On a January Monday, after busloads of pilgrims returned from this year’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis witnessed the installation of Archbishop Raymond Burke. It was an appropriate juxtaposition of events: local news coverage prior to the installation had focused on the archbishop’s opposition to abortion in Wisconsin, and the most sustained applause during his inaugural homily came after his affirmation of human life from conception to natural death. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that no bishop has gone as far as Burke, in opposing abortion. At the end of his tenure as bishop of La Crosse, Wis., he had directed diocesan priests to refuse Communion to three pro-choice Catholic legislators and issued a pastoral letter, Dignity of Human Life and Civic Responsibility.
The letter is centered in the received teachings of the Catholic Church and is closely aligned with the judgment of Pope John Paul II. Catholics must resist abortion in their own lives and in their culture. The right to life is foundational to all other rights. And yet: when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality (The Gospel of Life, No. 73c).
Well, most Catholic politicians have professed their personal opposition to abortion. The question is what they do politically. And there’s the rub.
We live in a society that is not Catholic. That presents a political problem to pro-life Catholics, especially if they wish to argue their case in the public square. The archbishop’s action might reinforce the impression that abortion is a religious issue. This impression, in turn, could weaken political effectiveness, just as it can weaken academic discourse.
In my work as a teacher of medical ethics in the philosophy department of a Catholic university, one of my main tasks is to show how opposition to abortion is not necessarily a matter of faith, but rather a matter of reasonable inquiry and openness to evidence. A powerful case can be made to support the argument that a human being’s life begins at fertilization. My argument is less persuasive, however, if a student suspects that I maintain it because of the threat of excommunication. The whole point is to present the case to anyone willing to use reason and consider the facts of genetics and embryological development. To make this a function of religious belief immediately excludes many of my students, just as in politics it may undercut efforts to persuade the civil community.
The political group Democrats for Life strives to influence the Democratic Party. Are they to understand that they must leave a party that has a platform affirming abortion rights? Although they may agree that the right to life is the foundation upon which all other rights are based, some of them wonder why it is only abortion (and remarriage without an annullment) that seems to merit prohibition from Communion. Democrats for Life, moreover, can reason that in the context of the passage from The Gospel of Life quoted above, they reduce the harm of abortion in a society where it is not possible to completely abrogate a pro-abortion law.
I think Archbishop Burke might not have any difficulty with this position. The problem he faces is the sense that there are some Catholic politicians who will not even entertain the subject of limiting abortion, much less openly discuss it.
One does not have to be a Catholic to see that the prenatal pictures on refrigerators are pictures of little human beings. Hence my profound disappointment with many Democrats. It is the wall of hardened diffidence and repression. The right to abort has become an unquestioned presupposition. Try to be a pro-life Democrat. It is not easy. Try to get an endorsement for national office. It is impossible. (Can one be excommunicated from a political party?) Pro-choice dogmatism is as rigid as any dogmatism. And one dogma will not defeat another dogma except by sheer force. What can challenge a political dogma, however, is the hard work of crafting public policy, political organization, activist mobilization and careful argument.
And yet the problem of participation in the Eucharist remains. It is clear that a Catholic bishop has the right, and perhaps sometimes the duty, to refuse Catholics Communion, which is a sign of unity in faith. This prospect has been raised in the past with respect to vociferous segregationists and the Irish Republican Armyboth politically charged situations. So look at the problem that a Catholic bishop might have. If you judge, for example, that terminating the lives of second and third trimester fetuses is clearly killing innocent human beingsagainst God’s law, the natural law and the moral tradition of the church wouldn’t you think you have a heavy obligation to do something about it? If some Catholic politicians seem unwilling even to talk with you about it or give their reasons for supporting unrestricted legal abortion, would you, as a bishop, question whether they should receive Communion as fully integrated members of your faith community?
Perhaps that is what the new archbishop of St. Louis is confronting. (And perhaps a conversation can begin.)