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Antiabortion imperative more complex than acknowledged: John Allen: bishops' views on abortion.


Regardless of the results of the presidential election Nov. 4, the U.S. Catholic bishops will continue to face difficult questions on the divisive issue of abortion, questions that that they intend to take up during their Nov. 10-13 meeting in Baltimore, where they plan to discuss the intersection of abortion and politics for the third time.

That discussion will continue the debate that has gone on within the bishops' conference as well as the wider community during the last two presidential elections. Prior to those election cycles, the U.S. bishops clearly identified the defense of human life as their top political priority, with pride of place going to the struggle to end legalized abortion.

As a result, many Americans have concluded that the bishops are in a de facto alliance with the Republican Party, and that overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, has become a litmus test of orthodoxy.

That perception is reinforced by a minority of bishops who have threatened to refuse Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. This year, a handful of bishops have issued statements that would seemingly make it impossible for Catholics to vote for Sen. Barack Obama--who has called for measures to prevent unintended pregnancies and to support women who choose to keep their babies, but who does not support overturning Roe v. Wade. In a recent interview with an Italian newspaper, Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly of St. Louis and now the head of the Vatican's supreme court, went so far as to assert that the Democrats risk becoming the "party of death."

In a media-saturated environment, however, it's generally the loudest voices that dominate attention. In reality, the thinking among the roughly 270 active bishops in America on the intersection of abortion and politics is more complex--as NCR interviews with leading American prelates both in 2004 and in 2008 illustrate, and as the bishops themselves attempted to articulate in the 2007 edition of their document "Faithful Citizenship."

To be sure, the bishops regard abortion as a grave evil, sometimes even comparing it to slavery or the Holocaust. All regard working toward a society in which abortion is no longer tolerated as a towering imperative.

Often lost in the partisan fog, however, are three other points:

* While most bishops regard over turning Roe v. Wade as a clear extension of church teaching, they also recognize that a specific court decision or piece of legislation can never be an article of the faith--meaning that, at least in principle, it's possible for a Catholic to believe that there are other ways, perhaps even better ways, to oppose abortion. Many bishops do not agree in terms of their own politics, but they generally acknowledge that it's possible to hold that view without breaking with the faith*

* There is clear division within the bishops' conference on what the pastoral response to pro-choice Catholic candidates ought to be. The desire to deny them Communion, or to declare them excommunicated under an article of canon law concerning "formal cooperation" in abortion, is held only by a minority of bishops.

* While most bishops would clearly prefer an outright ban on abortion, many believe that such a result may not be politically realistic. In that regard, many bishops respond positively to recent polls that suggest most Americans don't want abortion banned (especially in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the life of the mother), but they support restrictions beyond Roe v. Wade. This point suggests that many bishops may be open to compromise--if not on the principle or long-term aim, at least in terms of what's politically possible.

The following are excerpts from mid-October interviews with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. bishops' conference; Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., vice-president; and Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington. Many of the same questions came up in interviews with George, as well as Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, during the ad limina visits of the American bishops to Rome in the spring of 2004, and excerpts from those interviews also appear below.


George, 2008: "If you've got an immoral law, you've got to work to change that. You've got children being killed every day. It goes on forever. That's the great scandal, and that's why there's such a sense of urgency now."


Wuerl, 2008: "No. It is, however, one of the most clearly aligned practical ways to stop what's happening. ... If you put it into the bigger picture, I think 100 years from now people are going to say, 'How could they have allowed that to happen?'"

George, 2004: "If the law is unjust, as the abortion situation is-it's against the common good, not just against Catholic doctrine-[legislators] are expected to work to try to limit those laws in the context in which we live. The question is, how do we limit it most effectively? Those are questions of prudential judgment around which there can be many discussions."


Wuerl, 2008: "Yes, it's conceptually possible. But when you get into the realm of politics, the realm of translating the need to preserve life into the circumstances of our day, what is conceptually possible and what is pressingly obligatory now begin to become two different things."


George, 2008: "The discussion came about because the teaching of the church on the morality of killing unborn children was brought into doubt. Some public figures, very highly placed, brought it into doubt. [Note: George confirmed that he was referring to statements by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joseph Biden.] ... There was a response to that by the conference, as well as many individuals, including myself, because the teaching was misrepresented. That, finally, is the bottom line."


Kicanas, 2008: "The bishops as a whole left that question open.... I don't think there is a consensus.... I think what gets confusing for people is that the bishops aren't of one mind on these questions."

Pilarczyk, 2004: "[Division among the bishops] is bad from the point of view of people who want simple answers with complete surety, readily available. On the other hand, people have to realize that these are complicated questions to which bishops may not all have the same answer, and that our Catholic faith is not a whole series of black-and-white positions."

Mahony, 2004: "With respect to Holy Communion, it is up to the communicant to decide whether they are in a state of grace and worthy to receive the Eucharist. Each one of us makes that decision. The church never has the minister of Communion make that decision, except in that rare case of public sinners who have been so found guilty. I'm puzzled by people rattling sanctions at the moment. That has not been our tradition over the years."


Kicanas, 2008: "Someone told me once that they think the legislative question is lost, both in terms of same-sex marriage and in terms of abortion, and that what the church should be focusing its energies on is changing the thinking in order to lead people not to choose abortion. I certainly think there's some importance to that. We may find ourselves hamstrung in terms of our capacity to change legislation or the thinking of legislators. Yet we can still work to make our teaching more influential in changing people's thinking, helping them to see that there are alternatives."


Wuerl, 2008: "The prohibition of abortion, particularly after the first trimester--although people were not put in jail-was a moral consensus in this country. The Supreme Court simply wiped that away. It wiped away the political consensus of the American people ... something now we're trying to get back to."

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is]
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Title Annotation:CATHOLIC VOTE
Author:Allen, John
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 31, 2008
Previous Article:Abortion: its shifting place in the political landscape: Tom Roberts: the emergence of lay efforts.
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