Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Bishops and Obama (Part 1)

Yesterday the New York Times reported that the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, is “urging” his fellow prelates to challenge Barack Obama on the abortion issue.

Recent remarks of Cardinal George “were a repudiation of the ‘common good’ approach to the abortion issue that President-elect Barack Obama and Democratic Party leaders, including some prominent Roman Catholics, honed in the recent election,” writes Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times.

She goes on to note that:

Advocates of the “common good” approach say that, rather than outlawing abortion — which has polarized the American electorate for decades — they will try to reduce abortions by strengthening the social and economic safety net to enable more women to bring their pregnancies to term.

Cardinal George said in a news conference that while the bishops supported “social welfare programs that come to the aid of the poor,” they also would continue to lobby for legislative and legal restrictions on abortion.

Abortion is not the only issue on which the bishops plan to challenge the president-elect. Over the weekend, aides to Mr. Obama said he was considering overturning President Bush’s directive that banned most research on embryonic stem cells. Cardinal George said the bishops would “be in conversation” with Mr. Obama on this matter, too.

After eight years of a Republican president who invoked Catholic language to cement his anti-abortion platform, the bishops are now confronting an incoming Democratic administration that has championed abortion rights.

In the closing months of the presidential race, several Catholic bishops skirted close to endorsing the Republican candidate for president, Senator John McCain, by proclaiming that Catholics could not in good conscience vote for a candidate who favored abortion rights.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and a longtime chronicler of the bishops, said, “The result was that the most vocal bishops gave the appearance of speaking for all the bishops, and the others just kept silent.”

Many more bishops voiced their outrage, individually and collectively, at Mr. Obama’s vice-presidential pick, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who in interviews both invoked Catholic teaching to justify their stance in favor of abortion rights.

Nevertheless, after the election, exit polls found that 54 percent of Catholic voters had voted for the Obama-Biden ticket.

Meanwhile, Dr. Patrick Whelan, a pediatrician and president of Catholic Democrats, has told the Associated Press that “angry statements from church leaders were counterproductive and would only alienate Catholics.” (I think he means further alienate Catholics!)

“We’re calling on the bishops to move away from the more vicious language,” Whelan said. He also believes the Church needs to act in a more creative, constructive way,” to end abortion.

Along with Catholic Democrats, Catholics United was another group that argued during the recent election campaign that taking the “pro-life” position means more than opposing abortion rights.

Chris Korzen, the group’s executive director, said, “we honestly want to move past the deadlock” on abortion. He says that church leaders are making that task harder.

“What are the bishops going to do now?” Korzen said. “They have burned a lot of bridges with the Democrats and the new administration.”

This whole issue reminds me of the editorial in the October 31 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. I consider it to be one of the most incisive and succinct appraisals of the bishops’ abortion stance I’ve read. It’s reprinted in its entirety below.


The Bishops’ Futile Election Strategy
National Catholic Reporter
October 31, 2008

Another presidential election cycle is nearly ended, and once again the Catholic bishops in the United States have sadly distinguished themselves for the narrowness and, in too many cases, barely concealed partisanship of their political views.

Cycle after cycle they have promulgated the same message: Abortion trumps all other issues and the only credible approach to fighting abortion is voting for candidates who express a wish to overthrow Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

We have persistently criticized the American bishops on this page for such a limited political strategy. For more than a quarter of a century they have generally used whatever political capital they might have in attempts to deliver the Catholic vote to whomever is making the most agreeable promises that year.

Year after year, however, the bishops get little in return for their anti-abortion political endorsements, while often aiding in the election of politicians who have little regard for the rest of the church’s social agenda.

The abortion rate has been going down steadily in America, from a high of 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44 in 1981 to 19.4 abortions for the same demographic through 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

No one has the definitive answer on why the rate is decreasing. Depending on political persuasion and which side of the debate one falls on, the possible reasons range from more emphasis on abstinence programs to better education and more funding for prevention of pregnancy. Undoubtedly, one unquantifiable element is continuing education about the reality of abortion and the sacredness of life that has persuaded some to bring pregnancies to term.

No one, however, is suggesting that politicians promising to overturn Roe had any influence on a woman’s choosing to bring a child to term.

The point is significant, especially this year when highly credible voices in the Catholic community have been successful in reframing a Catholic approach to the abortion issue. Legal scholars Douglas Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi, who have unimpeachable anti-abortion credentials, among others have advanced compelling arguments regarding the futility of using a legal ban as a political litmus test.

Kmiec, who worked on briefs attempting to overturn Roe, said earlier this year when explaining his support for Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama: “We have been at the business of trying to find the elusive fifth vote on the Supreme Court for 30 years. We haven’t found it and even if we do find it, overturning Roe would not save a single life, but instead merely return the question to the states. While that would be important, it is not intended and never was intended to close the American mind or, for that matter, the Catholic mind to different or alternative ways to discourage abortion.”

Republican candidate Sen. John McCain has found favor among many bishops by agreeing with their conviction that Roe should be overturned. If that conviction is the sole guiding criterion, the choice becomes easy.

This year, however, Democrats have added a plank to their platform promising to enact programs aimed at reducing abortions by attacking some of the root causes, especially among the poor and minorities. It is distressing to witness so many members of the hierarchy eagerly dismissing the possibility of an alternative approach.

Indeed, the Guttmacher Institute reports that although the overall abortion rate is declining, “research has found that unintended pregnancy and abortion rates are ... increasing among poor and low-income women.” The report advises, “Policymakers at the state and federal levels should be asking themselves what can be done to help poor women and women of color prevent unintended pregnancies and achieve better health outcomes.”

Instead of a thoughtful discussion of the political options, the Catholic community has been overwhelmed by shouting from the most extreme ideologues and partisans. Among the bishops it is easy to spot - and hear - the most imprudent. There are exceptions, of course. It is the extremes, however, that drive the news and the general impressions of the Catholic community. No one among the bishops has had the courage to stand up to such misuse of office and distortion of the documents that the bishops themselves have promulgated over several decades.

Bishops who hold that a legal ban is the only approach to the abortion issue, as one observer put it, damage the church and the pro-life cause.

Certainly the conduct of many of the bishops this election cycle has diminished the significance of abortion and undermined the importance of the rest of the Catholic social agenda by turning the abortion issue into a partisan rallying cry. Their conduct further erodes the legitimate authority of an already beleaguered episcopal conference.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Catholic Bishops Will Fight Obama on Abortion - Rachel Zoll (Associated Press, November 12, 2008).
Cardinal George Issues Blunt Challenge to Obama on Abortion - John L. Allen, Jr. (National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2008).
It Ain’t Easy Being a Bishop, Especially After the ’08 Elections - John L. Allen, Jr. (National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2008).
Catholics Contribute to Sweeping Victory for Obama and Biden - Patrick Whelan (Catholic Democrats, November 5, 2008).
Obama’s Abortion Straightjacket - Steve Waldman (, November 3, 2008).
Why Some Anti-Abortion Catholics Support Obama - Barbara Bradley Hegerty (National Public Radio, October 30, 2008).
Anti-Abortion Group Tries to Swiftboat Obama - Bill Berkowitz (, October 13, 2008).
The Next Smear Against Obama: “Infanticide” - Seth Colter Walls (The Huffington Post, August 4, 2008).
“Dear Senator Obama” - An Open Letter - John F. Kavanaugh (America, August 18, 2008).
Barack Obama and Abortion: A Response to John Kavanaugh, S.J. - Douglas W. Kmiec (America, September 8, 2008).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
U.S. Catholic Bishops: “Playing Politics on Abortion”
The Church’s Teaching on Abortion: Unchanged and Unchangeable?


Mark Andrews said...

As I've said here before, without existence all talk of rights is futile.

Rather than making killing the unborn a right, why not put all the attention and energy into (a novel thought here) male responsibility for unwanted pregnancies, a consequence of which is abortion?

All successful methods of birth control. It takes a measure of discipline to make any method of birth control work. But behind this I suspect there is a lingering misogyny, and underlying objectification of women by men, that reduces women to objects of pleasure and release rather than as partners and equals, that leads men to (sorry to say this) "use 'em and lose 'em," and damn the consequences.

This doesn't negate the need for a conversation about both abortion and birth control. But a frank discussion of what it is to be a man, and what it is to be a men in relation to women, how we socialize our sons to become and be men, that could have a material impact on subsequent events. It puzzles me why we don't talk about this.

Mark Andrews said...

Instead of "All successful methods of birth control." I meant to say "All successful methods of birth control require self-control and discipline."

Clayton said...

I went to a lecture by Professor Kmiec last night at the seminary here in Los Angeles.

I was disappointed to see how weak his arguments were for framing Barack as a pro-life leader.

In the next week or so I'll post more thoughts from his lecture on my blog. I was hoping to record the talk and post the audio, but they weren't allowing anyone to make recordings last night.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

I look forward to reading your report on Kmiec's lecture.



Mark Andrews said...

I have a purely speculative question to ask. Let's suppose, strictly for conversation's sake, that any variety of behaviors, sexual or otherwise, were found to have a specific set of identifiable genetic markers. What is the morality of selecting for or against those markers?