By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
“No retreat, no surrender” is perhaps the best way to sum up the spirit of the U.S. bishops’ discussion of abortion and politics this afternoon, though the bishops stopped short of adopting any new policy on the denial of communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians.
Meeting in Baltimore, the bishops embraced a full frontal challenge with regard to the abortion policies of the incoming Obama administration, especially its support of the “Freedom of Choice Act” (FOCA), which would undo existing restrictions on abortion at the state and federal levels, and which, according to some interpretations, could actually penalize hospitals that do not provide abortion services.
Several bishops said that the church should not merely oppose FOCA, but actively work against its implementation should it become law. Several stressed the need to request freedom of conscience provisions for Catholic health care providers and facilities – and, in a worst-case scenario, warned that the church must be prepared to shut down its hospitals rather than provide abortions, or turn them over to other providers who would.
The bishops voted to authorize Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, as president of the bishops’ conference, to issue a "strong" and "prophetic" statement on “the present political situation,” and they offered George talking points for that statement.
Those points include:
•tA willingness to work with the new administration on “economic justice and opportunity; immigration reform; health care for the poor, especially for women and children; education; religious freedom and working for peace.”
•t“The church is also resolute in opposing evil,” and the bishops are “completey united and resolute in our teaching and defense of the unborn child from the moment of conception.” In particular, the bishops expressed opposition to FOCA, in part because health care workers and facilities could be compelled to provide abortion services.
•tThe recent election was not a referendum in favor of abortion, and “aggressively pro-choice policies” will alienate tens of millions of Americans and would be “interpreted by many Catholics as an attack on the church.”
•tThe bishops express the desire that “all Catholics in public life be fully committed to the common good,” and that communion in the church “may always be complete.”
That last point did not sit well with some of the most ardently pro-life voices in the conference, who favor denying communion to pro-choice Catholic legislators.
“At some point this conference will have to address its reticence to speak to Catholic politicians who are not just reluctant, but stridently anti-life,” said Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Martino argued that in an earlier era, when some Catholic politicians supported racist laws, Catholic bishops of the time “spoke strongly and took canonical measures against them.”
Martino clearly signaled he was ready to follow that example.
“I can’t have the Vice-President-elect coming to Scranton saying he learned his values there, when those values are utterly against what the church teaches,” Martino said.
Martino also criticized groups that made a Catholic case for Obama during the 2008 elections, saying they distorted the meaning of the phrase "common good."
"Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good," Martino charged, defined "common good" in terms of "utopianism and prosperity-oriented materialism, which is not at all what it means in Catholic teaching."
On the whole, the spirit of the bishops’ discussion signaled a clear determination not to back down from their opposition to abortion, despite Obama’s election to the White House.
“Some people may think it's time for a truce, but we’re dealing with a moral absolute,” said Bishop Robert Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio. “There’s nothing here that allows for common ground. We’re talking about a human being whose life cannot be compromised.”
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann asserted that more lives have been lost to abortion than in America's wars, and called upon his brother bishops to be courageous.
"Any bishop here would be willing, would consider it a privilege, to die tomorrow if it meant ending abortion," Hermann said. "We should dedicate the rest of our lives to taking any kind of criticism, whatever it is, to stop this horrible genocide."
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, was equally adamant about the impossibility of compromise.
“There’s no compromise between the fire department and the fire, or between the fly and the fly-swatter,” Bruskewitz said.
Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago raised the specter of potential threats to Catholic health care if hospitals were compelled under the law to offer abortions.
“It could mean discontinuing obstetrics in our hospitals, and we may need to consider taking the drastic step of closing our catholic hospitals entirely,” Paprocki said. “It would not be sufficient to withdraw our sponsorship or to sell them to someone who would perform abortions. That would be a morally unacceptable cooperation in evil.”
“I do not think I’m being alarmist in considering such drastic steps,” he said. “We need to respond in a morally appropriate, responsible fashion.”
Not every bishop, however, appeared comfortable with a combative approach to the new administration.
“A prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin,” said Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid Coity, South Dakota. “We need a prophecy of solidarity with the communities we serve and the nation we live in, which needs healing. We must be, and be seen to be, caring pastors as well as faithful teachers.”
Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska, struck a similar note.
“The atmosphere in the country right now is to bring about unity, to reach out to different points of view and different opinions,” Curtiss said. “It’s important for us not to be seen as being deliberately divisive now, or creating division by our actions.”
Curtiss suggested that perhaps one winning argument in opposition to FOCA is precisely that it would be “extremely divisive.”
The bishops’ comments this afternoon were intended as suggestions for George, who is expected to weave them into a statement to be released at the end of the conference.
If early reactions are any indication, the bishops' handling of the abortion question is unlikely to fully satisfy Catholics on either side of the debate.
This morning, Catholic Democrats, a group that backed Obama during the campaign, held a conference call with reporters. Patrick Whelan, the group's president, called upon the bishops "to reject the politics of confrontation, and the more vicious language that drives people out of the church."
Whelan asserted that the abortion rate in America fell twice as fast during the Clinton years as during the first five years of the Bush presidency, which means, Whelan said, that "274,000 additional children would be alive today" if the social policies of the Clinton era had continued.He suggested that the "reduction strategy" of the Democrats with regard to abortion represents a more effective approach.
Meanwhile, the American Life League organized a candlit vigil outside the bishops' meeting this evening, where the group's vice-president, Jim Sedlak, told the bishops "your actions bely your words."
Sedlak was particularly critical of recent comments by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., that he will not seek to deny the Eucharist to Vice-President-elect Joseph Biden, the country's first Catholic vice-president, after he takes office in January.
"You cannot say that abortion is a sin against God, and then deliver that same God into the hands of politicans who support abortion," Sedlak said, calling the failure of the bishops to adopt a uniform communion ban "a scandal and a source of confusion to lay Catholics."