9:00 – 10:30 a.m
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Editor-in-Chief, America: The National Catholic Weekly
George Weigel, Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center
Luis Lugo, Director, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
LUIS LUGO: Good morning. I’m Luis Lugo, and I am the director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The Forum is a nonpartisan organization, and we do not take positions on policy debates, including the issue under consideration this morning. It is my pleasure to welcome you to what we believe will be a very lively and informative discussion of “The Body Politic and The Body of Christ: Candidates, Communion and the Catholic Church,” or as some have effectually called it, the wafer wars. (Scattered laughter.)
This issue is very important for the Catholic Church, of course, in its own understanding of its public witness. But it is also viably important for all of us as Americans. To mention the most obvious reason for this in this presidential election year, as most of you know, Catholics constitute roughly a quarter of the electorate. Moreover, they have been a critical swing vote in the last few elections, and every indication this time – including some of our own polling – suggests that this is a vote that is very much in play in the current election. So, being in Washington, that will be of interest to everyone.
Beyond that, however, I think there is a larger question here. Catholics, throughout our history, have been very instrumental in helping us define the appropriate balance between church and state, and the relationship between religion and politics more broadly. So this is not merely an internal debate within the Catholic Church, but one that, I believe, has great significance for our general understanding of religion’s proper role in American public life.
As you know if you have been reading our surveys, and I hope you have, the American people often are conflicted about these matters – religion and politics. Most Americans – in fact, the overwhelming majority – welcome expressions of religious faith by politicians. In fact, they have rather come to expect it. They get a tad nervous, however, when it comes to institutional religion, including clergy, weighing in on political questions. That gets a lot dicier if you look at the numbers.
So the issues before us this morning are as timely as they are controversial for many Americans. That’s why I am so pleased that we have a kind of reasoned argument that our two speakers will present to you this morning.
Now, a couple of items of business before I introduce them. First, as part of the press packet, you will have received a copy of – speaking of newly formed surveys – this survey on American views on religion, politics, and public policy. I would especially direct your attention to the first section of this survey on religion and politics, which deals with many of these questions. As a little teaser, we will be going out into the field with our good colleagues at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press later this summer and asking some of these very same questions to see whether there has been any change in the perceptions of the American people on these matters.
Now the second thing you will find in the packet is, I think, a very helpful little guide in good catechetical question and answer form, which should come naturally to most Catholics here. Politics and the Pulpit: A Guide to the Internal Revenue Code Restrictions on the Political Activity of Religious Organization. I mention this not only because it’s timely, but also because, as many of you know, in this country – and I’m an immigrant here so I’m particularly conscious of this – every issue eventually ends up in the court somewhere. So, we thought this would be a helpful guide for the perplexed, as it were.
Now just because I’m so conscious of the litigiousness of the American people, we did include this statement at the end of this little guide – this guide here is printed with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional advice. If legal advice or other professional assistance is required, the services of a qualified professional should be sought. Okay? (Scattered laughter.) So, again, that’s how conscious we are of these matters.
There is also in the back – not in the packet, but at the sign-in table there – some materials from both of our speakers. One is an issue of America magazine on the topic of Catholics and politics. Now, are you giving these gratis, or are you giving them on discount? Gratis, okay. Thank you very much, Father, for that. So please pick up your copy.
FATHER THOMAS J. REESE: Just fill out the subscription blank inside. (Laughs.)
MR. LUGO: Do fill out the subscription inside. (Laughter.) It’s very good. Good marketing sense. We also have a couple of columns from George Weigel – one of which, in fact, is embargoed – and also in question and answer form – there seems to be a Catholic thing going here – that will appear under the title, “The Catholic Difference.” And it’s on the Holy Communion controversy, so I encourage you to pick up both of those as well. Finally, if I can make one request of you, please turn the ringer off on your cell phone. We appreciate that very, very much.
Now you have a biographical sketch of each of our speakers in your packets, so I’m not going to take our time on that. My introductions, therefore, will be very, very brief. Thomas Reese, who will speak first, is the editor-in-chief of America: The National Catholic Weekly, and a widely recognized expert on the U.S. Catholic Church, including its internal organization and politics, on which he has written extensively. In addition to his theological training, he has advanced degrees of political science – an M.A. from St. Louis University and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. George Weigel, who will follow him, is a senior fellow and director of a Catholic studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center here in town. He is widely read as a Catholic theologian and a leading commentator on issues of religion and public life. He is the author of eighteen books, including a major study of the life, thought and action of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, which was published to international acclaim in 1999 and has been translated in close to a dozen languages. Mr. Weigel was educated at St. Mary’s Seminary College in Baltimore and the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Let me assure all of you that he is an Orioles rather than a Blue Jays fan.
Thank you so much for joining us this morning. We look forward to your comments and the conversation to follow. Father Reese.
FATHER REESE: Thank you, Luis. First, I want to thank the Pew Forum for its invitation and for the outstanding work you do in encouraging intelligent discussion of religion and politics that is so needed in our country. I think they are to be congratulated for this work.
Because of the limited time we have and our desire to have time for questions and discussion, I’m going to focus on the current debate over communion and Catholic politicians by looking at three questions. Is the denial of communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice pastorally a good idea? Is it politically a good idea? Is this a violation of the separation of church and state? And I will answer no to all three questions. I do that as someone who is pro-life and editor of America, which has editorially supported restrictions on abortion. Finally, I will critique some of the arguments used by pro-choice Catholic politicians to defend their position.
First, is this pastorally a good idea to deny communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice? The conflict between Catholic bishops and pro-choice Catholic politicians is not new. All we have to do is remember Cardinal O’Connor – his dispute with Governor Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro. What is new is the decision of a handful of bishops – at least, so far, only a handful of bishops – to deny communion to Catholic pro-choice politicians. Most bishops do not support this position. In the June 21st issue of America, we published an article by Archbishop Burke of St. Louis, who was the first bishop to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, and as we mentioned, copies of that issue are available for you here. It’s also available on our Web page at http://www.americamagazine.org/. Also in that issue is an article by Father John Beal, a canon lawyer at the Catholic University of America, who argued the opposite position.
Both sides present complex and nuanced arguments, but I think Father Beal had the better case. Church law must be interpreted strictly, and “strictly” in canon law means the absolute opposite of what you think it means. For example, in this case it means giving any prohibition the narrowest construal consistent with its literal meaning. He notes that during the drafting of the code of canon laws, some wanted to make it easier to deny communion to some Catholics, but that view was rejected. Nor is the pope or the Vatican pushing a denial of communion, although there are some in the Vatican who would support the idea. The pope himself has given communion to pro-choice politicians such as Tony Blair and Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome who was the center-left candidate for prime minister in the last Italian election.
Finally, there is the practical problem of implementing such policy. Unlike airports, churches do not have sin detectors in the aisles. And where do we draw the line? If a politician votes in favor of outlawing partial-birth abortion, but does not support a constitutional amendment, does he get communion? Do we deny communion to New Jersey state legislators who denied additional welfare benefits to women who had babies while on welfare and thereby caused an increase in abortions? Should Senator Santorum be denied communion for endorsing a pro-choice Republican for the U.S. Senate, even though Senator Santorum has a pro-life voting record?
Second question – is this politically a good idea? Traditionally, Catholic bishops have talked about political issues but have not endorsed political parties or candidates. The political problem with the communion issue is that it looks like it’s an attack on Democrats, although people forget that there are pro-choice Catholic Republicans such as Governor Pataki and former Mayor Giuliani in New York and Governor Schwarzenegger in California. The real problem with this approach, though, is that it helps to brand abortion as a Catholic issue – as a matter of faith and doctrine and church practice and sacraments rather than as a human rights issue. In the long run, these few bishops are doing exactly what the pro-choice lobby wants – defining abortion as a religious issue. As long as abortion is branded as a religious issue, the pro-life movement will fail. Abortion is not a religious issue or a matter of sexual morality. It is a human rights issue – the right to life of the unborn child.
And what would be the impact of all of this on voting? My guess is that the impact is going to be zero. Most people for whom abortion is the central issue knew how they were going to vote four years ago. They know how they are going to vote four years from now in the next presidential election, and their views are not going to change as a result of the bishops’ statement – whether they are pro-choice or whether they are pro-life. Seventy-five percent of Catholics, according to a Time magazine poll, do not think that Catholic politicians should be denied communion because of this issue and say that they would not be influenced by the Catholic bishops’ positions on this. So what impact is this going to have? It doesn’t look like much.
Is this a violation of the separation of church and state? Bishops and priests do not lose their constitutional right of free speech when they are ordained. They have the constitutional right to endorse and campaign for any candidate they want. They can even run for office if they want. No one objects when Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson and other Protestant ministers endorse candidates and run for political office. No one would argue that Martin Luther King violated the separation of church and state by pushing for civil rights. In fact, it is church law – not the Constitution – that forbids bishops and priests from endorsing political candidates and running for political office. Deciding who can and who cannot receive communion is an internal church issue to be decided by the church. The Constitution protects the right of each church to determine its own internal practices.
Finally, let me briefly look at some of the arguments used by pro-choice politicians. The weakest argument of pro-choice Catholic politicians is, “Although I am personally opposed to abortion, I cannot impose my personal morality and values on the public.” This attempt to separate morality and politics is intellectually flawed. Are laws against murder wrong because the fifth commandment of the Decalogue forbids murder? Morality imbues almost all political actions, whether it be waging war, reforming welfare or regulating business. We can go back to Aristotle, who saw politics as a branch of ethics.
Second, the argument that “I must follow the wishes of my constituents” is also flawed, and in most cases dishonest. These politicians should reread Edmund Burke and Profiles in Courage. In fact, most Americans supported restricting partial-birth abortion, and yet many pro-choice politicians did not follow the views of the public in those cases.
The argument that a politician is bound by the U.S. Constitution – which, according to the Supreme Court, allows for abortion – is a stronger argument. But the court in Casey did allow some restrictions, and whether it will allow restrictions on partial-birth abortion remains to be seen.
Perhaps the strongest argument is that legal prohibitions only have a limited effect on shaping moral character and that people’s views of abortion must change before legal restrictions can be enacted. In an upcoming article in America, Father Kalscheur of Boston College Law School notes that in assessing the prudence of a law a legislator must ask the questions, “Will the prohibition be obeyed, at least by most people? Is it enforceable against the disobedient?” For law to serve the common good, some level of consensus as to the goodness of the law is essential. In the absence of a basic moral consensus, any attempt to change the law will be unenforceable, ineffective and resented as unduly restrictive of freedom.
In essence, this argument of pro-choice Catholic politicians says that no law can be enacted except to the extent that the public supports it, or at least does not seriously oppose the prohibition. Those who want greater restrictions on abortion, they would argue, must first convince the public. Proponents of this view could have argued many years ago against outlawing slavery too quickly, lest it lead the nation into civil war. Not a happy position for those who are slaves, but one based on a prudential judgement – the facts on the ground and the political situation – and not a simplistic separation of morality and politics.
Thank you for your attention.
GEORGE WEIGEL: Good morning. I, too, want to thank Luis and the Pew Forum for providing this opportunity. It’s a wonderful contribution to the life of Washington, and it’s always nice to have a fellow long-suffering Orioles fan on the platform with me. When Luis sent around the invitation announcing an Irish continental breakfast, I wasn’t quite sure what this meant. I didn’t know whether we were going to have Guinness instead of coffee. (Laughter.) I have mentioned the fact we are right next door to the Dubliner. But thank you for feeding us so well.
Father Reese has made many of the points that I had anticipated making. Let me just slightly re-order them in a more Teutonic rather than Irish presentation of the matter, and then we can get into a discussion.
For 31 years now, since Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate has been the most irrepressible – indeed, at moments, even the most fevered – in our public life. You might have thought that after three decades of this, all of the positions would be clear, all of the moves would be known, all of the arguments would have been made. And yet, one of the things that strikes me most powerfully about the debate – ignited by Senator Kerry’s triumph in the Democratic primaries – is how remarkable it is that so many matters remain unclear. There is a lot of unclarity, it seems, in particular aspects of this debate. There are a lot of positions being suggested and arguments being made that ought to have been removed from the board, for the sake of clarity, years ago. So let me make, briefly, seven points here, which may help focus our later discussion, organize Father Reese’s points in a slightly different way, and respond to some of the confusions that have been let loose in the public debate in recent weeks.
The first point that needs to be emphasized constantly is one that Father Reese made, I think, quite eloquently: political choices are moral choices. Issues of ought – what ought I to do, how ought we to live together as a society – are deeply embedded in many issues of public policy. Political figures who suggest otherwise – who suggest that it is possible to somehow bifurcate the world of moral argument and the world of prudential judgment, political judgment – should be held suspect. The politician who tells you that his or her most deeply held moral convictions are bracketed when he or she comes to the legislature, or to the executive branch, is telling you that they’re something of a moral schizophrenic, and that’s someone whom we should look at with some high degree of caution.
The second point that I would underscore, also made by Father Reese, is what seems to me to be the most disturbing aspect of Senator Kerry’s presentation of his position. And the point to be underscored is that the Catholic pro-life position is in no sense a sectarian position. This, unfortunately, is what Senator Kerry seems to suggest when he says, “I have this set of Catholic convictions over here, but there are these several matters of public policy and I will get to the unsettled nature of those in a minute over here, and for me to bring these Catholic convictions to that public policy sphere would be an untoward imposition of a peculiarly Catholic set of ideas into a pluralistic political environment.” Now as I have said for the last four months, this is really quite absurd. For 31 years, the Catholic Church has been making public arguments in public terms that do not require specific Catholic theological commitments to engage. You don’t have to believe in seven sacraments or the primacy of the pope or the Christology of the Council of Chalcedon. You don’t even have to believe in God to engage the Catholic Church’s pro-life argument.
When Catholic politicians suggest that the Catholic pro-life position is somehow analogous to the Catholic Church insisting that every American stop eating hot dogs on Fridays during Lent, that’s a misrepresentation of the nature and character of the Catholic position, so we have to underscore that very strongly. The bishops of the United States ever since Roe v. Wade have not made what can in any reasonable way be described as a sectarian argument for the inviolability of the right to life from conception to natural death. They have used public arguments, public philosophical arguments: they have appealed to embryology, to logic, to elementary ideas of justice, not to specifically Catholic warrants to make this case. And when Catholic politicians, of all people, suggest otherwise, they are doing not only a disservice to the Church, but a disservice to public life as well.
Third, as Father Reese said – and I really think there is no need to belabor this point – suggestions, such as those by Mrs. Kennedy in the Washington Post op-ed page about a month ago, that this is an issue of personal moral conviction versus public morality, just really cannot be taken seriously. Abortion, in the Catholic view, violates the fifth commandment, the injunction against the taking of innocent life, not the sixth commandment, the injunction to sexual chastity. It’s a question of public justice, not chastity, and to suggest otherwise is, again, to misrepresent the Catholic view.
And I might add for those interested in Catholic intellectual history here, so is the appeal to John Courtney Murray on these questions. Murray surely had an expressed nervousness about, for example, the Church attempting to support laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives to married couples in, I believe, the famous Connecticut case in the mid-’60s, because he was uncomfortable with the idea of the state functioning as an enforcer of Catholic understandings of marital chastity. Murray would have clearly understood the distinction between that prudential judgment and the abortion issue precisely because the abortion issue engages the fifth commandment – the injunction against the taking of innocent life, which is always and everywhere to be prohibited and, therefore, is a matter of public justice.
Fourth, it seems to me that we have to say, not simply as Catholics, but as American citizens knowledgeable about our history, that the Supreme Court can and does get it wrong. And it is neither a denial of the role of law nor is it a violation of the proprieties of the separation of church and state to state that – to say that the Court has gotten it wrong and to work to blunt the effects of the Court’s bad decisions, and ultimately to reverse them.
As Father Reese indicated, or hinted, I think, the classic cases here are Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, the decision upholding the propriety of segregated public schools. Was it a violation of separation of church and state for ministers of the gospel to inveigh against the Dred Scott decision in the late 1850s? Was it a violation of separation of church and state for churchmen to support efforts to reverse Plessy – efforts that were finally successful in 1954, as we all know, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka? What has to be understood by Catholics, and all of their fellow Americans alike, is that for the Catholic Church, Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood – the original abortion decision and the confirming decision that shifted the ground, as you know, from a privacy right to an alleged liberty right – Roe and Casey are the Dred Scott cases of our time. That’s the Catholic view. That’s why the church is not going to let up on this, and that’s why, as Father Reese suggested, the abortion issue from the Catholic point of view is a human rights issue, which is to say, a civil rights issue.
Fifth point that has to be underscored is that abortion and the related issue of legalized euthanasia have indeed a special position in the Catholic understanding of the relationship of moral law to constitutional and civil law, which is a fancy way of saying that not all issues are equal in the Catholic understanding of these things. Because abortion and euthanasia always and everywhere, without exception, involve the willful taking of an innocent human life, they are always and everywhere to be – in the Catholic understanding of these things – off the board, legally, in any just society. This is the clear teaching of John Paul II in 1995 in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. This is the clear teaching of the bishops of the United States in 1998 in their pastoral letter “Living the Gospel of Life.” All of this was reaffirmed, yet again, in 2002 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its so-called “Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.”
All of these definitive and authoritative statements, by various levels of the teaching authority of the Church, not only reiterate the special character of abortion and euthanasia in the Catholic understanding of public justice. They also underscore the positive moral obligation of every right-thinking Catholic – indeed, every right-thinking person conversant with the natural law, the Church would say – the positive moral obligation that everyone who understands the gravity of these issues has to work against laws that grant free access to abortion or the euthanising of the elderly, and a positive obligation to do what can be done to mitigate the bad effects of those laws and, ultimately, to reverse them. The corollary to that, it seems to me – and this is one of the points that is being forced on the agenda in a new way – is that to vote for such laws, to vote to give effect to such laws – for example, to vote against the partial-birth abortion ban – is a form of immoral cooperation with moral evil.
Sixth, as the U.S. bishops said last week in what, I think, is a statement that not only reiterates what they have been saying for 31 years, but, in fact, moves the ball down the field a bit – as the bishops said last week, if a Catholic is not united to the Church on these settled moral issues, his or her own integrity requires him or her to refrain from receiving Holy Communion, which is – among other things – a statement that one is in full communion with the Church. To do otherwise – to present oneself for communion if one is de facto not in a state of communion with the Church – is a dishonest presentation of self, which is to say that the first line of responsibility here is not with the Vatican, with the Bishops’ Conference, or with individual bishops laying down the law in their particular diocese. The first line of responsibility is with pro-choice Catholics themselves. If you are in a damaged or defective state of communion with the Church, your own integrity requires that you refrain from presenting yourself for the reception of the sacrament.
So, the choice, if you will pardon the ironic choice of words – the choice is not between today’s situation, which is one of scandalous behavior, frankly, on the part of some Catholic politicians – the choice is not between today’s situation and the massive imposition of canonical penalties on Catholic politicians who are off the reservation on issues like abortion and euthanasia. The third possibility is that these men and women will recognize the defective character of their own ecclesial circumstance and refrain from the reception of the sacrament on their own initiative.
Finally – and this reaches Father Reese’s second point, which is a very interesting one – it seems to me the issue for the bishops of the United States – the way they wrestled with this out in Denver last week – the issue for them is first and foremost one of the integrity of the Church’s teaching and discipline. That’s the first thing they have to be worried about. How this is going to play in red states, blue states, Pew polls, Zogby polls, how it’s even going to play in Catholic Church pews this coming Sunday morning – those are interesting questions, and they are not unimportant questions, but they are not the primary questions for which bishops have to take responsibility. The bishops’ primary task is the preservation and promotion of authentic Catholic teaching and authentic Catholic doctrine. Now these prudential judgments about how this is going to play do, in fact, have something to do with preserving the integrity of the Church’s public witness.
But were a circumstance to come – I’m not suggesting it has – but were a circumstance to come in which the binary choice was between the integrity of the Church’s teaching and something that would play better politically, it’s quite clear that the prudent political call must give way to the forthright defense of the Church’s teaching and discipline. How one determines when that point is reached is something for which I cannot provide a formula. This is a matter of prudential instinct far more than it is a matter of abstract construction of possible cases. But I do think that it’s important to emphasize that the bishops of the United States are not, in the first instincts, men making their calculations on the basis of the criteria that are usually operative in this town. They have an obligation, by the oaths that they swore on the day of their Episcopal ordination, to preserve the integrity of Catholic teaching and discipline. That’s the first thing that has to be on their minds.
MR. LUGO: Thank you, George. You know, our biggest fear at these events is always that a fight will break out among the participants. (Laughter.) We like vigorous but civil debate. So we are always fearful of that.
Our second biggest fear is that a lovefest will break out among the presenters, and I think we are very close to that second one here. So I don’t want to get into the sort of adversarial cult of Washington, but I did want to ask Father Reese whether he had heard anything in George’s presentation with which he took issue.
FATHER REESE: I mean, nothing I would swing at George for – (laughter). I guess what I would like to do is to direct a question at George, and ask him what he thought about what I had to say in terms of that the bishops are making a mistake in using the communion card in this whole debate, because my feeling is that it is helping to brand the abortion issue as a religious issue, as a Catholic issue, as a matter of faith and doctrine rather than as a human rights issue. And although in the short run the bishops have successfully brought abortion onto the table to be discussed during this campaign, in the long run the more abortion is painted and branded as a religious issue, I think the less chance that the pro-life movement is going to be successful. So that would be my first question. I think I had another one, but I’ll let you answer that one first. (Chuckles.)
MR. WEIGEL: If we lived in a perfect world, a perfect political world or a perfect ecclesial world, arguments would unfold the way public eggheads like Father Reese and I would prefer that they unfold – in an orderly fashion from first principles to applications to so forth. But in part because of the untidiness of public life and in part, frankly, because of the media’s fascination with certain red-meat aspects of these issues, that’s often not the way it happens.
Ideally, the way this argument would have unfolded within the Catholic Church, for example, is that the entire church would have been called to a much deeper reflection on what it means to receive Holy Communion. Forty years ago, it was widely understood in the church that there are circumstances in which, while you are at mass, you are not “properly disposed” to receive communion. You may be in a state of mortal sin. You may have just had a roaring argument over breakfast with your 16-year-old kid whom you are still ready to strangle in the pew next to you, and this is not a properly disposed disposition to receive the sacrament. I mean, there are a whole variety of things that should warn all Catholics that mass is not a social event. This is, in our terms, the reception of the body and blood of Christ. And if the Gibson film did anything, it ought to have reminded us what that means in its most literal and powerful form. And this is not something that one should just do because it’s what everybody else is doing.
A friend of mine known to many of you, Mary Ann Glendon, has been married for many years to Ed Lev, who is Jewish. Ed always went to mass with Mary Ann and their three girls, and still goes to mass with Mary Ann today. About 15 or 20 years ago, when this habit of everyone receiving communion as a matter of being at mass was becoming part of Catholic culture in America and poor old Ed was sitting there by himself in the church every Sunday, Mary Ann told me that she said to Ed at breakfast one morning after mass, she said, “You know, sweetie, everyone in the church assumes that you’re a serial murderer.” (Laughter.) Well, everyone shouldn’t assume that if we were – so that should have been the first issue.
The second issue should have been what I came to at the end; that the first line of responsibility here is with those Catholics who ought to know that they are in objectively a defective state of communion with the church and therefore ought to have the integrity to refrain from the reception of communion. And it’s only after that has been talked about and discussed between pastoral leaders and politicians would this question of penalties or canonical remedies come into play. Unfortunately, that came into play first before a whole lot of other things got clarified, and so it’s a much sloppier argument.
I don’t mean this too critically, but I don’t like the phrase “the communion card.” I know Father Reese doesn’t mean it in these terms, but neither he nor I regard the Eucharist – Holy Communion – as a card of any sort. This is not a weapon. This is not a tactic. It is, in our theological understanding, the body and blood of Christ, and has to be dealt with and thought about and responded to in those terms.
On the question of branding, I suppose, Tom, that is a danger. I won’t deny that. On the other hand, having lived through my friend Bill Pryor’s confirmation torment last year, long before John – I mean, when John Kerry was getting 3 percent in the polls – and to watch the senior senator from New York, Mr. Schumer, spend weeks branding Bill Pryor a sectarian precisely because he had the unmitigated gall to suggest that his Catholic faith had something to do with his moral judgments and his judgments on the constitutionality of Roe and Casey, and to hear Senator Schumer, without very much quarrel from anybody that I could detect, proceed to brand Pryor a sectarian who could not be entrusted with the office of federal appellate judge – we are so far down that road of branding right now that I’m not sure that this pushes us substantively in a worse direction. It may not help. On the other hand, it could be a moment of clarification. If every bishop in the United States would use the language that you and I use, that this is a civil rights issue; if every pro-life Catholic politician would use that language – then perhaps in fact what appears as a damaging moment could in fact advance that way of framing the argument.
MR. LUGO: Thank you. A quick question to Father Reese, and then I’ll turn it over to you folks.
You didn’t specifically address the question as George addressed it, which is to say that abortion has a special position within the Catholic hierarchy. You did say, however, that in terms of the church’s response to politicians who run afoul of church’s teaching – as I understood you, you were saying abortion should not be singled out for special emphasis, that things like welfare reform – I don’t remember if you mentioned capital punishment or not – but in other words, that the pastoral response needs to be more comprehensive as the church deals with politicians. If not, it risks doing an injustice in terms of Catholic social teaching and perhaps unwittingly politicizing the issue. Did I hear you correctly on that?
FATHER REESE: George is in a much easier situation to discuss these issues with clarity and specificity because George can endorse candidates and I can’t. (Laughter.) So I have to be very careful on how I phrase things. Our magazine does not endorse candidates or political parties. So let me try and back into that in a way.
Yes, questions of life take a priority, have an emphasis. That’s been very clear from what the bishops have said. The basic argument is, if you don’t have life, well, health care is not going to be that important to you. So the issue of life does take a priority here. But there are many issues of life, whether it’s the war in Iraq, whether it’s capital punishment, whether it’s abortion. But a lot more abortions are taking place than executions. I hate to say it’s a numbers game here, but numbers count.
Now can you make some arguments on the other side? Well, again, I’m saying this in the abstract. I’m trying to give arguments on the other side. Clearly, I think a Catholic Democrat could argue very strongly that, granted the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the Republicans aren’t going to do much about abortion and that voting for Republicans is not going to improve matters on abortion, whereas electing some Democrats would in fact change policy in some other life areas, and that in fact having better welfare, having better health care might in fact reduce more abortions than things like outlawing partial-birth abortion. I think there’s a legitimate argument that could be made on that side, and I think that’s an argument that at least could have some intellectual consistency to it.
But again, I’m not endorsing candidates or parties since I have this white collar here and this black shirt on, and since our magazine has a policy of not endorsing candidates.
So I think that there’s an argument that can be made here that is in the area of prudential as long as there is agreement on the fact that life should be protected and we should do everything we can to protect life. The question then comes down to how do you do it and what are the best ways to do it and what will, in fact, accomplish the most in protecting human life.
MR. WEIGEL: Luis, let me just suggest a historical example that I think gets at the fact that the life issues do have a specific gravity in the Catholic order of things, but not to the exclusion of others. Take the famous case in 1962, which we’ve all been running to databases for the last couple of months to recall.
A political leader in Louisiana, a man named Leander Perez, was widely opposed to the desegregation of schools in Louisiana. And after months of discussion privately and publicly, the archbishop of New Orleans, a man named Joseph Rummel, formally declared Leander Perez excommunicated for his resistance to the desegregation of schools. Now I don’t know this because I’ve never studied the life and times of Leander Perez, but let’s assume for the sake of the discussion that he was pro-life, that he was a man dedicated to his wife and family, that he lived an upright moral life, that he was not corrupt politically – although that’s perhaps stretching things a little bit in Louisiana. (Chuckles.) Let’s assume he was all of those other things. But Archbishop Rummel, to the virtually unanimous applause of Catholic opinion in the United States and to the published praise of The New York Times Editorial Board, declared this man excommunicated. Why? Because in his resistance to the desegregation of those schools, he was denying in a concrete way the personhood, the human dignity, of an entire class of fellow citizens who in many cases happened to be his brothers and sisters in Christ. So it’s not just being off the reservation on abortion and euthanasia.
Flip this around. Rudy Giuliani is a man whom I have a great deal of respect for on many fronts. I think he was a wonderful mayor of New York. I think New York is an infinitely more pleasant city for most of us to visit, to work in when we have to do that. It’s certainly a much better place to live for all of its citizens. And yet he is, in my view, objectively in a position of damaged communion with the church because of his pro-choice position. I probably have more policy agreements with George Pataki than I do with whoever ran against him the last time, but I will say bluntly that Pataki is in a state of damaged communion with the church, precisely because his position on the life question is one that, like Leander Perez’s, denies an essential attribute of the human dignity of an entire class of human beings.
FATHER REESE: George, if I could just –
MR. WEIGEL: Sure.
FATHER REESE: On the excommunication issue, you should note that it was integration of Catholic schools. And I think a lot of the debate was as much about clerical control and interference of laity in how bishops run their schools as it was about segregation.
MR. WEIGEL: Okay, but it was still of sufficient public consequence, given the fact that Catholic schools were probably in some parts of Louisiana the only schools available. It was still thought sufficiently of public consequence that the oracle of oracles, the Times Editorial Board, decided to weigh in on this. I mean, if that was perceived as simply an internal matter of Catholic ecclesiastical discipline, it seems unlikely that The New York Times, even in 1962, would have thought this required comment.
In any event, I think the point is that you can do things beyond being off the pro-life reservation that render you in a damaged state of communion in the church. And you can do from my point of view lots of good things and because of a pro-choice position still be in the same circumstance.
MR. LUGO: Okay. Questions from the audience, please. Please identify yourself. Yes, sir. Right here.
JACOB HOWLEY: My name’s Jacob Howley. I’m a sort of unaffiliated but interested citizen here, outside of the church by far. And so I ask these questions not as criticism, but as an attempt at self-enlightenment by your answers. I guess I’d direct them primarily at Mr. Weigel, but would enjoy a response from either of you, or any of the three of you.
First of all, I’d just look to take both of your points a little bit further on the communion and the abortion issue particularly. It would seem to me – something that was perhaps on Father Reese’s lips, but he didn’t feel comfortable saying – that a comparable issue would be support for President Bush, who in his term as governor oversaw more executions of potentially innocent prison inmates than any other governor since the reinstatement of the death penalty. I would think that, were the church to be consistent in its belief in the primacy of life, the bishops who would withhold communion from those who are not in communion with the church’s teachings on life would also prohibit the granting of communion to supporters of President Bush or his policies on the death penalty.
MR. LUGO: Thank you very much. This is a very good question. I mean, this is also a life issue, including at times innocent human life, basically.
So what about that, George?
MR. WEIGEL: It’s a very important part of our public discussion, and frankly there’s not enough of it in the U.S. My understanding of the Catholic Church’s position on this today is that, while the state does have the legitimate right to execute a capital sentence, it ought not do so in most of the circumstances in which this is done now. Why? Because the state has other ways of protecting society against predatory individuals. That’s the prudential judgment that’s been made. I don’t think that’s an altogether satisfactory argument theologically, but we’re not here to argue moral theology.
But the church has never said, and, frankly, could not say given 2,000 years of Catholic history, not to mention the Hebrew Bible which we inherited from our parent, Judaism – the church simply can’t say that capital punishment is malum in se, an evil in itself. It just can’t do that. It would be impossible to do that. The church can say, has said, and always will say that abortion and euthanasia are mala in se; that these are grave moral evils in and of themselves. Why? Because they always and everywhere involve the willful taking of an innocent human life, which capital punishment, properly done, let’s say, does not involve.
The question of the overuse of the death penalty in the United States I think is an urgent issue in rebuilding a culture of life in America. But the two are not commensurable theologically, and I don’t think they’re commensurable culturally. I have an ongoing argument with my older daughter, who’s a medical student and thinks I’m inconsistent on this. I mean, she’s an abolitionist on capital punishment and a very sophisticated and smart one, and her argument is that this damages the culture of life, which is the necessary foundation of any legal protection of human life. And I’m sure she’s right in some sense, but I would say, as Father Reese said, that in some sense there is a numbers dimension to this. And you know, 1.6 million abortions per year, close to 40 million since Roe v. Wade, is – there’s a point at which those statistics indicate or underscore the fact that there’s a difference in kind and not just in degree between these two questions.
MR. LUGO: All right. Anyone else? Yes, sir.
DENNIS TETI: I’m Dennis Teti, and I’ll address this to both panelists.
I find there’s something very disturbing, very troubling to me that the current discussion among the bishops about denying communion because of the abortion question seems to be confined completely to elected representatives and candidates for office. You both alluded to Supreme Court decisions, and I don’t understand how it comes about that. To give one example, it’s not seven years since Justice Brennan, who was one of the majority of seven on the Roe decision, was given a virtually royal send-off at St. Matthew’s Cathedral with a line of clergy and laity there to praise the work that he did. The chief eulogist was the president, at the time President Clinton, who praised him for his great vision of America. Justice Brennan was part of a seven-person majority and would not have been able to make a change anyway, and he could not have prevented the Roe decision from going through. Since that time, we had a 5-4 decision that reinforced and validated Roe in Casey, and in the Casey decision I believe one of that five was a Catholic justice who, had he voted on the other side, would have abolished the abortion license. We would not be having this discussion today if it were not for the decision of one Catholic on the Supreme Court. My point is, I have not heard a bishop yet suggest that a judge or a justice who makes that mistake or votes the wrong way on the Supreme Court ought to be denied communion.
Now the reason I’m raising this question is because I think you are not getting sufficiently the problem that the Constitution itself and the rights under the Constitution established the horizon or the context within which all of these debates are carried on about abortion rights. And therefore, it’s small potatoes to be discussing what Kerry can do or some other pro-choice elected official can do when the Supreme Court makes the great, massive determination one way or another as to whether we should have this.
So my question is, why are the bishops not addressing the judges who are really the heart of the matter?
MR. LUGO: Thank you. Father Reese, would you tackle that one? Why not appointed officials, such as judges?
FATHER REESE: Good question. If this gets written up, I think you’ll see something happen. (Chuckles.) If it’s written up in USA Today or something, I think you’ll see the bishops probably move towards something like that.
No, I’ve already said that I disagree with using denial of communion in this way. So other than that, I don’t know how to answer your question.
Obviously, in terms of people who are running for office, the key ones here in terms of having an impact on the Supreme Court are of course the president and the U.S. Senate. That’s why I mentioned Senator Santorum’s endorsement of a pro-choice Republican. After all, it’s the Senate that is going to decide who the next justice will be on the Supreme Court. So other than that, I don’t know how to answer your question.
MR. LUGO: So it’s your position that whatever pastoral response the bishops come up with with respect to elected officials ought to apply with equal force? He’s suggesting perhaps even more force for appointed officials such as judges. Is that –
FATHER REESE: That’s his position, yes. (Chuckles.)
MR. LUGO: Right. It’s not yours?
FATHER REESE: No. I mean, my position is that I don’t think they should be in this business of denying communion.
MR. LUGO: No, no, but I didn’t say deny communion. I said whatever pastoral response is appropriate. Let’s say that –
FATHER REESE: Well, it would be consistent.
MR. LUGO: It would be. Very good.
MR. WEIGEL: Yeah, Dennis, I think – I mean, here’s the exact statement from the Denver meeting:
“The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand.” Now that doesn’t narrow it down to legislators. The fact that legislators have become the issue is because we live in a media-driven public environment in which the new thing is what focuses the attention, and the new thing since the New Hampshire primary has been the fact that a self-identified Catholic with an unalloyed pro-choice voting record will be at the head of a national ticket for the first time since Roe v. Wade.
Yes, to be consistent, everyone who has a measure of responsibility for this present circumstance should be called to account for that responsibility. But as I said, I think if this had been done in a more perfect world, the discussion would have been far broader than out-of-line politicians or out-of-line judges. The challenge would have been to all Catholics to think about the gravity of what it means to present oneself for communion, and that that requires communion with the church, its teaching, its discipline and its people across a wide variety of questions.
MR. LUGO: Alan Cooperman. You had your hand up.
ALAN COOPERMAN: Hi. Alan Cooperman from The Washington Post. Quick question for George.
George, you said that you thought the bishops’ statement moved the ball down the road a little bit. I wonder if you’d amplify on that.
And for Father Tom, John Allen has been asking all the bishops that he can buttonhole in Rome during their ad limina visits a hypothetical question: Could a Catholic lawmaker in good conscience say that he or she opposes abortion flatly, but that as a matter of prudential judgment does not believe that criminalizing abortion is the best way to try to reduce the number of abortions? How would you answer that question?
MR. LUGO: Father, why don’t you begin with that last one?
FATHER REESE: Thanks. I think the way you phrased the question is the way it ought to be phrased. According to the CDF’s [Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith] document and even what the bishops have been saying, if a politician is against abortion and is willing to do anything that is possible to reduce the number of abortions, but then makes a prudential judgment that criminalizing it is not going to work – at least in the current political environment is not going to work – is that an acceptable position? I think it can be, yes, because it’s based on a prudential judgment of the situation.
But this presumes that the politician believes that abortion is wrong and that there is a need to do something about it to reduce the number of abortions. The Vatican – the document from the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, for example – notes that in some cases there may be votes that take place – and we all know what killer amendments are in Washington, D.C. – where you might have a killer amendment that is much more pro-life, but it’s being offered as an amendment to kill a bill. A pro-life Catholic politician obviously could vote against that amendment in order to save the bill as a whole. That’s been consistently acknowledged as something that could be legitimately done.
So I think there are arguments that can be made; I just don’t think that, in the sound bites that have been used by politicians so far, I don’t hear those kinds of arguments made.
If we go back and look at some of the situations when the church in Italy had to face this, when you actually had a referendum in Italy on abortion, the church was quite clearly opposed to this, argued against it, campaigned against it, and the Catholics in Italy overwhelmingly voted pro-choice. The pope at that time didn’t say that, “Okay, all you people who voted this way can’t go to communion.” You have a problem in Italy that not that many go to church anyway. (Laughter.) They’d be happy to see them in church.
So if you look at the practice and tradition of the church here, it just doesn’t seem to me to be supporting the way a few of the bishops are going.
MR. LUGO: George, do you remember the first part of Alan’s question?
MR. WEIGEL: I do, I do.
MR. LUGO: Has Denver advanced the conversation in any significant way?
MR. WEIGEL: Yeah. I think it advanced it, Alan, in three ways at least. One is that this is, to my knowledge, the first time that the bishops of the United States – not the church, because this is quite clear in Evangelium Vitae, the pope’s ’95 encyclical on the life issues – but this is the first time that the U.S. bishops with a rather marked degree of clarity have said that to vote in favor of permissive abortion laws, and indeed to fail to work for the blunting of the effects of Roe v. Wade, is a form of cooperation with evil. Several of your colleagues led with that on Saturday morning, and I think that is the single most striking clarification here.
Secondly, I think underscoring this question of the personal responsibility of Catholics who know themselves to be in a defective state of communion with the church – underscoring their responsibility not to present themselves before the church, before the public and ultimately before God as if they were living in full communion with the church – that has certainly never been said quite as strikingly before.
Finally, I am very struck in several conversations with bishops I’ve had in the last 72 hours at their own intensified sense of resolve on this issue. I think when they got to Denver last Monday, there was, “Oh, dear, how can we get this over with as soon as possible?” By Friday, I think there’s been a lot of conversations implying that this was one of the best meetings they’ve ever had, that there was a real discussion about this, there was a real sense of fraternal solidarity about it. And people who have not been notably vocal on this seemed to be willing to be vocal in a way that they have not been before.
Finally, John Allen’s a great friend of mine and I’m a deep admirer of his work. That question really doesn’t make a whole lot of practical political sense, it seems to me, the way he formulates it. Moreover, the absolutely clear teaching of Evangelium Vitae at Paragraph 73 is that any such law is an intrinsically unjust law and therefore must be reversed. Now we can have all sorts of arguments about how you connect the dots between here we are and there we want to be, but any statement that seems an acceptance of the view, for example in the American context, that Roe and Casey were rightly decided seems to me to be ruled out by Evangelium Vitae 73. I think Catholics have to say Roe and Casey were wrongly decided, they got it wrong, this is Dred Scott all over again.
MR. LUGO: Cathy? Microphone right there, please.
CATHY GROSSMAN: Cathy Grossman, USA Today. Sort of a double-barreled question here first. A question about the statistic that you referenced, unfortunately from a different publication: about 75 percent of the Catholics say they wouldn’t be influenced by the bishops. The bishops can’t get a hold of 75 percent of their own people on this matter? So why is this? Are they unwilling to extend to politicians a judgment they wouldn’t hold about themselves, for example?
And secondly, for non-Catholics who are looking at the Catholic Church, there seems to be a perception that by giving such weight to abortion and to euthanasia, to what happens at conception and shortly after and what happens at the decisions around death – non-Catholics seem to have a perception that the church isn’t much interested in what’s going on in the middle, what’s going on during all those decades of life. This doesn’t seem to take as high a priority. If you have a politician who is going to address poverty, social justice, immigration, all the other issues that the bishops have taken strong stands on, that seems to take a big backseat to a litmus-test issue. And non-Catholics are having a hard time understanding why Catholics are single-issue voters – or perhaps they’re not going to follow the bishops and be single-issue voters.
MR. LUGO: Thank you very much.
MR. WEIGEL: Well, Cathy, Catholics aren’t single-issue voters, as everybody’s polling data indicates. But if there is a perception that Catholics are not interested in the middle, as you call it, permit me to suggest that that is a false perception created by the obsession of the American media with the abortion issue and the euthanasia issue, and indeed matters of the Catholic Church and sexual morality in general.
The Catholic Church runs the largest, most successful independent school system helping impoverished kids in the country. If you want to see its results, you can go 10 blocks from here and see them. We run the largest independent health care system in the country, in which an enormous amount of resources are put into helping people who otherwise could not have access to quality health care. We do more for immigration services than any private-sector agency. If people don’t know about that, it is, frankly, because you are not telling them about that.
Now, you know, today you got two stories to write here – (laughter) – one from both of your friends. And we are friends. But – no. I mean, that is – if that’s the perception, then that is a perception that really anyone trying to paint a comprehensive portrait of the role of the Catholic Church in American public life has to correct because it’s just an absurd perception.
MR. LUGO: Yes, Father. Please jump in. Perhaps the first part of her question.
MS. GROSSMAN: How did the bishops lose 75 percent of the people?
FATHER REESE: Yeah, I think this is the frustration that the bishops are experiencing here. And I think this may be why they are going in this direction, because they do see it and feel so frustrated. They know that Catholics are having abortions probably at about the same rate as others. They know that Catholic politicians are not concerned about unborn life. So I think there’s a great feeling of frustration among the bishops on what they consider this extremely important issue of life. And ever since Roe v. Wade they’ve been talking about it, talking about it, issuing statements about it.
It hasn’t been the only thing they’ve talked about, as George mentions. I mean, every four years, a year before the election, when they issue their statement on political responsibility, it is filled with positions that are way to the left of liberal Democrats in this country on everything except abortion and aid to Catholic schools. They are so far out there in left field that anybody who held the positions in their documents would never get nominated, let alone elected.
So their opposition to the war, their opposition to capital punishment, their support for national health care, their wanting to welcome immigrants and refugees – you name many of the hot-button issues and they’re on the wrong side of them. That’s what we call preaching the gospel, being prophetic, saying what you want, saying what you believe the gospel message is saying about issues of justice and issues of life. The problem I have, again, with the communion issue is, if nobody can go to communion unless they are in full agreement with the bishops on abortion, and Humanae Vitae, and all sorts of other issues that they have considered extremely important, I’m afraid we’re going to have nobody coming up to communion. We know as a fact that a majority of priests, for example, don’t agree with Humanae Vitae. Well, we won’t have mass if that becomes a litmus test for whether or not you can go to communion, because if the priests can’t go to communion, well, you don’t have mass.
So, the people in the pews have never agreed with the Church in 2000 years of history. We’re not the first generation to think that sexual morality is a quaint idea. Women weren’t allowed to do these things, but certainly men through the centuries have not paid attention to that teaching. The difference probably was that in the past they acknowledged they were sinners whereas now we don’t acknowledge it so much.
So I’m concerned that when we start barring people from communion, we start to get on a slippery slope and we become a church of “saints” and we’ve never been that. We’ve always been a church of sinners. For example, I would disagree very strongly with George’s example of a parent who gets in an argument with their teenage son before going to mass. I think that type of person needs communion more than – they both do. And hopefully at the kiss of peace they can make up and go up to communion together and realize how much they share together. So, I don’t know, this is a difficult problem. On the one hand, the role of the bishops is to prophetically challenge people but at the same time recognize that we are an imperfect people; we are a sinful community that gathers around the table of the Lord.
MR. LUGO: We’re quickly running out of time here, and we do have a preferential option for the press at our events. So if there are any other members of the press who would like to ask a question at this point, this is your last chance. If not – right here in front, yes?
FRANCES KISSLING: I’m Frances Kissling with Catholics for a Free Choice. One of the points that is almost never responded to that both politicians make and that I think seriously undercuts both Father Reese and Mr. Weigel’s attempt to cast the abortion issue as not a Catholic issue, but a human rights issue, is really the positions held by most organized religious denominations in the United States on abortion. Every one of them, let me be clear, takes abortion seriously. None of them sees abortion as an unmitigated good or as a moral good, per se. But most of them believe, theologically, that abortion is justifiable, in some or many circumstances, and that it should be legal. And legislators, in making their prudential judgment, face the reality that Methodists, Lutherans, Jews, Episcopalians, and others lobby them as do the Catholic Church, and those denominations say to them, “Our moral insights say to us that women can make this choice legitimately and morally.” And for legislators to vote to criminalize abortion is to vote against the moral conscience and teachings of other faith groups. And this seems to be a genuine moral dilemma and a prudential judgment question for legislators, number one, and number two, it seems to me to undercut the notion that you can easily claim that the abortion issue is not a Catholic issue, or is not a sectarian issue, but rather is a human rights issue in which all agree that abortion is morally wrong in all circumstances.
MR. LUGO: Thank you. We’re just going to start with you, Tom, and then you tell George –
FATHER REESE: George, go for it – (laughter).
MR. LUGO: No need to answer, George. He’s ducking it, so I want to put him on the spot here for just a minute and then I’ll let you weigh in. It’s the general point, I mean, when you’ve got prophets saying different things to you, what’s a politician to do? You’ve got prophetic statements coming from religious traditions in this country that seem, on the issue of abortion, for instance, that seem squarely against each other. What’s a politician to do?
FATHER REESE: Well, we have the same problem today on the morality of the war in Iraq, on which George and I disagree. People with different religious values or secular values come to these complex issues and arrive at a different conclusion about them. I think that what I’m trying to emphasize in saying that this is a human rights issue is that the Catholic position has been based on natural law, on philosophical grounds, on what is a human person. That’s the question that’s never discussed – at what point does the fetus, or the unborn child, become a human person, a person with rights? Different answers have been given to this historically. The view today in the church with modern genetics and with what we know is pushing it closer to conception than some of these people did in the past. But, you know, that’s the question. What is a human person? And at what point is this unborn entity a person with the right to life? That’s the question.
MR. LUGO: George, we’ll give you the last word.
MR. WEIGEL: Statements from the rapidly diminishing forces of mainline, old line, sideline Protestantism, which is what you’re citing, seem to me of little consequence in light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of evangelical Protestants in the United States who are not represented over at 110 Maryland Avenue are pro-life and have rendered a public moral judgment on all of this. And indeed, one of the great social phenomena of the last 30 years of American social history has been the meeting of evangelical Protestants and Catholics, two communities that had very little to do with each other for a very long time, in the pro-life movement.
To the leadership of mainline, old line, sideline Protestantism we say politely, you’re mistaken. You just haven’t thought this through seriously. You haven’t thought it through seriously in terms of elementary embryology, in terms of logic, in terms of the fundamental requirements of justice, and in terms of 2,000 years of Christian tradition. You can go to the earliest records of the Christian movement from the period of the first disciples of Christ and see that one of the things that most distinguished Christians from the rest of society is that they did not commit infanticide. They did not abort their children. This is 2,000 years of Christian history, which seems to me to be a very, very heavy weight, a heavy burden of proof for serious theologians and serious religious leaders to overcome.
MR. LUGO: Thank you very much for your attendance.