Abortion, Catholics and Elections
Fr. William Messenger

(The election of 2004 saw an unparalleled activity on the part of some Catholic Bishops to influence the outcome of the election. This commentary addresses those actions.)

Recent statements by certain Catholic bishops in the United States regarding abortion and the upcoming election leave the impression that 1) these bishops are teaching the Catholic faith and 2) that those who disagree cannot be considered Catholics in good standing. Neither impression can be supported in the theological tradition of the Catholic Church. The fact that the bishops themselves know this, yet continue their condemnations is more than a little distressing.

The most egregious case to date is that of bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and his statements that people who do not vote for the politicians he thinks they should vote for are not worthy of receiving Communion. Although he might claim that this as an over simplification of his position, he should at least be honest enough to admit that his intent is to elect politicians he approves of, specifically those who will vote to outlaw abortion. This is wrong on so many levels, that it staggers the mind. Aside from being an unwarranted intrusion into elective politics, it is bad theology. Bishop Sheridan is correct in stating that Catholics have an obligation to correctly inform their consciences. However, he also knows that the Catholic faith obligates a person to follow his/her conscience even if it is in error. That fundamental principle can neither be overlooked nor over emphasized. It is a gross overstatement on Sheridan’s part to suggest that Catholics who support candidates across the spectrum of life issues possess defective or uninformed consciences because they disagree with him.

Add to that the fact that the bishop is incapable of supporting his argument that voting for so-called “pro-choice” candidates is contrary to the Catholic Faith. A casual look at the history of the Church includes a period known as Christendom. During that period, the Church, for all practical purposes, directed the politics of the day. It was a dismal failure, and Sheridan’s attempt to reinvent that history in modern American politics is troubling. It is not the role of any politician, let alone a Catholic one, to write into legislation the teaching of the Catholic Church. Clearly a politician’s faith (and conscience) influences his choices, but that faith does not determine what legislation is most productive for the whole of society. That faith is best put to practice in an effort to win over the minds and hearts of the rest of society.

Sheridan’s theological lapses are only part of his problem. In his zeal to end the tragedy of abortion, he has chosen to fill his dance card with any available suitor. In this case, he has accepted to dance with the devil. That is his choice, but he should have been smart enough to not let the devil lead. For now he dances dangerously close to the law—close enough that the IRS may be tempted to examine his dance steps to determine if he has violated IRS regulations governing non-profit status. It is one thing to criticize policies, even to encourage people to vote for or against specific legislation. It is quite another to tell people which candidates to vote for. That is partisan politics, and that is against the law.

Still, it is doubtful that Sheridan would have taken such a strong position had he not been emboldened by a few other bishops, such as archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. Stemming from the same flawed theology, Chaput has stated that politicians who do not work to outlaw abortion should not receive Communion. Chaput has taken the untenable position, reiterated by Sheridan, that the abortion issue trumps all other life issues. This argument needs a lengthier rebuttal than this piece can offer. For now let it suffice to say that the idea that abortion should hold a position that is greater than all the other life issues combined defies logic all together. Even given the tragedy of abortion, the moral principle of proportionality prohibits any attempt to place the issue of abortion above all the other life issues.

One of the complexities of modern American politics, especially given the diversity and plurality of our society, is precisely the fact that moral issues are complex. The responsibility of the politician is to represent people from a wide spectrum of beliefs. People of good will can and do disagree on the best ways to achieve the common good. For a few bishops to express narrow beliefs and suggest that they are binding on all people is an arrogance that cannot be tolerated.

Early in his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Pope John Paul II declared that clergy should not hold public office. Not because they are incompetent. John Paul’s reason was that it was unseemly for clergy to tie themselves so closely to the wide array of policies that flow from partisan politics. There is a danger that if clergy hold public office, then their decisions and policies might be construed as the teaching of the Church and binding on all Catholics. Bishops such as Sheridan and Chaput show the Pope to have been right. The Pope also concluded that it was the proper role of the laity to make the laws that govern society.

The June 18th statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does not entirely solve the problem. Recognizing the importance of teaching the Catholic Faith and encouraging the laity in public office to “bring their moral convictions into public life” is not completely convincing. The bishops resolutely state: “The separation of church and state does not require division between belief and public action, between moral principles and political choices, but protects the right of believers and religious groups to practice their faith and act on their values in public life.” This evades the issue concerning people who do not believe as Catholics do about abortion or who have differing convictions as to the best means to achieve the common good. Without descending into chaos or anarchy, it can certainly be argued that Catholics and Catholic institutions should not be compelled to engage in abortion, and at the same time allow those who differ on the validity of abortion to make the choice that best reflects their convictions. To conclude that Catholic politicians must vote for laws that outlaw abortion is, in fact, imposing one religious viewpoint on the whole of society.

Although a strong case can be made that the Roe v Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court was not good law, it is nonetheless the current law of the land. It also reflects the beliefs of millions of people, many of them just as committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Catholics are. Not until there is a consensus on the issue of abortion can abortion be outlawed. In this regard, the bishops are correct in emphasizing their role as teachers.

As a Catholic, however, I find most obnoxious the fact that a handful of bishops is using the sacraments as a ploy in their arrogant game of power politics. Is it too much to ask that the bishops take their lead from Jesus himself, who never condemned any individual nor placed any unnecessary obstacles between an individual and God? Fortunately, there are some bishops who understand both the complexity of moral positions as they are applied in law and the sanctity of the Sacraments. Cardinals Theodore McCarrick of Washington D.C. and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, for instance, appeal to the Church’s tradition of caution in the administration of the Sacraments. As Cardinal Mahony has noted, “The presumption is that if someone presents himself for Communion, that they are doing so with the belief that they are in a state of grace and receiving in good faith...That is the decision the communicant makes, not the person giving Communion.”

St. Paul in speaking of the desire of the Apostles for the early Church, suggested that they did not want “to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary” (cf. Acts 15:28). It is startling to imagine what some of today’s bishops could learn from St. Paul! As Fr. Joseph Nolan has suggested, “Across all these centuries, the words of scripture are a fresh reminder that religion is not regulation and its observance should be a joy, not a burden.

(Fr. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)