The National Catholic Review

I was raised a Catholic. I know in my bones that I would not hold the views I hold today if it were not for the values I learned in Catholic school. I am, I think it is fair to say, a Midwestern, populist progressive in the tradition of Robert LaFollette, George Norris and Theodore Roosevelt. Their progressive values, their drive for social justice and their passion for a square deal for the little guy are deeply rooted in the prophetic Jewish tradition and Christian social teaching. Few people have been more eloquent in their expression of those values than Pope Leo XIII, John XXIII and Paul VI. Virtually every issue I have fought for in my 35 years of service in the Congress of the United States has been driven by the values I learned from the nuns at St. James elementary school in Wausau, Wis. Through the years, I have voted to oppose an unjust war in Nicaragua, a fruitless war in Vietnam and a premature war in Iraq because I believe in the message of the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Because I believe we are our brother’s keepers, for 10 years I led efforts to push unpopular foreign aid legislation through the House of Representatives.

And because of the message "Whatsoever you did for the least of them, you did for me" (Mt 25:40), I have fought for a special preference for the poor on such issues as health care, low-income heating assistance, taxation based on ability to pay and federal investments in education programs, like Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that focus on the economically disadvantaged. Because I also believe in the dignity of work and the rightness of providing equal opportunityas Bill Moyers has said, People [are] equal in humanity but unequal in resourcesI support strengthening labor unions and raising the minimum wage. I consequently believe that the major task of modern religion is to help people understand their responsibilities toward one another. The task of government is to enable people to meet those responsibilities in an effective way.

There must be a moral purpose to public life, and as a public servant I try to apply my religious beliefs broadly, not narrowly and dogmatically. But I also recognize that the test of any American in public life, as John F. Kennedy said to a group of Southern Baptist leaders in 1960, is not what kind of church I believe in, but what kind of America I believe in, because this country does not belong to any one church; it belongs to people who belong to all churches and people who belong to none. It is ecumenical.

I have fought passionately for the issues I have mentioned because I think it is the right and moral thing to do. But I have never thought that those who disagree with me are not good Christians or good Catholics. In a democracy, public officials must reserve to themselves prudential judgments about how and under what circumstances to apply moral principles in a pluralistic society. But there are some in my own religion who believe it is the obligation of Catholic public officials to impose, through law, their religious values on issues such as abortion, upon those who do not share our religious beliefs.

I agree with my church that abortion in most cases is wrong. My wife and I lost two children, one immediately after birth and one shortly before birth. We do not need to be reminded of the preciousness of life; we are only too acutely aware of it. But I also understand that the Supreme Court has ruled in numerous cases that there are limits to what government can constitutionally do to limit a woman’s range of choices in determining whether to have an abortion.

In trying to deal with those questions over the last 30 years, I have tried to think through how to reflect both my respect for my own religious values and my respect for the constitutional processes of this American democracy. During that time I have voted well over 60 times for limitations of one kind or another on a woman’s right to choose abortion. I have, for instance, accepted as a reasonable compromise the Hyde Amendment on Medicaid funding for abortions and have even worked with Representative Henry Hyde (Republican of Illinois) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the question of how to apply that amendment to health services provided under H.M.O.’s. I have voted to limit abortion rights in prison and for passage of proposals limiting later-term abortions. I also worked to reach a compromise on the complicated question of how best to persuade the Chinese government to end its policy of forced abortions. So I suppose it is fair to say that my record on abortion is mixed. I make no apology for that. I believe these issues are complicated.

I do not believe that a woman has an absolute constitutional right to determine whether she might have an abortion at any time during her pregnancy. But neither do I believe it is constitutionalor enforceablein this society to require a woman to carry a pregnancy to full term if she has been raped or if there is a risk to her life or her health. In such cases, while I would hope a woman makes a choice against abortion, under our Constitution the choice is not mine. It is not any bishop’s. It is hers.

In short, I believe there are competing sets of equities on the part of the woman and the fetus that are far more complicated than some people on either side of the issue care to admit. So through the years I have tried to sort out those equities, guided by both my moral views, and my prudential view of how best to deal with these issues without tearing our society apart.

Some time ago I received a letter from Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis., expressing his unhappiness with my votes on five or six issues related to abortion. For about a year we exchanged private letters about those differences. A few months ago, he wrote to me threatening to use his ecclesiastical authority to punish me if I did not conform my voting record to his view of what Catholic dogma required. I told him I could not do that.

Two issues seemed especially to trouble the bishop, who is now archbishop of St. Louis. One was my vote on the question of stem cell research. The other was the question of what limits should be placed on access to military hospitals for female military personnel. The bishop wanted me to vote to deny permission to female military personnel to use a military hospital for abortions. I told him that I hoped that no member of the armed services would seek an abortion, but that I was simply not prepared to deny to any woman stationed in Iraq, wearing the uniform of the United States, the use of a military hospital for any purpose.

On the matter of stem cell research, I informed the bishop that I had voted to ban reproductive cloning but - with the tremendous desire of sick and dying people afflicted with Parkinson’s, diabetes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other scourges - I did not believe it possible to prevent science from engaging in potentially lifesaving research. I told him that in my estimation, the church had no better chance to stop research into regenerative medicine than it had centuries ago in trying to stop Copernicus and Galileo from positing that the earth revolved about the sun rather than the other way around. I told him that I believed that the best way to assure attention to ethical concerns associated with embryonic stem cell research was to have that research conducted under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. If it were not, it would be conducted elsewhereif not in the United States, then in some other country.

On November 4, 2003, the bishop sent me a letter calling on me to refrain from receiving Communion if I did not conform to his wishes. A short time later, he followed through on his threat. At the same time, a spokesman from his office also indicated that any woman who used contraceptives should also question whether she should receive Communion. In response to the bishop’s action, I issued the following statement:

I have said on many occasions that I agree with the Catholic Church about the undesirability of abortion, but this country is not exclusively Catholic. Bishop Burke has a right to instruct me on matters of faith and morals in my private life and - like any other citizen - to try to persuade, not dictate how I vote on any public matter. But when he attempts to use his ecclesiastical position to dictate to American public officials how the power of law should be brought to bear against Americans who do not necessarily share our religious beliefs on abortion or any other public issue, he crosses the line into unacceptable territory. The U.S. Constitution, which I have taken a sacred oath to defend, is designed to protect American citizens from just such demands. The U.S. Constitution says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That means that in an American democracy no one, not a public official and not a bishop, gets to impose by law his religious beliefs on people of other religions who do not necessarily share those same beliefs.

I very much regret that the bishop saw fit to take the course of action he has chosen. But I make no apology for insisting that he distinguish between his right to try to persuade me on how to vote on any issue and his right to dictate my vote.

In Faithful Citizenship, published last October, the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Conference indicated its belief that Christians should not be single-issue people when it said, quoting the Vatican’s Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (November 2002),The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. That is why I believe that if the full texture and context of all my legislative actions were to be reviewedand given the fact that at least 100 members of Congress have voting records more at variance with church wishes than my ownI firmly believe that Archbishop Burke’s action says much more about him than it does about me.

The basic problem is that I remain a John Courtney Murray kind of Catholic, while Archbishop Burke is not. Murray was the key American theologian who advised the American Catholic bishops during the deliberations of the historic Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII. Archbishop Burke and I differ only occasionally on what is moral and what is not. But we differ significantly about what requirements the law can be expected to impose in a democratic society on those who do not share our religious beliefs.

In a memo to Cardinal Cushing regarding legislation, Murray wrote: The authority of the church does not decide what the civil law should be. This decision rests with the civil community, its jurists and legislators. He added: Out of their understanding of the distinction between morality and law and between public and private morality, and out of their understanding of religious freedom, Catholics repudiate in principle a resort to the coercive instrument of law to enforce upon the whole community moral standards that the community itself does not commonly accept.

In his book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), Murray discussed the right and the obligation of legislators to reserve to themselves prudential judgments about what was enforceable through law in a multireligious societya society that does not just guarantee majority rights, but in fact also guarantees the rights of minorities against the majority. Murray said: It is not the function of the legislator to forbid everything that the moral law forbids, or to enjoin everything that the moral law enjoins. He then went on to say: The scope of law is limited. Moreover, though law is indeed a moral force, directive of human society to the common good, it relies ultimately for its observance on coercion. And men can be coerced only into a minimal amount of moral action. Again from this point of view the scope of law is limited.

Society has unfortunately demonstrated for centuries that abortions will be performed regardless of the law. That raises the question of whether it is truly moral to discourage disrespect for all law by passing laws that are unenforceable. Murray was conscious of that when he wrote the following: A legal ban on an evil must consider what St. Thomas calls its own possibility.’ That is, will the ban be obeyed, at least by the generality? Is it enforceable against the disobedient? He asks: What are the lessons of experience in the matter? What is the prudent view of resultsthe long view or the short view? These are the questions that jurisprudence must answer, in order that legislation may be drawn with requisite craftsmanship.

That is why, while I detest abortion and agree with Catholic teaching that in most instances it is morally wrong, I decline to force my views into laws that, if adopted, would be unenforceable and would tear this society apart. That judgment may be wrong, but it is a judgment honestly arrived at, and one that I am obligated to make.

Within the last month the U.S. Catholic bishops, whose single direct responsibility is to the Catholic Church, agreed that individual bishops have the right to exercise their own prudential judgment in deciding how and when to try to apply Catholic teachings in their dealings with public officials. Surely they would not deny to public officials the same exercise of prudential judgment that they claim for themselves, especially when public officials have an even more complex set of responsibilitiesto church teachings and to the general public, which might or might not share those teachings.

In my exchange of letters with Archbishop Burke, I tried to make the distinction between winning an argument through persuasion and trying to win it by coercion through the force of law. Father Murray also addressed that issue when he wrote the following: In the United States at present all the religious groups arefrom the sociological, even if not from the statistical, point of viewminority groups. He then concluded: Any minority group has the right to work toward the elevation of standards of public morality in the pluralist society, through the use of the methods of persuasion and pacific argument.

But then he continued, In a pluralist society no minority group has the right to impose its own religious or moral views on other groups, through the use of the methods of force, coercion, or violence. Law by its nature is coercive.

That is why I applaud the actions of the Catholic hierarchy in trying to win the public debate about the morality of abortion, but it is also why I reserve to myself the decision about what conduct I can impose on others who are not of my religion. In my view, Bishop Burke attempted to use his interpretation of theology to coerce me into taking specific positions on matters that I believe are matters of constitutional law. The difference between us is that I am not trying to force him to agree with my judgments, but he is attempting to force me to agree with his. That in conscience I cannot do.

One last thought. People who agree with the stance of Archbishop Burke often cite the action of Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel of New Orleans in 1962 directed against three New Orleans Catholics who promoted segregation. I remember that well. The difference is that Archbishop Rummel acted against three people who were trying to obstruct the implementing of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, which under our system is the law of the land. Archbishop Burke is doing just the opposite. He is attempting to single me out because I will not take actions that I have considered to be subversive of federal court decisions that are still the law of the land that I have taken an oath to uphold, whether I like it or not.

David R. Obey, a Democrat, has represented Wisconsin’s Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1969.

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Frank Sales | 8/11/2004 - 11:24am
Congressman Obey presents an inherently untenable position. If the fetus is a life, as he seems to accept, he is morally bound to protect that life from direct attack. The Constitutional rights of the mother are trumped by the paramouncy of the right to life of an innocent being.

Obey says that abortions will continue to occur even if he legislates against them, implying that the resulting disrespect for the law is a greater evil than the object of the law. Is he suggesting that a law that will be broken by some or many is not worth passing?

I am glad that you published this article. It demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of Catholic politicians who refuse to do all that is prudentially possible to protect the unborn and simultaneously claim to be in communion with the Church.

Steven A. Sisa | 8/10/2004 - 9:39pm
Congressman Obey flies into the web of abortion rights attracted to the false light of secular law and a permissive society. His painstakingly eloquent, impassioned rationalization of his 'almost OK' approach to abortion holds no water to an essential truth. Even the most "progressive" humanist concedes, on scientific basis, that life begins at conception. Just ask Catholic Senator Kerry. Congressman Obey, in league with Catholic Senators Kerry, Kennedy, Durbin, Daschle , and Catholic Congresswoman Pelosi, among other similarly blinded Catholic legislators, votes time and again to allow the destruction of future generations of innocent life.

Congressman Obey's self- defense is that his votes limit the killing. Great. Tucked deep into his defense is the clearly false (ignorant?) notion that Catholic teaching prohibits abortion in almost all cases. Well, no wonder Mr. Obey's conscience is twisted. The Church's infallible papal teaching is as consistent as it is absolute, reinforced by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). The moral teaching forbidding abortion is not ambiguous, and it is held by more than just the Catholic Church. There is no ecclesiastic dispensation for legislators lacking courage to fight for innocent life.

A viable fetus knows only the life-giving breath of God through its mother. Slaves to the wanton demands of political plurality, Congressman Obey and his allies fail, time and again, to promote a basic respect and protection for unborn life from its conception that the Gospel and Scripture command. Thus, with their witting support over the years, thousands of innocents die every day.

There is no excuse that stands the test of eternity.

R Rood | 8/7/2004 - 1:51pm
"To love people you have to ignore a good deal of what they say while they are being honest, because you are not living in the Garden of Eden any longer." - Flannery O'Connor

James Croegaert | 8/6/2004 - 12:03pm
I have recently heard Cardinal George express concern about government's intrusion into religious matters. Specifically, health care and what Catholic hospitals may or may not be required to do, is at issue, and as someone working in a Catholic hospital, I believe his concern is well-founded. But I think also that nothing compromises the Church's stand on these things - which I think critically important - and its right to determine its own course, more than bishops who misunderstand the Church's place in a democratic society. Such misunderstanding and its clumsy expression only weakens the Church's moral voice at those points where something really is at stake.

I thought Congressman Obey's article demonstrated all too well how (at that time) Bishop Burke was doing exactly that. There are challenges enough to authentically exercising one's faith in our society without pastoral leaders misapplying their considerable power. I am grateful to Congressman Obey. While I do not agree with all his points, the courage of his well-articulated faith makes me glad to be both Catholic and American.