"A Glorious Opportunity"
Time for Voices of Clarity
by Sheila Liaugminas
Catholic Americans did not split into two camps when Barack Obama ran for president. The campaign and election of President Obama with the support of over 50 percent of the nation’s Catholics only framed the picture of a division that goes back about 50 years. The false dichotomy is usually represented as between the “peace and social justice crowd” and the “pro-life crowd”, as if Catholic social teaching is not fully about both. Though abortion hardly figured into Election 2008, the more information emerged about Obama’s principles and policies on life issues especially the radical Freedom of Choice Act the more the US bishops pursued a very vocal and formidable campaign to inform Catholics about their obligations of “faithful citizenship” as participants in the political process.
Bishop Robert Hermann, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, made clarifying and encouraging remarks on Catholic identity at the Cathedral Basilica Pro-Life Mass (January 23, 2009) the week President Obama was sworn into office. Bishop Hermann congratulated the new president, who was about to overturn the Mexico City Policy and extend tax-payer funding for overseas abortion, and had already announced he would remove all federal restrictions on funding embryonic stem-cell research. “President Obama has no problem supporting legislation that would even kill a child who survived a botched abortion”, he noted. But he pastorally steered his remarks toward a civic and spiritual direction:
If at this stage our anger is directed at President Obama, our anger is misdirected…. He needs and deserves our prayers, not our condemnation. As Catholics, we are not guiltless. It seems to me that when President Kennedy compromised Catholic teachings and accommodated political pressures in order to be elected to the highest office in the land, he set the tone for many Catholic leaders to follow and to compromise their Catholic principles to get ahead…. Over 50 percent of our electorate voted for a president who is one of the most pro-culture-of-death candidates from a major party to run for the highest office of the land.
Yes, we can thank one-half of our Catholics for bailing out on their faith! After almost 50 years of having 50 percent of Catholics abandoning their Catholic identity, we cannot expect to turn this culture around by short-term political efforts. In order to bring about a transformation from a culture of death to a culture of life, we have to restore our Catholic identity.
Teaching and Authority
What it means to be a faithful Catholic has been the source of mass confusion, especially with mainstream media misrepresenting Church teaching for reasons either tendentious or negligent. High-profile, prominent and powerful Catholics in government have generated a great deal of that confusion, with the help of complicit media. That same elite media usually fails to follow up distortions about the faith with clarifications from the bishops. Thankfully, “alternative media” have it covered, and people have more access to them than ever.
As president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal Francis George has more access to media than most bishops, and he uses every opportunity to frankly address prevailing falsehoods about Catholic identity and the role of Catholics in politics and the culture. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi misstated Church teaching on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, and now-Vice-President Joe Biden did the same shortly afterward. Cardinal George told National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen that Church teaching “on the morality of killing unborn children was brought into doubt”, and the fundamental issue of abortion was being misrepresented.
“If you’ve got an immoral law, you’ve got to work to change that”, said Cardinal George. “That’s the great scandal, and that’s why there’s such a sense of urgency now. There’s no recognition of the fact that children continue to be killed, and we live, therefore, in a country drenched in blood. This can’t be something that you start playing off pragmatically against other issues.” But that’s exactly what was done through the election run-up in 2008, and ever since in the very public debates over Catholic social teaching and what order of priorities constitutes “the common good”, a term referred to often by both President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI.
The most dramatic series of these Catholic debates took place over the Notre Dame controversy. Papal biographer and scholar George Weigel saw this event as Obama’s opportunity to walk into the Catholic fray and conquer the divided. “What was surprising, and ought to be disturbing to anyone who cares about religious freedom in these United States, was the president’s decision to insert himself into the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic conviction in the public square”, Weigel wrote in “Obama and the ‘Real Catholics’” (National Review Online, May 18, 2009):
Obama did this by suggesting, not altogether subtly, who the real Catholics in America are. The real Catholics, you see, are those like the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who are ‘congenial and gentle’ in persuasion, men and women who are ‘always trying to bring people together,’ Catholics who are ‘always trying to find the common ground.’…
In order to secure the political advantage Obama had gained among Catholic voters last November, the president of the United States decided that he would define what it means to be a real Catholic in 21st-century America not the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who in sorrow declined to attend Notre Dame’s commencement; not the 80-some bishops who publicly criticized Notre Dame’s decision to invite the president to receive an honorary degree; not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which explicitly and unambiguously instructed Catholic institutions not to do what Notre Dame did. He, President Obama, would settle the decades-long intra-Catholic culture war in favor of one faction the faction that had supported his candidacy and that had spent the first months of his administration defending his policies.
And he did it under the cover of Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic” teaching, better known as the “seamless garment”.
Consistency and Charity in Truth
Most Catholics do not know the “seamless garment” approach to public policy and fewer still know the harm it did to the true consistent ethic of life as taught by the Church. As Weigel recalled, its net effect was “to give two generations of Catholic politicians a virtual pass on the abortion question….” The fact that Cardinal Bernardin regretted the misapplication of his teaching later in his tenure and publicly said so is even less known.
“I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the individual”, Cardinal Bernardin said in a front-page interview in the National Catholic Register (June 12, 1988). “I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”
The following year, he spoke out about it again in a talk for Respect Life Sunday called “Deciding for Life” (October 1989): “On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence. Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion….
The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life, as I have articulated it over the past six years, is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from conception to natural death. The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages….
This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another…. There are those who support abortion on demand who do not grasp or will not discuss the intrinsic value of human life and the precedence it should take in decision making. The issue the only issue they insist, is the question of who decides the individual or the government.
Who decides is not the issue. We all decide, but we make our free decisions within limits. In exercising our freedom, we must not make ourselves the center of the world. Other individuals born and unborn are as much a part of the human family as we are….
And yet, Obama continues to promote the “seamless garment” logic as one that treats all important issues equally. He can misrepresent that teaching to his advantage, because so few Catholics know about Bernardin’s clarifications. And he enjoys strong support from so many Catholics for whom the faith is open to consensus.
But he can’t fool Pope Benedict, so when the president met the pope in July, Obama engaged him in a respectful exchange of concerns over world affairs and critical concerns for humanity. An exchange the Vatican revealed “turned first of all to questions … such as the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience.” (Vatican Information Service, July 11, 2009)
According to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, “Obama told the pope of his commitment to reduce the number of abortions….”
That promise is astonishing, given that the president was at that time pushing health care reform legislation in Congress that contained sweeping provisions for mandated tax-payer funded abortion as “essential health” care. “Obama saying he wants to reduce abortion is just not credible”, said Congressman Chris Smith on a pro-life webcast summit event (July 23, 2009). Even MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a high-profile Catholic admirer of Obama’s, was startled. Discussing the visit on his show Hardball, Matthews told panelists “he goes over to see the pope and says they’re going to reduce the number of abortions, and then that same week he pushed to subsidize abortion? You can’t do that!”
The pope gave the president a copy of his new encyclical on truth, Caritas in Veritate, and a surprise gift of Dignitatis Personae, the Catholic teaching on bioethics, which Obama promised to read on his flight to Ghana. But then, he had just promised he wanted to reduce the number of abortions, too.
Obama has succeeded sensationally on the sheer skill of his charm and rhetoric. He has convinced even formerly self-proclaimed pro-life Catholics and other Christians that his policies were more advanced and enlightened and would reduce poverty, and thus reduce abortion. “Paradoxically, their argument was that voting for the explicitly so called pro-choice candidate was the pro-life thing to do”, stated Princeton Professor Robert George in a Catholic News Agency interview (February 13, 2009).
Catholics have been key to several elections, though they are providing the way for diametrically opposite paths. “Several years ago I did an analysis on the pro-life voting records of members of Congress correlated with religious affiliation”, wrote Jack Smith on The Catholic Key Blog in March 2009. “I no longer have it and we have a different congress today, but the main finding probably still holds if there were NO Catholic members of Congress, the body would be significantly MORE pro-life.”
He follows with an even more astonishing statement. “If, God willing, the abortion regime someday ends and historians looking back in horror on the period make their report, two things will be true: 1. The Catholic Church was the strongest voice in the defense of life. 2. The abortion regime would have been impossible without the active encouragement of many individual Catholics.”
That dichotomy has only sharpened under the influence of President Barack Obama. On the night of his victory last November, in his celebrated speech telecast globally from Grant Park in Chicago, the senator with the most liberal voting record on abortion, who regretted his vote to help Terri Schiavo’s family restore food and water to their dying, impaired daughter, said “… at this defining moment, change has come to America”, and people have bent “the arc of history”.
There is no question the trajectory of the consistent Judeo-Christian ethics that identified American principles has been bent, and it’s thrusting toward unchartered territory on the life issues alone.
In October 1979, Pope John Paul II stood in the midst of the throngs at a Mass in that same Grant Park in Chicago and delivered a homily about “the deep mystery of our calling as Christians”. One of his main themes was unity. “There are certain conditions that are necessary if we are to share in the evangelizing mission of the Church”, stated John Paul II. “This afternoon, I wish to stress one of these conditions in particular. I am speaking about the unity of the Church….”
He declared that unity is “the test of credibility” of Christians.
Thirty years later, we are polarized as Catholic Americans, about half of whom may refer to themselves, to borrow a reference the late Father Richard John Neuhaus sometimes used, as American Catholics. “The adjective controls”, Father Neuhaus said. (National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Washington, 2007). And President Obama told Arab leaders (and the world through media coverage) that in America “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation….”
But Bishop Robert Hermann is enthused. He’s “edified” by the continued “heartwarming” witness of faithful pro-life Catholics, he said in the Respect Life Mass. “What a glorious opportunity we all have to make a difference in the pro-life cause. Until we are willing to be politically incorrect in order to be biblically correct, we will never convince anyone that our religion is worth living…. If 75 percent of our Catholics were steeped in Catholic identity, the abortion issue would be over for our entire country….
“We must bravely witness against supporting pro-choice and pro-abortion candidates in political elections, but pray daily for their conversion. This is a great time to be a Catholic. This is a great time to witness to such a clear choice….
“Our actions and our lifestyles have to radiate the inner presence of Christ in the home and in the marketplace…. We need to recover our Catholic identity, and we can do it!”
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, a member of the editorial board of Voices, is a Chicago journalist who covered the apostolic visit of Pope Benedict for Relevant Radio. She writes on news of faith and culture on her InForum blog: www.inforumblog.com.
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