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Bishops, Politicians and Abortion

Vicar for Education for the Diocese of Providence, Providence, R.I

January 01, 1989

On July 3, 1989, the Supreme Court of the United States of America, in William L. Webster V. Reproductive Health Services, enabled state legislatures to craft constitutionally defensible legislation or public policy which can restrict legal access to abortion. Pro-life parties have hailed this judicial decision. Nevertheless, a bitter and acrimonious political battle appears to be shaping up in state legislatures.

How will Catholic politicians approach the issue of abortion and the law? In recent political campaigns, most notably the Presidential campaign of 1984, some Catholic politicians adopted the "personally opposed but..." position in promoting or supporting a constitutional amendment that would invalidate the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Now that some aspects of the legalized abortion controversy have become something of a states' rights issue, Catholic politicians on a state level will be called upon by their constituents to make their positions known.

Since Roe v. Wade, the US Catholic bishops have been consistent and vigorous in their advocacy for a reversal of this judicial fiat. Undoubtedly they will now use this occasion to promote public policy that will protect the innocent life of the unborn child in ways that until recently seemed doomed to fail constitutional muster. Hence it is not unlikely that debates and heated political arguments similar to those that involved Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York and Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 Presidential campaign will crop up in other dioceses throughout the United States.

As state legislatures begin framing public policy concerning the legal availability of abortion, "ecclesial loyalty in political responsibility" will receive much attention. I offer the following "tentative recommendations to US. bishops and Catholic politicians" for consideration. They are offered in a hopeful attempt to provide some informed direction to a highly complex and controversial debate.


To U.S. Bishops.

1. The primary duty of a bishop is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to hand on the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church in matters of faith and morals. U.S. Catholics need to be introduced to or reacquainted with the fundamental doctrinal, moral and social teaching of the church. It is to this body of church teaching that Catholics must attend in the process of forming their consciences. People cannot be held morally responsible for what they do not know. Without the well-formed conscience of the Catholic public official as the point of coincidence of political and moral exigencies, the Catholic Church will have lost its primary basis for influencing the public policies and laws of the United States.

2. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has definite social and political ramifications. The bishops should appeal to an ecclesiology in which the church's engagement with the world as its leaven and instrument of sanctification is transferred from the periphery to the core of the church's life and mission.

3. The U.S. bishops' attempts to address the moral dimensions of political problems are often categorized as violations of the separation of church and state. The bishops, therefore, should present a clearly reasoned, nonsecularist interpretation of the First Amendment, the likes of which were formulated by John Courtney Murray a generation ago. Such a presentation may neutralize many of the objections to the bishops' pastoral practice of taking part in the public policy debates, objections proposed by opponents both within and without the Catholic Church.

4. The bishops should clarify once again the reasons why they have chosen to enter the public arena by means of their participation in policy debates: 1) to safeguard the dignity of the human person, 2) to focus the attention of U.S. citizens on the moral factors of particular social, economic and political issues and 3) to engage the greatest number of participants in the moral discussion on these topics.

5. From the foundation of our republic, the U.S. bishops have vigorously supported the constitutional principle of church/state separation. With the conciliar document Dignitatis Humanae, the Church abandoned any pretense toward an ideal that would establish Catholicism as the state religion. Now the church asks only the freedom to conduct her mission of evangelization. The U.S. bishops should make clear that their intervention in the public arena is only to champion the dignity of the human person who has been created by God, redeemed by Christ and sanctified by the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.

6. It may be timely for the U.S. bishops to dispel any suggestions that they are clericalizing politics by reaffirming the teaching of Vatican II concerning the proper role of the Catholic laity in influencing the socio-political order with the teaching and values of the Gospel. In recent years we have seen an apparent secularization of the clergy and a clericalization of the laity. It would be opportune for the U.S. bishops to present to American Catholics a sound lay spirituality that would prepare them theologically and spiritually for their service in the world, particularly in the political realm as Catholic public officials.

7. The U.S. bishops should also clarify how they wish to have an effect on the moral direction of the United States. Through Catholic public officials who should make their prudential, political decisions according to a well-formed conscience, the church has an indirect yet effective influence on both the common good and the public order of society. One constitutive element of this is the establishment and preservation of a public morality.

8. The U.S. bishops should, in their pastoral letters concerning socio-political issues, move toward a greater emphasis on presenting biblical and theological arguments to establish their point of view. Such a pedagogical methodology is recommended in several documents of Vatican II. The determination of public policy and legislation belongs primarily to public officials. This is not to argue, however, that the U.S. bishops should completely refrain from offering public policy proposals for the consideration of both the U.S. Catholic community and U.S. citizens in general. In doing so in the past, they have precipitated a national discussion of the moral dimensions of political topics that may have been indifferently passed over without their participation in public policy debates.

9. When the U.S. bishops do intervene in the public policy debate, they should clearly differentiate the levels of magisterial authority that are operative in different sections of their teaching documents. Some matters of public policy and political strategies are highly complex. Many faithful U.S. Catholics simply will not accept, for any number of non-theological reasons, the adequacy of the bishops' public policy recommendations. To create the impression that the magisterial authority of the bishops' public policy proposals is the same as that which accompanies their presentation of universally binding moral principles is to threaten episcopal teaching authority itself. Repeated and widespread rejection of what is mistakenly perceived to be authoritative church teaching could lead to disrespect for and disregard of the properly exercised magisterial authority of the bishops on other issues that are fundamental to Catholic faith and morals.

10. The U.S. bishops have stated in their two recent pastoral letters that although their public policy proposals deserve the serious consideration of the Catholic faithful in forming their consciences, they do not bind Catholics in conscience. In light of this, the bishops should emphasize that Catholic public officials are free to arrive at prudential judgments of public policy that do not agree with theirs. Moreover, it should be made clear that a "tactical disagreement" between the bishops and Catholic public officials on matters of political strategies does not necessarily indicate any ecclesial disloyalty to, or disrespect for, the magisterium of the bishops on the part of the Catholic politician. However, the bishops do have the right and duty as moral teachers to judge the moral adequacy of a particular political option of a Catholic public official. Such criticism is an exercise of the moral magisterial role of the bishops.

11. Since the U.S. bishops wish to address both the U.S. Catholic community and all Americans of good will in their pastoral statements, they should use different modes of discourse in speaking to diverse groups. A natural moral law tradition provides a rational tradition for explicating the social and moral teaching of the Catholic Church to those people who do not accept her theological presuppositions.

12. The U.S. bishops should prudently consider the proper forum and method for criticizing a morally inadequate political stance of a Catholic politician. The ability of the news media to sensationalize a news event involving the matter of religion and politics should not be underestimated. Often a criticism that is aimed at one particular issue can, through the manipulation of the media, easily overshadow other morally responsible positions of a Catholic public official. The U.S. bishops need to rely on Catholic public officials to influence the moral quality of public policy in a society that sometimes appears to have grown insensitive to fundamental moral values and principles. At the same time, it would be extremely unfortunate either to jeopardize the generally morally responsible political leadership of a Catholic public official or to reawaken inadvertently a latent yet historically evident prejudice that Catholics are not politically independent enough of their bishops' political agenda to govern in a pluralist society.

13. The bishops should not demand the same moral leadership in public policy from all Catholic public officials. What a Catholic legislator may be able to do may not be possible for either a Catholic governor or judge. The ability of Catholic public officials to provide direction in public policy and legislation that is, from the church's moral position, morally adequate will depend on two factors: 1) the particular public office which a Catholic holds in the three-branch system of U.S. Government and 2) the feasibility of the legislation. A Catholic public official should not be precipitously accused of being disloyal to the moral teaching of the church if he/she fails to support a law that, while protecting a particular moral value or principle, will be unenforceable. The Catholic public official may judge the law unenforceable because it lacks public consensus in society.

To U.S. Catholic Public Officials.

1. Catholic public officials should reassess their understanding of the constitutional principle of church/state separation. They should avoid any secularist interpretation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment and realize that the separation of the church from the state does not render religion an essentially "private affair." Neither does such a political arrangement demand the banishment of the church's moral values from the political arena.

2. Catholic public officials should attempt to familiarize themselves with the social teaching of their church and the current theology of the vocation of the layperson in the world. Specifically, they should appreciate seriously their Christian responsibilities as both citizen and Catholic to imbue society with moral values.

3. A civil statute does not need to reflect all the precepts of the divine and moral laws. However, Catholic public officials should recognize that from epistemological, psychological, theological and political points of view, the argument that one's personal, religious and moral convictions should not influence one's political decisions is untenable. Hence, the "personally opposed but..." political posture, that has become popular among some Catholic public officials concerning the issue of legalized abortion, is simplistic and demands further reflection and clarification.

4. Catholic public officials should clearly differentiate between private and public morality in fulfilling their political duty of striking a proper relationship between law and morality. In order to make such a necessary differentiation, they may often have to engage the expertise of ethicians of varying schools of moral thought and of social scientists who are conversant with the mores and cultural attitudes of the American people.

5. Catholic public officials should be aware that the moral positions of the church are not necessarily sectarian nor do they derive exclusively from a Catholic's personal assent of faith to matters of divine revelation which are beyond the access of human reason. Catholic morality, particularly in relation to law and the political order, is fundamentally a natural law morality rooted in the human community's cumulative, rational reflection on its historical, moral experience. Hence, the very nature of the church's natural law ethic makes it potentially intelligible to all people. Catholic public officials, therefore, should not view the moral teaching of their church as something to be reticent about in crafting morally responsible public policy in a religiously pluralist society.

6. Catholic public officials should consult the Catholic theological community on issues concerning the intersection of law and morality. The theological and philosophical faculties of a Catholic college or university could make valuable contributions by furnishing Catholic politicians with pertinent principles drawn from philosophy, moral theology and the social teaching of the church. Such information could substantiate their decision-making process in the area of morally controversial political issues.

7. Catholic public officials are free in conscience to disagree with their bishops on matters of public policy and political strategies. However, particularly in cases where U.S. bishops have expended a considerable amount of effort to support certain political options, a Catholic public official who disagrees with the bishops' political options should provide cogent reasons for his/her tactical disagreement. Specifically, if Catholic public officials do not agree with their bishops on a particular legal strategy for restricting the legal availability of abortion, they must provide some alternative political options geared toward achieving the same goal. When capable of limiting the legal availability of abortion to some degree, the Catholic public official is not morally free to do nothing. Political acquiescence in the face of immoral public policies is morally unacceptable for a Catholic public official.

8. While a Catholic public official is justified in arguing that a law must find support in the public consensus of society's citizenry if it is to be enforceable, he/she should keep in mind two additional realities: 1) a genuine public consensus and majority opinion are not necessarily the same thing, and 2) law has an educative dimension that can contribute in no small way to the development of a morally sound public consensus. A Catholic public official cannot refrain from advocating a law or public policy that protects a fundamental moral value of human right solely on the basis of the argument that a public consensus does not exist to support such a law.

9. The Catholic public official should pursue every available means of developing a keen sense of political prudence. The acquisition of political prudence depends upon a historical process of educating one's conscience. This process presumes a personal dedication to being attentive to the best of moral reflection and to overcoming, insofar as it is humanly possible, the peril of allowing prejudice or the prospect of personal, political prestige to stifle the demands of conscience.

10. Catholic public officials should reflect on political issues that impinge upon questions of morality within the context of a consistent ethic of life. A basic insight of this paradigm of ethical reasoning is that the natural moral law imposes upon the state and its rule of law the duty to protect the natural and civil rights of its subjects, especially the weakest and most powerless.

11. It is unacceptable for a Catholic public official to advocate or endorse public policies or legislation that would violate fundamental moral values and principles that their bishops teach to be universally binding in conscience. An example of this is a political stance that seeks to enfranchise legally the so-called "free choice option" concerning the availability of legalized abortion. Such a political stance is morally unacceptable for a Catholic public official.

Some 25 years ago, John Courtney Murray, S. J., wrote, "Now, if ever, is the time for the tradition of reason, the Catholic tradition, to assert itself. Only in its assertion is there hope for some health in American politics." I hope that these reflections on the topic of ecclesial loyalty and political responsibility have furthered to some degree the realization of Murray's fervent expectation.

-THE REV. ROBERT J. McMANUS is vicar for education for the Diocese of Providence, Providence, R.I. This article as written in 1989. He was named a bishop in 1998.

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