The National Catholic Review
Can the church work with the new administration?
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Recent storms sighted above the Hilltop and the Golden Dome remind us that the Catholic academic community is not living through a time of political serenity, but has a continuing ability to draw lightning strikes from the media, from theological vigilantes and from concerned bishops. How are the moral and religious commitments of the Catholic community to be understood and lived in a pluralistic world where the church itself is subject to alien pressure and hostile scrutiny and where it is experiencing painful internal divisions? Does the recent significant change in the American political landscape point to significant changes in the way the Catholic church and its institutions and its members relate to the American political system? More specifically, how should Catholics respond to the Obama administration?
 
One straightforward way to answer this question is to look at the values proposed in Catholic social teaching and to see whether they are being realized in the Obama projects of financial recovery and health care reform as well as in energy and environmental policy. These projects are vast and still incomplete, and they have many highly technical aspects whose precise connection with religious concerns and doctrinal truths is remote and obscure. But we can broadly characterize them as reform proposals that are inclusive, egalitarian, communitarian, solidaristic and internationalist. Benefits and burdens are both to be more widely shared than has been true for over a generation in American political and economic life. So we should expect them to be broadly compatible with Catholic social values, even if some details turn out to be ill-conceived or mistaken. If this approach is correct, then we should also expect to find reasonably high levels of support for the Obama program among Catholics.

This does, in fact, seem to be the case. We need not think that this support is particularly deep or permanent. In fact, given the uncertainty of economic conditions, it is clearly provisional. But at the present time there seems to be a fairly strong prima facie case for Catholics to support the Obama administration and its agenda as an effort to move American society somewhat closer to the ideals of Catholic social thought and to move our society forward from the pit that it has dug for itself.

Another straightforward way of handling the question is to look at what Catholic critics of the administration regard as its crucial failure to affirm the right of the unborn to life. This will vitiate the health care project if it leads, as it may well do, to federal funding of abortion and embryonic stem cell research and if it involves the overturning of conscience clauses, which are necessary if Catholic hospitals and health care providers are to continue in operation. Some will want to argue both that denial of so fundamental a right as the right to life will produce a whole series of negative consequences and that no regime that denies such a fundamental right deserves the support of thoughtful and morally serious citizens. They will also argue this case both from a natural law standpoint that is accessible to all citizens and in a way that relies on the authority of the church and its hierarchy to enforce its conclusions within the Catholic community. In the contemporary Catholic debate, the pro-choice position of the Obama administration is taken not simply as a negative consideration, which should make Catholics reluctant to support him, but as a decisive consideration that rules out any comprehensive support or endorsement of him and his policies. I have not seen arguments to the effect that because of the president's views on abortion it would be wrong to support his decision to offer financial assistance to the automotive industry or to endorse his views on torture or on a two-state solution to the problem of Israel and the Palestinians but I detect a common tendency to suggest that neither the president nor his policies are worthy of support by serious Catholics-even when the policies coincide with those espoused by the Vatican).
 
This point reminds us that politics is not simply about elections and personalities and about simple yes or no decisions, even though these may have the strongest hold on public attention and the media, but is about issues and programs, which will usually require more nuanced assessments. Even for those who believe that it is seriously wrong to vote for Obama or for other pro-choice candidates, it would be a mistake to think that this point justifies a comprehensive rejection of his programs and policies. In fact, it seems clear that Catholics, even those with significant church offices and responsibilities, will need to cooperate with the Obama administration on topics such as immigration reform, financial regulation and foreign aid programs. It would also be a serious extension of a pro-life position beyond its original moral premises to hold that pro-life people should work for the failure of Obama's presidency. Failure of a presidency in a time of war and economic crisis is not a prospect that anyone should regard lightly, whether the president's name is Bush or Obama. National politics in the United States has an inescapably adversarial character, but this is a tendency which thoughtful religious people should look at critically and should try to mitigate rather than reinforce with one-sided demands for righteousness, demands which often turn out to be narrowly focused and rigidly exclusive.
 
The core problem which confronts many Catholic Democrats is that they feel the power and the pull of both the ways of approaching the question of how to respond to the Obama  presidency. Even when they do not favor the legal prohibition of abortion, they believe that abortion is a grave moral evil. They would not want to put the Catholic health care system in jeopardy, much less out of business. At the same time they very much want to support a president of their own party who is attractive and articulate and who espouses many of the values which are prominent in the Catholic social tradition as well as in the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.  They also want to support and to take pride in the accomplishments of our first African-American president.  So they are between the rock of Peter and the hard place of the post-McGovern Democratic party which has been less than welcoming over the years.  Their preferred way out of this impasse is to argue, not for the criminalization of abortion, but for a social and economic agenda which will, they hope, produce a reduction in the number of abortions. This does not satisfy the followers and teachers of the straight and narrow path which leads to the absolute prohibition of abortion, a path which actually leads over some very rough territory and which may well be blocked by insurmountable constitutional and political obstacles. But it also fails to satisfy the demand of many pro-choice politicians, activists, and experts who favor the full legitimization of abortion as an assertion of reproductive freedom, a choice to be made by women with public funding and support and without public scrutiny. The alliance of pro-choice forces is likely to shape health policy in the Obama administration and to have strong influence on judicial appointments, especially to the Supreme Court. The participants in this alliance feel strengthened after the 2008 election and, in many parts of the country,  feel no need to appeal to pro-life Democrats or to show respect for Catholic teaching on these matters. Their kind of ideological rigidity has the effect of convincing many of the religious that there can be no compromise with what they call "the culture of death.”
 
What we are looking at now is a three-way impasse. Pro-life Democrats (and some pro-life Republicans as well) are looking for the Obama administration to offer reassurances with regard to conscience clauses and some signs that it is prepared to take seriously the goal of making abortion rare as well as safe and legal. Such concessions could be interpreted as justification for those Catholics who supported Obama. So far there are not many signs that the administration thinks it necessary or worthwhile to make such concessions. If they thought it important to ensure the Catholic vote in the future, they would probably have to make much larger concessions if they want to produce a change of mind on the part of the bishops and the leadership of the pro-life movement.  Failing that, they can hope that other considerations will continue to weigh more heavily than the life issues with most Catholic voters and that the views of the bishops will be increasingly perceived as  irrelevant and ineffective. On the other hand, if they press on against the Catholic health care system and require it to accept abortion as a normal part of the practice of medicine, they are likely to find that they have cast themselves as the persecutors of those who wish to exercise their freedom of conscience.  This is not a position which liberals should want to find themselves in, and they are likely to discover that their own coalition fractures under the pressures arising from efforts to interfere with the conscientious views of the two largest religious groups in the country, the Catholics and the Baptists, who both are significant players in health care.  
 
The bishops meanwhile have been discovering that the pace of their political involvement is determined by three groups: 1) a minority of bishops who take positions which capture media attention, such as the denial of communion to pro-choice politicians 2) a noisy movement of activists and populists which includes many sincerely devout people but also far too  many members who use scurrilous and vicious language to attack those who deviate from the anti-abortion line which they identify with Catholic orthodoxy  and 3)  rationalistic moral theorists who hold that all other considerations pale into insignificance in comparison with the intrinsic evil of abortion.  In this situation the political influence of the church is likely to be enfeebled and marginalized beyond the dreams of our enemies.
 
To an increasing extent, the pro-life movement within the church shows a desire to act in ways which break amicable and civil relations with those both inside and outside our church who favor abortion or who support compromise on this issue. In thinking about people on the other side, they lump together both those who deny that abortion is a moral evil and those who believe that, even while it is indeed a moral evil, it cannot be effectively forbidden by law in the contemporary United States. They routinely think of their opponents in moral terms, which make sense from their own moral perspective but which are very likely to produce a further hardening of hearts and minds among those who do not share their convictions. The bishops need to think carefully about whether they are showing a heroic resistance to absolute evil or whether they are being used by selfish and dishonest political interests and by zealots who show more passion than judgment when they stubbornly refuse to recognize the limits of what is politically possible in a pluralistic and individualistic society.

The bishops are certainly right to condemn the moral evil of abortion and to warn us against the individualism, selfishness and greed which have had such a devastating effect on American culture and family life as well as on our financial institutions. But if they think they make their witness more credible and more effective by developing a quasi-excommunication of the Democratic party and by aligning themselves with politicians who think that combining pro-life slogans with American chauvinism and  exercising American military power without regard to international criticism constitutes an adequate response to evil in the world, they are sadly mistaken.
 
What is needed in the present situation is for a group of bishops to teach in a way that shows that they are sensitive to the wounded condition of American Catholicism and to the complexities of the life issues in a very imperfect world. They will need to show civil respect for those with whom they disagree, pastoral concern for Catholics who may question their teaching and caution in scrutinizing those who offer to fight their battles for them. Two hopeful signs of bishops moving to a new style of teaching can be found in the recent letter of Cardinal Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, urging members of Congress to consider supporting abortion reduction policies, and in the remarks of Archbishop Robert Carlson, the new archbishop of St. Louis, who told the AP that he "was not among the bishops who publicly spoke out against President Barack Obama's election” and that he "asked Catholics to pray for the new president.” Catholic Democrats in political and civic life will need to show that they are ready to criticize the practice of abortion and that they do not regard it as the unquestionable exercise of an inherent right or as a morally trivial private choice. The teaching of the church needs to make some difference in their political behavior and should not be relegated to a purely private realm. Pro-life advocates need to keep in mind that the religious and moral worth of their cause does not authorize them to distort the views of their adversaries, to encourage hatred and contempt for those who disagree with them or to condone various forms of sharp political practice, which are all things which will ultimately damage the pro-life cause and will cause people to direct their attention to the failings of pro-life advocates and away from the tragic devaluing of human life that is involved in the widespread practice of abortion. 

John Langan, S.J., is the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Comments

Pau-ski | 5/28/2009 - 1:26am
It was a very clear article outlining the marriage of catholic Bishops and socialism. This was and is the main reason the American society has fallen from Christianity. Socialism as most bishops think is the means which a few people may control the lives of many. As usually, the bishops have backed the wrong horse - Obama. Little do the bishops realize as written by Father Langan must the unjust taking of another's property is a mortal sin. And as most would agree, the backing of such activities with your whole heart and soul as seen by the bishops, would indicate their state. How old I am may be of question? But I have seen this in many countries before and most recently South America. Without charity I am like a clanging bell. But can anyone care if we are tinned eared?
Edison Woods | 5/23/2009 - 10:00am
Let us have no more double talk abortion is evil and nothing less than evil. There always comes moments in life when a person must decide whether something is good or evil. Such a decision must be made without equivocation. All the bishops of whatever rank who have taken a stand against the Obama administration on the issue of abortion have my love and respect and I am sure each of them will hear the words all Christians hope to hear, "Well done you good and faithful servant enter into your reward." .
Willie | 5/19/2009 - 1:11pm
Years ago when I was choosing a college, a priest who was a friend of our family, urged me not to attend a Jesuit school. He said you will lose your faith if you do. I am so glad I listened to that advice. How Jesuits and other Catholics can make excuses for Obama ia astounding to me. The man says one thing, yet his actions go in the opposite direction. He has no interest in reducing abortions. Wake up Catholics and stand up for what the life of the unborn!
Eddie | 5/12/2009 - 2:19pm
"Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics(Me). Vaccination, in its hundred(now 200) years of expirement, has been disputed almost as much as baptism in its approximate two thousand. But it seems quite natural to our politicians to enforce vaccination; and it would seem to them madness to enforce baptism."-- Eugenics & Other Evils
Ex Corde | 5/12/2009 - 11:33am
What did you think of Hitler's health care plan? Of Jefferson Davis' stimulus package? If these pale in comparison to the evil perpetuated by treating Jews and blacks as less than human, why is it any different for the unborn?
chris | 5/11/2009 - 2:54pm
While reading your essay I felt as if I was walking through a mush of velvet curtains. You say people are too harsh in their rhetoric. I must have missed the memo where it said that evil should not be called evil lest it injure the sensibilities of those that support evil. This President, while in Illinois, voted in FAVOR of Partial birth abortion. Tell me good sir, is that not evil?
Dr. Billingsgate | 5/11/2009 - 12:34pm
As a graduate of a Jesuit University with a major in Philosophy I would like to remind Father Langdon that action follows being. Insofar as abortion is intrinsically evil by definition, it follows that anyone who advocates abortion is evil. Even though President Obama might have some other qualities such as compassion for the poor, it still doesn't make him less evil. Just because Hitler loved dogs doesn't make his crimes against humanity any less evil either.
John Schipsi | 5/10/2009 - 6:23pm
"Father" Langan, The souls of millions of murdered infants cry out for the vengeance of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Have you forgotten the Lord's admonishment concerning these, "little ones"? Obama's stance on abortiion is in direct conflict with the tenants of the Catholic faith and doctrine, not to mention his stance on those babies that might survive the abortion attempt! You, sir, are a wolf in sheeps clothing and are leading the blind to their demise. No matter how you spin the facts, "Father", Obama is what Obama does! May God take pity on you, and the rest of us, at the Judgement. I am ashamed of my church! God help us all!
John Pastor | 5/9/2009 - 9:06am
Thank you for this thoughtful and penetrating analysis of the ecclesiastical problems of the American Catholic Church. I think that, given their standing and pastoral obligations, bishops and cardinals have a moral responsibility to speak intelligently. When they do, I consider what they say. When they don't, I don't think I have a moral responsibility to follow their teachings. An example of unintelligent teaching is the abhorrent practice of bishops and cardinals to use the sacraments as political weapons. When Jesus multiplied the fishes and loaves and directed the disciples to distribute them, did he instruct them to first ask each person whether they were for Caesar or for Him? When he broke bread and said "Do this in remembrance of me" did he add "But only with those who think like us?" The sad fact is not that people are leaving the Church in droves. This has happened many times - most of northern Europe left the Church during the Reformation, and yet the Church continues. What is sad is that the bishops and cardinals are making themselves more and more irrelevant to many of us who remain in the Church. Best wishes, John Pastor
mike sprague | 5/9/2009 - 12:23am
I always told my kids not to get their religious news from the secular press. While I realize this is an Op-Ed piece, I could have found this in Newsweek! This looks like it was written by the DNC. I expected better from America.
Kathleen Conway | 5/4/2009 - 7:03pm
Thank you, Father Langan, for your thoughtful, wise essay.
Jim Devlin | 5/4/2009 - 9:05am
While I repesct Fr. Langan's opinions, it is hard for me to seperate President's Obama's fondness for abortion rights from his other policies. Economically, he is breeding another generation of the poor dependent on government with his massive, over-reaching programs. Both policies lead to the same direction: Lack of personal responsibility. While he advocates for the death of one group at birth, his policies push for the death of the lower class' respect and motivation. Sweeping generalization? Yes, but limited space here requires broad comments on limited issues. May God bless Obama -- he's all we have until 2012.
Jim Dever | 5/3/2009 - 9:46pm
Interesting commentary, but why an honorary degree to President Obama at Notre Dame? Seems to me that it only encourages Obama regarding his position on abortion. Abortion is not an issue that can be "nuanced", as so many of our intellectuals today seem to be doing. Was I ill informed, regarding natural law, by my Jesuit professors in the 1950's?
Paul Bradford | 5/3/2009 - 9:00pm
"Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves." Mt 10, 16 Catholics, and indeed all people with a sincere desire to promote social justice, truly are called to be 'sheep among wolves'. The concept of a 'culture of death' is more than just a provocative expression. The more our society views people in terms of how they might help or hinder others rather than in terms of their own dignity and needs, the more life itself becomes an expendable commodity. This dynamic plays itself out over and again -- and not just with regard to abortion. Our goal has to be to promote a respect for life but we can be taken 'off our game' if we become too involved in boosterism for a particular party or for particular candidates. Both the current president and his immediate predecessor promoted a patchwork of policies -- some of which promoted life, others of which promoted death. To be 'shrewd as serpents' we must be careful not to become too allied with one political party or the other lest we be manipulated into furthering their desires for power rather than God's desire for justice. Stand up for a consistent life ethic no matter who's in power. I praise Cardinal Rigali for his willingness to remain hopeful that good can come out of the current administration. I fear that if we divide politicians up into groups of 'good guys' and groups of 'bad guys' we will never attain the shrewdness we need either to protect the unborn or to advance any other social justice concern. Paul Bradford, Pro-Life Catholics for Choice
Jan Baker | 5/2/2009 - 8:42pm
There most certainly IS a parallel between Obama's position on abortion and his economic initiative, because both are based on a failure to require personal responsibility for one's sins. In both cases, the end is to keep the party going, not reform the life style. If Father Langan has not seen this position already, as he avers, he could read it on The White Lily Blog, Two Miracles for Barack. On the contrary to this article's position, Obama's economic program has absolutely nothing Catholic about it. He is missing the goal to broaden ownership, substituting an empty and even demeaning tiny redistribution of income, just enough to go out to eat once a week, not enough to own a share of the company. Obama is missing the chance to assist at the break-up of conglomerates, and instead is supporting them in their failure to deliver a healthy economy, insuring that (like the second abortion so typical to the demographic) the economic bubble will expand again, and fail again. Obama does not try to promote cooperative efforts, to support middle class wages for labor, to protect private property, or other solutions typical of the traditional Catholic approach to just economics. His approach, giving the risk of investment to the taxpayer and the profit of investment to the owners, is fascist if anything. Catholics can not cooperate with it (nor with 'the free market is always right' Republicanism, either). This is not to say Catholics could negotiate over the unborn's right to life, that if Obama's economics were Catholic in any way, we might relativize abortion.
Survivor | 5/2/2009 - 7:22pm
First of all American people need to wake up and realize Catholics are brain washed for the most part. If they had the morals the profess to have they would of participated in prompt justice for the Victims of Child sex abuse by their own Priest whom I might add raped me and my sister repeatedly from 1st 2nd and 3rd grade. All awhile knowing the pedophile priest GEORGE NEVILLE RUCKER is a known pedophile sending him to other church's to rape more children No Catholic can talk to me about Morals they are hypocrites Lieing and aiding and crimials . Who are they to say anything about Morals. My life was raped from me and my children . My faith was raped. Our lives are our own Not the Catholics. The President of America is our Leader Not the Catholics SO WAKE UP Catholics If you have a moral standard keep it and share it Do Not Sove It down everyones throat because you think you better Practice what you preach and show us what you belive by doing it for yourselfs and Leave your ruling to your own Catholics are the only one paying high dollar attorneys to stop the change of the statue of limitations against child sexual molestation how sick is that !
LarryN | 5/2/2009 - 6:34pm
Langan's admonishment to not be too prolife or prolife will fail is not as subtly poisonous as he would like us to accept.He thus reveals that to protect Obama is a functional good on a plane equal to the protection of unborn people.
Rose | 5/2/2009 - 10:31am
A number of important points are brought out by Fr. Langan but I still say the most basic right we have is the right to life and Obama does not show that he recognizes this. God help the United States of America!
OBI OBIEKWE | 5/1/2009 - 11:40pm
Thank you Father Langan for this article. It is one of the most balanced I have read on this topic for a long time. "The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light." (Matthew 6:22)
Robert Koch | 5/1/2009 - 9:53pm
I cannot, and I will not, support the presidency of Obama. In my opinion, Obama cares little about the concerns of conservatives, Catholics, the unborn, and Christianity in general. I count the very days until he is out of office.