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The Public Duty of Bishops

Lessons from the storm in South Bend

Archbishop John Raphael Quinn
Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco, California

AUGUST 31, 2009

Editors’ note: Archbishop Quinn originally prepared these observations for consideration at the June meeting of the American bishops. Circumstances did not make that possible at the time. He has submitted them to America as a contribution to the debate on the role of bishops in dealing with public issues.

The right to life is a paramount and pre-eminent moral issue of our time. The Catholic bishops have borne a consistent and prophetic witness to the truth that all other rights are anchored in the right to life. When Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973, this conference was nearly alone among institutional voices pointing out the defects and dangers of this decision and calling for its reversal.

Our witness to the sanctity of human life cannot diminish and our effort cannot cease. We must continue to enlist new vehicles of communication to highlight the grave moral evil inherent in abortion. We have to design effective and imaginative strategies to help people see that the choice for life is the most compassionate choice. And we have to speak with courtesy and clarity about why the protection of the unborn is a requirement of human rights and not their diminishment.

There is no disagreement within this conference about the moral evil of abortion, its assault upon the dignity of the human person, or the moral imperative of enacting laws that prohibit abortion in American society.

But there is deep and troubled disagreement among us on the issue of how we as bishops should witness concerning this most searing and volatile issue in American public life. And this disagreement has now become a serious and increasing impediment to our ability to teach effectively in our own community and in the wider American society.

The bishops’ voice has been most credible in the cause of life when we have addressed this issue as witnesses and teachers of a great moral tradition, and not as actors in the political arena. Coming out of the Catholic moral tradition, this conference has defended human life in the context of the pursuit of justice, covering the whole continuum of life from its beginning in the mother’s womb to its natural end. The Second Vatican Council rightly described abortion and infanticide as “unspeakable crimes.” But the council did not stop there. In a coherent moral logic, the council exhorted bishops to be faithful to their duty of teaching and witnessing concerning “the most serious questions concerning the ownership, increase, and just distribution of material goods, peace and war, and brotherly relations among all countries” (“Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church,” No. 12). The more recent “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” proposes an equally broad spectrum of concerns. This consistent focus over nearly 50 years, as well as the teaching of the popes, including Pope Benedict XVI, underline that neither the bishop nor the Catholic Church can confine itself to one single issue of concern in human society. If we proclaim that the right to life is necessary for the exercise of all other rights, then we must also address and defend those other rights as well.

Consequently, the Catholic Church brings to the defense of life and the pursuit of justice in this world the vision of faith and a living hope that transcends the limitations of what can be accomplished in this world. This comprehensive and transcendent vision must provide the benchmark in weighing proposed pathways through the thicket of public policy choices that confront us. This traditional benchmark provides a challenge to us bishops today in evaluating our future approach to those who disagree with us on issues of fundamental importance.

The dilemma that confronts us today is whether the church’s vision is best realized on the issue of abortion by focusing our witness on the clear moral teaching about abortion and public law, or whether it is preferable or obligatory to add to that teaching role the additional role of directly sanctioning public officials through sustained, personally focused criticism, the denial of honors or even excommunication.

This dilemma has troubled us for many years now, but it has been crystallized in the controversy over the decision of the University of Notre Dame to award an honorary degree in May of this year to the president of the United States. This is the first time in the history of this conference that a large number of bishops of the United States have publicly condemned honoring a sitting president, and this condemnation has further ramifications due to the fact that this president is the first African-American to hold that high office.

False Messages

The case for sanctioning President Obama by declaring him ineligible to receive a Catholic university degree is rooted in a powerful truth: The president has supported virtually every proposed legal right to abortion in his public career, and abortion constitutes the pre-eminent moral issue in American government today.

Notwithstanding this fact, the case against a strategy of such sanctions and personal condemnations is rooted in a more fundamental truth: Such a strategy of condemnation undermines the church’s transcendent role in the American political order. For the Obama controversy, in concert with a series of candidate-related condemnations during the 2008 election, has communicated several false and unintended messages to much of American society. There are four such messages that call for our serious consideration today.

1. The message that the Catholic bishops of the United States function as partisan political actors in American life. The great tragedy of American politics from a Catholic perspective is that party structures in the United States bisect the social teachings of the church, thus making it impossible for most citizens to identify and vote for a candidate who adequately embraces the spectrum of Catholic teaching on the common good. For instance, Republican candidates are, in general, more supportive of the church’s position on abortion and euthanasia, while Democratic candidates are generally stronger advocates for the Catholic vision on issues of poverty and world peace.

For most of our history, the American bishops have assiduously sought to avoid being identified with either political party and have made a conscious effort to be seen as transcending party considerations in the formulation of their teachings. The condemnation of President Obama and the wider policy shift that represents signal to many thoughtful persons that the bishops have now come down firmly on the Republican side in American politics. The bishops are believed to communicate that for all the promise the Obama administration has on issues of health care, immigration reform, global poverty and war and peace, the leadership of the church in the United States has strategically tilted in favor of an ongoing alliance with the Republican Party. A sign of this stance is seen to be the adoption of a policy of confrontation rather than a policy of engagement with the Obama administration.

Such a message is alienating to many in the Catholic community, especially those among the poor and the marginalized who feel that they do not have supportive representation within the Republican Party. The perception of partisanship on the part of the church is disturbing to many Catholics given the charge of Gaudium et Spes that the church must transcend every political structure and cannot sacrifice that transcendence, and the perception of transcendence, no matter how important the cause.

2. The message that the bishops are ratifying the “culture war mentality,” which corrodes debate both in American politics and in the internal life of the church. Both poles of the American political spectrum see our society as enmeshed in a culture war over the issues of abortion, marriage, immigration rights and the death penalty. In such a war, they argue, the demonization of alternative viewpoints and of opposing leaders is not merely acceptable, but required. More intense tactics and language are automatically seen as more effective, as necessary and more in keeping with the importance of the issues being debated. The “culture war mentality” has also seeped into the life of the church, distorting the debate on vital issues and leading to campaigns against bishops for their efforts to proclaim the Gospel with charity rather than with antagonism.

The movement toward sanctions against public officials will be seen as ratifying this trajectory in our political, cultural and ecclesial life. Whatever our intention may be, the acceptance and employment of a strategy that deliberately moves beyond teaching and pointing up the moral dimensions of public issues to labeling those with whom we disagree, will inevitably embolden those who de-Christianize our public debate both within and outside the church.

3. The message that the bishops are effectively indifferent to all grave evils other than abortion. Perhaps the most difficult task we face, as teachers on the moral dimensions of public policy in the United States today, is emphasizing the pre-eminence of abortion as a moral issue while defending a holistic view of the rights intrinsic to the defense of the dignity of the human person. This task of balancing arises not only in the formulation of our policy statements, but also in the steps we as bishops take to achieve justice in the political order. The pathway of sanctions and personal condemnation will open every bishop to the charge that if we do not use the tactic of sanctions and condemnations on issues such as war and peace or global poverty, we are tacitly relegating those issues to a level of unimportance. And it would indeed be difficult to explain how it is appropriate for a Catholic university to honor those who authorize torture or initiate an unjust war or cut assistance to the world’s poor. To assert on the one hand that the tactics of sanction and personal condemnation are legitimate tools for episcopal action in the public order, while on the other hand refusing to employ those tactics for any issue other than abortion will only deepen the suspicions of those in American society who believe that we bishops of the church in the United States are myopic in our approach to Catholic social teaching.

4. The message that the bishops are insensitive to the heritage and the continuing existence of racism in America. The election of Senator Barack Obama as President of the United States in November 2008 was a unique and signal moment in the history of racial solidarity in the United States. L‘Osservatore Romano compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall. All over the world the election was hailed as ushering in a new chapter in the rejection of racial stereotypes and the enhancement of international relations.

Yet here in the United States, there has been the perception that we bishops did not grasp the immense significance of the moment. African-American priests, religious and lay persons have related that they felt they had to mute their jubilation at the election of an African-American president, and that we bishops did not share their jubilation. Some have expressed deep hurt over this, precisely because they respect the bishops and they love the church.

Added to this, the spirited condemnation of the president’s visit and degree at Notre Dame last May have reinforced for many African-American Catholics those feelings of hurt and alienation. It is not that African-American Catholics do not understand that the church must oppose abortion, or that they themselves personally believe that the bishops are acting out of racist motivations. It is rather that when the church embraces a new level of confrontation when an African-American is involved, this readily raises widespread questions about our racial sensitivity. And these questions will only continue to be raised more forcefully if we continue to walk down the path of confrontation with this administration.

A Policy of Cordiality

As we confront the admittedly difficult task of balancing the need to uphold the sanctity of human life while avoiding the enormously destructive consequences of the strategy of sanction and condemnation, we bishops could profitably look to the example of the Holy See, which wrestles with these same complex issues of integrity of witness, fidelity to truth, civility in discourse, and political, national and racial sensitivities every day.

The approach of the Holy See might justly be characterized as a policy of cordiality. It proceeds from the conviction that the integrity of Catholic teaching can never be sacrificed. It reflects a deep desire to enshrine comity at the center of public discourse and relations with public officials. It is willing to speak the truth directly to earthly power.

Yet the Holy See shows great reluctance to publicly personalize disagreements with public officials on elements of church teaching. And the approach of the Holy See consistently favors engagement over confrontation. As Pope John Paul II put it, “The goal of the Church is to make of the adversary a brother.”

These principles of cordiality will not make our task as bishops in the public square an easy one. But they do provide the best anchor for insuring that our actions and statements remain faithful to the comprehensive and transcendent mission of the church, our ultimate mandate. Much of this is summed up in the council’s decree on bishops, Christus Dominus (No. 13):

The Church has to be on speaking terms with the human society in which it lives. It is therefore the duty of bishops especially to make an approach to people, seeking and promoting dialog with them. If truth is constantly to be accompanied by charity and understanding by love, in such salutary discussions they should present their positions in clear language, unagressively and diplomatically. Likewise they should show prudence combined with confidence, for this is what brings about union of minds by encouraging friendship.
For more on President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame see America's archive on the controversy.

Most Rev. John R. Quinn is archbishop emeritus of San Francisco. He served as president of the U.S. Catholic Conference and National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1977 to 1980.


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