By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Cardinal Francis George, speaking this morning as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said all Americans should “rejoice” that a country which once tolerated slavery has elected an African-American as president – and, in the same breath, he issued a blunt challenge to the new administration on abortion.
“If the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, that African Americans were other people’s property and somehow less than persons, were still settled constitutional law, Mr. Obama would not be President of the United States,” George said.
"Today, as was the case a hundred and fifty years ago, common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good," he said.
“The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice,” George said, drawing sustained applause from the bishops.
George said that while efforts to end racism and to promote economic justice are “pillars” of Catholic teaching, so too is opposition to abortion. His address drew a standing ovation from the bishops.
George’s comments, and the reaction from the floor, offered the first indication that the election of a pro-choice Democrat to the White House is unlikely to induce the bishops to soften their emphasis on abortion and other “life issues.”
George said that the election of Barak Obama represented, among other things, a “vindication” of those Catholic priests, religious, laity and bishops who worked against racism and on behalf of civil rights over the years in light of Catholic social doctrine.
Yet, George suggested, other aspects of the church’s social teaching – particularly its message on the defense of unborn life – have yet to be vindicated.
“We are perhaps at a moment when, with the grace of God, all races are safely within the American consensus,” George said. “We are not at the point, however, when Catholics, especially in public life, can be considered full partners in the American experience unless they are willing to put aside some fundamental Catholic teachings on a just moral and political order.”
George issued a strong call for unity in the church.
“Those who would impose their own agenda on the church, those who believe and act self-righteously, answerable only to themselves, whether ideologically on the left or right, betray the Lord Jesus,” he said.
In his lone direct reference to Catholic politicians, George prayed that “the Catholic faith will shape your decisions so that our communion may be full.”
George also appeared to encourage individual bishops to be bold, almost apart from whatever consensus positions may come out of the bishops’ conference.
“As we all know, the church was born without episcopal conferences, as she was born without parishes and without dioceses, although all these structures have been helpful pastorally throughout the centuries,” George said.
“The church was born only with shepherds, with apostolic pastors, whose relationship to their people keeps them one with Christ, from whom comes authority to govern the church,” he said.
Finally, George offered a joking reference to the mounting challenges he said are facing bishops these days.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I’ve been tempted to think that bishops should be given, at their consecration, not crosiers but mops!”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is meeting Nov. 10-13 at Baltimore’s Marriott Waterfront hotel. It’s the first gathering of the American bishops in the wake of the recent elections.