Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Ongoing Reflections on Catholics in Political Life 

Sorry I've been a bit scarce here on Ad Limina. Here's a cross-post on my latest contribution to a discussion going on at Catholic Kerry Watch on an evaluation of the recent USCCB statement, Catholics in Political Life.

As my good friend Earl has noted below, my initial reactions to the bishops' statements - both Catholics in Political Life (CPL) and the Interim Reflections of the Task Force (IRTF) - were profoundly negative. Earlier this week, after returning to the documents, I revised my opinion, as I seemed to detect profound differences underlying the two documents, and I proposed that the CPL was a significant improvement on the IRTF. Due to this apparent about-face with regard to my earlier opinions, I thought it might be a good idea to outline my observations more fully, viz. on the perceived differences between the two documents, in order to further the friendly discussion on this and other blogs. Thus, let me point out what I see as a few differences between the two documents.

First of all, IRTF repeatedly allows the issue of abortion to become confused with other moral issues, especially those of social justice. At no less than eight points in the IRTF, the document hedges towards this sort of latitudinarian morality: "All issues are clearly not of equal moral worth - life comes first. But . . . . faith and family, education and work, housing and health care - demand our attention and action as well"; "preeminently by abortion, but also by euthanasia, cloning, widespread hunger and lack of health care, etc." He even finds time to dredge up "the war in Iraq [and] peace in the Middle East." The example of the Holy Father is called upon to demonstrate that "we are not a single-issue Church."

CPL, however, after briefly mentioning a spectrum of moral issues in the opening lines, thereafter remain narrowly and exclusively focused, appropriately, on "the killing of an unborn child." Never again does this issue become confused with peripheral or extrinsic concerns.

Secondly, CPL focuses in on the morality of the act of abortion in a way that the IRFT fails to do. This act is "always intrinsically evil and can never be justified"; "those who cooperate with it are guilty of grave sin and thereby separate themselves from Gods grace"; "to make such intrinsically evil actions legal is itself wrong"; "those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil." This is especially surprising given that some bishops and theologians feel that the issue of abortion is best addressed not by changing the laws, but rather by some broader movement to 'change culture.' CPL has no tolerance for such a position.

While the IRFT does express 'disappointment' with political leaders who 'ignore or contradict Catholic teaching,' and states in vague terms that "all life is precious and deserves protection," it - shockingly - never directly addresses the morality of abortion. The IRTF mentions the word abortion six times: once in a long list of actions (including the death penalty and world hunger) which 'threaten human dignity,' three times in summarizing the views of Ratzinger, and twice in summarizing the views of the Holy Father. The immorality of abortion, much less the obligation of lawmakers to directly and openly oppose all legalization of abortion, is never raised even once. I would never question whether the drafters of the IRTF oppose abortion, but clearly they want to avoid making this entire discussion revolve around that issue. CPL, as I have shown above, does exactly that.

Thirdly, the IRFT, at times, turns the entire matter into an exercise in self-accusation. It asks the bishops, 'How well have we shared our teaching,' etc. The statement, as a whole, reads like a laundry list of tasks bishops need to improve upon - teaching, dialogue, etc. - as if the bishops were the ones priimarily at fault here. He ends, "Is it not just politicians, but all of us who should ask are we worthy to receive the Eucharist . . . All of us are called to reflect on our worthiness, confess our sins and renew our lives." Such hand-wringing hardly contributes towards resolving the issue of child-murderers committing sacrilege in our churches.

CPL, however, never stoops to mea culpas. Rather than fault the bishops for not teaching clearly enough, it reiterates what has always been "the constant and received teaching of the Church," which is also "the conviction of many other people of good will." It simply asks bishops "to persist in this duty to counsel," to maintain teaching what the Church has always taught, putting the burden entirely on the shoulders of politicians to follow this teaching.

Fourthly, the IRTF does mention, as it must, that decisions in these matters are left to the diocesan ordinary. With regards to this, there should have been no question. As I've said before, it does not take a task force to determine this. This is the teaching of the Church. The role of the task force was to determine whether or not a particular policy should be proposed to the diocesan ordinaries in their arriving at a decision. And it states its task clearly: "Every bishop has the right and duty to address these realities in his own diocese. We were asked to consult broadly and offer advice and so we will. Here is our interim advice . . ."

And the IRTF does not pull its punches, nor does it leave any ambiguity, in offering the particular policy it proposes. Any outright Eucharistic sanction, says IRTF, 'would raise serious questions,' 'have a negative impact,' 'raises a significant concern,' 'would create great pastoral difficulties,' 'would encourage confrontations at the altar rail,' would 'create unmanageable burdens for our priests,' 'could turn the Eucharist into a perceived source of political combat,' 'could further divide our Church' and 'could have serious unintended consequences,' 'could make it more difficult for faithful Catholics to serve in public life,' would be 'counter-productive,' would 'push many people farther away from the Church and its teaching,' etc. Despite stating that this question is left to the ordinary, the IRTF has no problem proposing a concrete answer to this question: "Therefore . . . our Task Force does not advocate the denial of Communion for Catholic politicians" (emphasis mine).

CPL, on the other hand, declines entirely from offering any proposal or policy. Not only does it avoid listing the apocalyptic woes that would result from denial of communion (no language of 'confrontations at the altar rail,' 'negative impact,' 'counter-productive' here), it does not even offer the slightest hint that such a policy would have negative repercussions. It simply states, quite forthrightly, that "such decisions rest with the individual bishop," that "bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action," etc., and entirely leaves the matter at that. IRTF's trumpet call for open communion is entirely and unceremoniously dropped.

The way these sort of statements work is this. The Task Force Committee would have presented the bishops with a draft statement which summarized their findings. The full body of bishops, in Denver, would have voted to approve or reject this statement. If they reject it, modifications are made, and the process continues until a draft is formulated which the bishops will approve. Assuming that the IRTF reflects roughly what the contents of the initial draft would have been, and comparing this with the CPL, it seems clear to me that the bishops did in fact reject the Task Force's initial draft. Modifications were made. And the final statement, the CPL - at least in my view - is vastly different. It would be a stretch to turn this into some sort of episcopal coup or mutiny on the Inverness Bounty, but its hard not to imagine some sort of large-scale dissatisfaction on the part of the bishops with what the Task Force was proposing.

Now, lets also look at the after-effects of the CPL. If CPL had been as big of a disappointment as many claim, our more conservative bishops would, without a doubt, feel as if they had been slapped in the face. But this is not what we've seen. Archbishop Hughes, before the statement was even released, stated that he would be happy if it left the decision to the bishop: "If the statement says that it's the responsibility of each bishop (to act) with regard to the legislators in his pastoral care - that's fine. I've said that repeatedly." This is exactly what Hughes wanted, because it approves of his prerogative to continue doing what hes been doing. I also noted with some satisfaction that, the day after I posted my last entry, the Culture and Life Foundation issued a news release which summarized my views almost exactly. Catholic World News, as Oswald has pointed out, also issued a release today which echoes CLF's piece. Both conclude, as I do, that the CPL represents a 'rejection' on the part of the bishops of the Task Force proposal. I am far from openly endorsing the CPL; I am simply pointing out that it does not represent a complete moral cop-out by the American bishops, as the IRTF (it seems to me) was proposing. Certainly, if I had written the CPL, if would have been different. But I did not; the bishops of our Church did. And, once things are put into perspective, all things considered, I'm still in a pretty good mood.

# posted by Jamie : 9:28 AM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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