How We Got Here
Archbishop Edwin Frederick O’Brien
Archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland
Published on the Archdiocese of Baltimore website
The late great Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., once deplored what he cited as the
penchant of some contemporary Catholics for “excessive and indiscreet
compromise.” Without denying the value of open and honest debate, we would do
well to beware of the role that such “compromise” played in raising the
political tide that washed in our society’s sad acceptance of unrestricted
abortion today. Any attempt to compromise Church teaching on abortion in the
name of “open mindedness” is deplorable.
In a first-rate address to more than a hundred bishops gathered last February
for a workshop conducted by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Carl
Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, referred to a Wall Street
Journal opinion piece of January 7 of this year.
Titled “How Support for Abortion Became Kennedy Dogma,” the article goes a long
way in explaining how so many Catholic politicians, once pro-life, arrived at a
deplorable compromise, abandoned their pro-life convictions, and even became, in
too many instances, ardent “pro-choice” proponents.
In 1964, Robert Kennedy was seeking a New York Senate seat and brother Ted was
running for re-election to the United States Senate from Massachusetts. Liberal,
well-funded pro-abortion groups were gaining traction at the grassroots and
targeting politicians in the Northeast as prospective torch-bearers for the
movement. The Kennedys knew they would need theological backing to claim that a
Catholic politician could support abortion rights “in good conscience” and they
turned to a group of six dissident priests.
It was a hot summer day in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, as the Kennedy clan
hosted the select group of Catholic theologians to help them come up with the
deplorable compromise. The moral theologians were well-known at the time and
would for a generation-and more, promote dissent on a number of critical Church
Among the notables were the Reverends Charles Curran, who has opposed Church
teaching on issues ranging from pre-marital sex and contraception to divorce and
in-vitro fertilization, Joseph Fuchs, Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick, later
the Rose Kennedy professor of the Kennedy Institute for Bioethics at Georgetown,
Robert Drinan, who would go on to become a pro-abortion congressman from
Massachusetts and, in 1996, speak out in support of President Clinton’s veto of
the Partial Birth Abortion Act, and Albert Jonsen. They worked for a day and a
half, held a Q and A coaching session with the Kennedys and, as Giles Milhaven
related at a 1984 briefing for Catholics for a Free Choice, “Though the
theologians disagreed on many a point, they all concurred on certain basics -
and that was that a Catholic politician could in good conscience vote in favor
The Kennedys sought such theological justification for a pro-abortion stance
some nine years before the Roe vs. Wade decision was rendered. It would give
“cover” for years to a host of Catholics not only to tolerate but even to
promote an aggressive pro-abortion agenda - a far cry from the mantra of keeping
abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Worse still, it would make it so much more
difficult for pro-life politicians to maintain their stand within a strong
pro-abortion political party. We commend them for their courage. We hope and
pray for such witness on a broader scale from Catholics who deep down know that
abortion is wrong.
Perhaps, in those early days there was confusion in the minds of many Catholics.
Today, however, far from questioning whether abortion should be legal, we find
ourselves actually having to defend the right of medical practitioners to refuse
to violate their conscience by participating in abortion. Given the Church’s
exhaustive efforts to form consciences since then, and the unmitigated rate of
abortion that we witness today, it is difficult fathom how otherwise faithful
Catholic public servants can refuse to embrace even the most reasonable measures
to stem the tide of abortion on-demand.
Representative of countless Church exhortations rejecting the “personally
opposed but...”compromises by Catholic officials are the words of Pope Benedict
in his 2007 encyclical, The Sacrament of Love.
“Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without
consequences for our relationships with others: it demands public witness to our
faith. Evidently this is true for all the baptized, yet it is especially
incumbent upon those who, by virtue of their social or political position, must
make decisions regarding fundamental values such as respect for human life, its
defense from conception until natural death, the family built upon marriage
between a man and a woman....”
Good news from two independent pollsters this month reports that the tide might
be changing–51 percent of Americans are now opposed to abortion on demand. What
that means, practically and politically, is now anyone’s guess.
But I think it’s safe to say that those involved in the 1964 Hyannisport cabal
have a lot to answer for.
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