is that Cuomo brilliantly exploited Bernardin’s seamless garment teaching, and the USCC’s practice of adopting specific positions on a wide range of policy questions, to undermine the bishops’ efforts to give the right to life the priority it deserves in a society in which more than a million unborn human beings are destroyed by abortion every year.

Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech provided a virtual playbook for pro-abortion Catholic politicians who wished to claim that their public support for “the right to choose” abortion was not inconsistent with their personal moral opposition to deliberate feticide. It taught liberal politicians of every religious persuasion how to explain to Catholic constituents that their differences with the bishops over the particular issue of abortion are overshadowed by their broad agreement with the bishops across the wide range of “quality of life” issues. It relieved much of the internal and external tension experienced by public men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who wanted to be pro-life and pro-choice at the same time.

Practical Suggestions

What can the bishops do about Catholic public officials who publicly support such evils as abortion and euthanasia? What can be done about Catholics in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government whose public advocacy and action in support of these evils give scandal to the faithful and undermine the Church’s witness for life? In most cases, it would likely be a mistake for bishops to excommunicate individual office holders or publicly deny them access to the Eucharist pursuant to provisions of canon law authorizing such a denial to those who persist in manifest, grave sin. The reason is that such action by the bishops would often backfire by enabling the media to depict the anti-life politician as a “martyr for freedom” in the way we have already indicated. (However, a bishop could avoid this risk by privately informing such politicians of their ineligibility to receive the sacrament.)

There are two things we would suggest as alternatives. First, bishops should not hesitate to criticize publicly the anti-life activities of specific politicians, neither should they refrain from pointing out the inconsistency of these activities with any profession of Christian faith. Bishops should, of course, teach clearly that no position on any quality of life issue excuses a politician from opposing the deliberate taking of human life.

Second, we would urge bishops to revive the ancient and honorable practice of shunning. Individual bishops should refuse to share the head table at any Catholic event (not just those sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops) with anti-life politicians (including jurists) or the dais at events at Catholic colleges, universities, and other institutions. They should refuse to be photographed with such people or permit themselves to be used by them to any political advantage. They should ensure that such persons are never honored by Catholic institutions in their dioceses or given the podium in any context other than one designed to highlight the disgracefulness of their support for the “culture of death.”

The shunning of anti-life politicians would vividly remind ordinary lay Catholics of the seriousness of the Church’s teachings regarding the sanctity of human life and would send the clear message that Catholics and other Christians who serve the “culture of death” are tragically weakening their relationship with Christ and alienating themselves from the community of Christian faith.

  • Robert P. George and William L. Saunders

    Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. He also serves as the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. William L. Saunders, Jr. is Senior Vice President for Legal Affairs and Senior Counsel at Americans United for Life (AUL).

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