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Let’s make a deal: Catholic conscience and compromise

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver

Denver Catholic Register
September 22, 2004

Two September anniversaries give us plenty to think about, this year and every year

"If you sup with the devil, you’d better bring a long spoon."

— American folk saying

September is the month when election campaigns get serious. So it’s also the traditional season for Catholic politicians to explain why their faith won’t "dictate" their public actions.

Forty-four years ago this month (Sept. 12, 1960), John F. Kennedy delivered remarks to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association wherein he effectively severed his Catholic identity from his public service. It’s OK to elect me president, he argued to a wary Protestant audience, because I won’t let the pope tell me what to do.

In pledging to put the "national interest" above "religious pressures or dictates," Kennedy created a template for a generation of Catholic candidates: Be American first; be Catholic second. This was an easy calculus for Kennedy, who wore his faith loosely anyway. And it was certainly what the American public square, with its historic anti-Catholic prejudice, wanted to hear.

The Kennedy compromise seemed to work pretty well as long as the "religious pressures" faced by Catholic elected officials involved issues like divorce, federal aid to Catholic schools or diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Each of these issues was important, surely, but none involved life and death. None was jugular.

In 1973, by legalizing abortion on demand, the U.S. Supreme Court changed everything. The reason is simple: Abortion is different. Abortion kills. The great Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke for the whole Christian tradition when he wrote:

"Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder."

Resistance to abortion cuts across all religions. It’s not a "Catholic" issue. In fact, it’s finally not a religious issue at all, but a matter of human rights, reinforced by the irrefutable scientific fact that life begins at conception.

After 1973, because of Roe v. Wade, Catholic elected officials faced a choice. They could either work to change or at least mitigate permissive abortion laws, while at the same time trying to repopulate the courts with pro-life judges. Or they could abandon the unborn and look for a way to morally sanitize their decision. For those who chose the latter course, the leading Catholic political figure of the day stepped in to help them out.

Twenty years ago this month (Sept. 13, 1984), then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame that sought to give intellectual muscle to the Kennedy compromise. Cuomo, unlike Kennedy, was more educated about his faith. Cuomo, unlike Kennedy, had the benefit of seeing where Kennedy’s Houston speech had finally led. But Cuomo, like Kennedy, was a man with presidential prospects. To what degree those prospects shaped the talk he gave — "Religious belief and public morality: a Catholic governor’s perspective" — is unclear. But the results remain with us still.

Cuomo argued that "in our attempt to find a political answer to abortion — an answer beyond our private observance of Catholic morality" — he had concluded that "legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the individual states is not a plausible possibility, and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn’t work." He might privately oppose abortion but, in his view, he had no right to "impose" that belief on others.

In hindsight, Cuomo’s speech is a tour de force of articulate misdirection. It refuses to acknowledge the teaching and formative power of the law. It implicitly equates unequal types of issues. It misuses the "seamless garment" metaphor. It effectively blames Catholics themselves for the abortion problem. It selectively misreads history.

In the end, Cuomo argued that "approval or rejection of legal restrictions on abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty." With those words, he wrote the alibi for every "pro-choice" Catholic who has held public office since.

In deference to his understanding of pluralistic democracy, Governor Cuomo — despite his personal opposition to abortion — went on to resist repeated attempts to restrict abortion in his own state of New York. He also supported public funding of abortion for poor women.

His Catholic conscience apparently did kick in on selective issues though, whether "pluralism" liked it or not. Governor Cuomo vetoed legislative efforts to re-institute the death penalty — 12 times.

Next month, October, is Respect Life month. It’s a good time to reflect on the meaning of the Kennedy-Cuomo legacy. In brief, it’s OK to be Catholic in public service as long as you’re willing to jettison what’s inconveniently "Catholic."

That’s not a compromise. That’s a deal with the devil, and it has a balloon payment no nation, no public servant and no voter can afford.

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