By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Facing the reality of an Obama presidency, the U.S. bishops intend to support the new administration but also to stress areas of disagreement, above all abortion and other “life issues,” according to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and other bishops who spoke this morning in Baltimore.
“Obama will be the president of the United States, so of course we will do our best to help him in what is a formidable task,” George said during a mid-day news conference. “Particularly because he’s from the African-American community, his success is vital to all of us.”
At the same time, George said, collaboration on matters such as poverty reduction and universal health care – areas where the social teaching of the Catholic church and positions taken by Obama during the 2008 campaign are broadly consistent – doesn't take the struggle against abortion off the table.
“It does not do away with the question of a legal system that does not protect those who cannot defend themselves, which is a very flawed constitutional order," he said.
One issue likely to divide the bishops and the Obama White House right away is embryonic stem cell research. Obama aides have announced that the new president is likely to issue an executive order overturning measures in the Bush administration that restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
George said the bishops will probably contact Obama about the stem cell issue, warning that liberalization “will alienate tens of millions of people, not just Catholics, and will militate against the kind of unity the president-elect hopes to achieve.”
The U.S. bishops are meeting in Baltimore Nov. 10-13, their first gathering since the 2008 elections.
One bright spot from the ’08 elections for the bishops occurred in California, where voters approved a ballot measure against same-sex marriage. Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco noted the irony that African-Americans in California, “on the same day and at the same polling places,” voted in strong numbers both for Obama and for the ban on same-sex marriage.
“For months we were told that this is a civil rights issue,” Niederauer said. “Yet the group most searingly familiar with civil rights battles in America voted in favor of the proposition by 70 percent. They did not see the issue as conservative/liberal, but rather the way we presented it – as a defense of traditional marriage.”
Ever the theorist, George argued that the success of the California ballot measure also illustrated that “the ideology of individual rights is not adequate for treating every public policy decision that comes before the people or legislatures.”
“Marriage is not an institution created by the church or the state,” George said. “It’s a natural institution and a universal one. I think people recognize that. To think that we can change it by a vote or a court decision is an example of hubris.”
Asked if the bishops would collaborate with Obama on social programs aimed at reducing the actual number of abortions, George said that while a connection between poverty and abortion is “still to be proven,” the church would support efforts to address the “isolation” that sometimes prompts women to consider abortion as well as social welfare programs to aid the poor.
At the same time, George said, those efforts cannot supplant the legal struggle against abortion.
Given the pro-choice philosophy of the new administration, George also highlighted the bishops’ concern with “freedom of conscience for health-care workers” as well as for Catholic hospitals.
Church-run hospitals, George said, “stand as a witness to the world that there’s someplace in our society where no one is ever deliberately killed. We will keep that, and we may have to negotiate as we talk about universal health care – which, of course, the church would support.”
Exit polls suggest that Obama captured a majority of Catholic votes, leading some critics to suggest that the bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” document, their major statement ahead of the ’08 elections, was overly nuanced and failed to provide clear direction. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for example, has charged that the document “didn’t work and doesn’t work,” in part because it was cited by pro-Obama Catholics to justify voting for a pro-choice candidate.
George seemed to suggest it’s a jump ball whether such comprehensive electoral guides will be issued in the future.
“The document gives principles, but it does not draw conclusions,” he said. “I think the statement was good, it was nuanced where it should be. Sometimes that nuance got lost when different groups picked up different parts of it.”
“We’ll see,” George said, “whether the bishops want to try a different route entirely.”
Overall, George and the other bishops seemed to reject one popular spin on Obama’s success among Catholic voters – that it amounted to a “repudiation” of the bishops’ emphasis on abortion.
Instead, George suggested, 2008 was in many ways a replay of the 1932 election, as a country facing a mounting financial crisis turned the Republicans out of power and chose a Democrat to “help them through the present economic debacle.”