The Bishops & The Pro-Life Cause: Time for a New Pastoral Letter

Cardinal Francis George, President of the Bishops’ Conference, is to be commended for the statement he issued last night opposing the final health care reform bill. I do not agree with the policy conclusion reached by the USCCB, as I mentioned yesterday. Still, unlike some of the previous statements coming from the USCCB, and unlike some of the statements from his brother bishops, Cardinal George is neither unduly strident in his claims nor condemnatory of those who disagree. For example, he acknowledges the USCCB disagreement with the Catholic Health Association, and chides them for being naïve, but he does not question their Catholic identity as some have done. The whole tone of the letter is one of sadness, which would seem to be the appropriate sentiment for someone who genuinely wants health care reform but feels compelled not to support the final bill.

It is painful to see the Church’s bishops unable to support this bill. It is painful, too, to see the charges and counter-charges within the Church, as if legislation had replaced the Creed as the test of orthodoxy. But, one thing seems abundantly clear to me as we near the end of the health care debate: The passage of universal health care will go down as a landmark pro-life victory. In part, this is because of the support for pregnant women in the bill, the fact that countries with universal health care almost always have a lower abortion rate than here in the U.S., and because the bill’s requirement that abortion coverage be paid for every month with a separate premium check will remind millions of Americans that abortion is not health care, and the reminder will come every month.


But, the debate has also exposed something surprising about the pro-life cause: that it means so many different things to so many different people, and that these differences even appear to exist within the Episcopal bench itself. And this leads me to think that the USCCB should consider undertaking a pastoral letter on what it means to be pro-life in America in this second decade of the twentieth century. This thought came to me at the end of my post yesterday, when I pointed out that in the 1980s, the bishops issued two really significant pastoral letters, one on the economy and the other on nuclear war, and that in those teaching documents they made the point that at the level of moral principle the bishops enjoyed a high degree of certainty but that as they got to the legislative and policy level, their moral certainty was necessarily lessened. N.B. This is not to say that prudential political judgment can be used as a cover to dodge moral judgment: Prudence is a virtue, and political judgment, even one on so pedestrian a decision as a parliamentary vote to end debate, can be fraught with moral significance.

The process the bishops adopted in the 1980s was important. A committee of bishops was formed and they listened to experts and ordinary folk across the country. They consulted theologians both here and abroad. They analyzed the statements of other episcopal conferences and the Holy See. The process took several years but it proved to be a learning process all around. The complexities, in the best sense of the word, of the Church’s social teaching became manifest. The Church’s commitment to peace and justice were made clear in ways it had not been before, and the final documents met with widespread concurrence both among the bishops and among the people in the pews. The pastorals changed public opinion among Catholics. In 1983, only a third of American Catholics believed America was spending too much on weapons and defense, the same percentage as among Protestant Americans. In 1984, 54 percent of American Catholics held that belief, while the percentage for Protestants was unchanged.

Many Catholics dismiss the bishops as pawns of the Republican Party, a charge that is false. Others have come to ignore the bishop’s teaching authority entirely. Continuing with a piecemeal approach, issuing statements here, lobbying there, have not served the necessary purpose of uniting the flock around the teachings of the Church. Those teachings demand more than showing up at the March for Life, useful though that March is as a public witness. The Church’s teachings about life are richer than merely opposing abortion, and it is far from clear how one can politically and legally enact the moral principles that flow from our commitment to life. It is time for the bishops to do for the pro-life cause what they did for economic justice and issues of war and peace in the 1980s. It is time to listen, to consult and to teach.

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Marc Monmouth
7 years 8 months ago
Yes, David Nickol, pro-life means anti-abortion. You cannot be pro-life wiithout being anti-abortion.
William Lindsey
7 years 8 months ago
''But, the debate has also exposed something surprising about the pro-life cause: that it means so many different things to so many different people, and that these differences even appear to exist within the Episcopal bench itself.''
Really?  I would have thought that would have been obvious to all of us long since.
Particularly when rampaging mobs screaming ''Baby killer!'' during the last election, as they also hurled racial epithets, showed to all of us just how interwined with something other than pro-life causes the movement and its rhetoric had become.
And I can't imagine the bishops were unaware of that intertwining.  Their silence, as the movement has gotten itself connected to causes that represent the antithesis of a pro-life stance, has suggested to me for a long time that the investment in a pro-life ethic has to do with more than the abortion issue.
David Nickol
7 years 8 months ago
It appears to me the earlier demands that illegal immigrants be covered under health care reform have been all but forgotten by the USCCB, and "pro-life" in reality means "anti-abortion."
Brian Thompson
7 years 8 months ago
If you don't have life, you cannot preserve it.
James Lindsay
7 years 8 months ago
I disagree the at annual March for Life is a good thing, since it keeps the focus on the unlikely overturning of Roe v. Wade. Even if you think that Roe was created from whole cloth, overturning it judicially would do damage to equal protection jurisprudence which many of the societally disfavored count on (and it is not lost on me that many in the Church dislike the same groups - which makes the lesson of Roe all the more necessary).

The result in Roe is tragic, however given the tenth chapter of the decision, it was necessary. Unless some legal recognition is given to the fetus by the national legislature, the plain language of the Constitution is very clear about when legal protection under it begins. Until legal personhood is a reality, the rights of the fetus cannot be considered legally. The venue to grant such rights is not the Courts (that would be judicial activism) and it is not the states (as they are not sovereign in these matters), but the Congress.

Fixating on Roe may help Republicans organize to appoint Justices who may overturn Roe (although Roberts and Alito do not seem to be moving in that direction), but they do nothing to focus the debate on where it should be. Oddly, Barack Obama at least made noises in the Presidential debates about legislatively ending all late term abortions (not just those involving Dialation and Extraction). As a constitutional scholar, he at least knows which venue this issue must be decided in. We should, by all means, hold him to his promise. It would help if we quit calling him a foreign born socialist if we want to do this, however.
7 years 8 months ago
Mr. Bindner, you're understanding of Roe & its "necessity" is fundamentally incorrect.  Roe holds that, at least in early stages of pregnancy, the stake lacks a compelling interest to regulate or prohibit abortion.  That is to say, any and all legislative bodies lack the power to so act, federal or state.  Roe does not stand for the proposition that only the Federal Congress can regulate abortion, as it has tried to do unsuccessfully.  Aside from the "no-holds-barred" policy with respect to abortion, the lamentable thing about Roe from a conservative (not necessarily Catholic) perspective is that the effect of the decision was to REMOVE from public debate, particularly at the state level where this issue had ALWAYS been decided (hence Roe's challenge to a state statute) and to "constitutionalize" an issue on which there was no consensus.  Therefore, the conservative jurisprudential argument re overturning Roe is to return the decision to the state level, where a mismatch of state policies would emerge.  This mismatch is, of course, unacceptable to most liberals, but mismatched state policies are not matters of constitutional importance simply because they are mismatched.
I don't think I disagree with Mr. Winters's post, except that I had to scratch my head at his apparent concern with "strident debate."  American political debate is tame compared to the rest of the world (ever watch Prime Minister's question time on CSPAN?), and relative to American political history as well.  In my experience, liberals only whine about "strident" debate when they lose one.
David Nickol
7 years 8 months ago
Joe Milbo: You may not be able to be pro-life without being anti-abortion, but clearly there are a lot of people who are anti-abortion who don't qualify as being pro-life. I don't see how it is pro-life to be concerned about the lives of the unborn but not about the lives of the "post-born." 
Marc Monmouth
7 years 8 months ago
Dave Nickol, who said pro-life people are not concerned with the lives of the "post-born"? That is a lie that liberals believe if you repeat often enough, people will believe. 
Helena Loflin
7 years 8 months ago
I don't know how anyone can claim to be pro-life while being anti-reform.  The insurance industry demonstrates it's anti-life (if I may, "death panel") creds every single day by terminating coverage, denying coverage and making coverage financially unattainable.  Women, especially child-bearing age women, are particularly vulnerable to the industry's predatory anti-life practices involving pre-existing conditions.
Based on the Republican bishops' apparent tolerance of the hate-mongering (Baby killer!  Infanticide!) fanned by the pro-life movement during the last presidential election, I believe that the bishops are indeed party pawns.  A false charge?  Not so much.  If the bishops were not pawns, they would be criticizing the Republican leadership for not doing enough (anything?) while in power to aggressively legislate away abortion rights.  The ONLY times I recall the party bishops and leaders promoting "discourse" about restricting abortion is when it's politically advantageous.  In other words, between elections and during periods when the Republicans are in power, the silence concerning restriction of abortion rights is deafening.      
ron chandonia
7 years 8 months ago
Michael, why would Catholics who share your outlook listen to the sort of pastoral you propose?  To read the left-leaning Catholic blogs these past few days, you'd think a ''devout'' (they're always ''devout'') Protestant law prof at Washington & Lee had a better grasp of the moral issues involved in the health care debate than the Catholic bishops as a group and the entire staff at the USCCB.  For a fleeting moment, I thought perhaps America (not NCR, not Commonweal, but surely America) would defer to the moral leadership of our bishops rather than rallying round the partisan flag.  No chance!  And now you rub it in their faces with this cynical proposal.  Why don't you just ask your man in the WH to write the pastoral?  I'm sure you'd like it better.
James Lindsay
7 years 8 months ago
Mr. Landry, privacy only has meaning as a right when the fetus is considered property. You are correct that the federal Congress cannot regulate abortion in the first trimester, per se. However, Congress can recognize the existence of people in the first trimester under its 14th Amendment powers, which is not the same thing. If it does so, privacy falls because the newly recognized person has a life interest of its own. Of course, recognizing that right presents its own problems, since full up legal recognition means that abortion is considered legally to be homicide rather than a prohibited medical practice. It is impossible to go back to the days when abortion can be controlled with fines on doctors and sent to the back alley. It is either homicide or must be legal. You can't fudge a middle ground because people don't want to put mothers in jail.

I have yet to see a cogent argument for regulating first trimester abortions which take into all the ramifications of a fetus as a full up legal person. You simply cannot do it in such a manner as to not make it offensive, since the implication must be that every miscarriage deserves an investigation. You want to see investigators killed (or at least punched in the nose) in droves, just try sending police or health department personnel to interview families about the circumstances of the event at such an emotionally charged time. You can object that it would never happen, but if the police don't have that power any ban on first trimester abortions is easily evadable.

Until the pro-life side understands that this is as much a debate about police power as it is about life, it will never understand how people can be both personally against abortion and pro-choice at the same time and until they get that understanding, they stand no chance of being at all effective.

Of course, most people do not mind this fact, since it makes many pro-life and Republican fundraisers quite wealthy. The best way to become rich in politics is to fundraise around an unsolveable problem. In fact, losing is good for business. After health care reform passes, NRLC and GOP donations will go through the roof, since nothing succeeds like failure. PT Barnum explained why.
7 years 8 months ago
Mr. Bindner:
1. Your "legal" analysis is such a hodgepodge of hyperbole and mis-information (how, pray tell, does the 14th Amendment allow Congress to declare a fetus a person?) as to be unintelligible.
2. Your ad hominem attacks on the "GOP & Pro-lifers" is so uncharitable and ridiculous is unworthy of responding to.


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