The presidential election of 2008 was no different than many other elections in that a significant amount of rhetoric was employed by all involved, candidates and their surrogates alike. However, this election was also characterized by a notable amount of religious rhetoric, particularly by many in the Catholic hierarchy and others associated with them.
The 2008 election rehashed much of the debate surrounding abortion and Catholic politicians that was so prevalent in 2004, this time with a particular focus on the 2007 USCCB document Faithful Citizenship. I will note two themes.
The first concerns the bishops’ actions prior to the election. Paragraph 36 of Faithful Citizenship states: “When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.” It is this paragraph and the apparent opening that it provided for including other social justice issues in deciding one’s vote that, in my judgment, prompted sixty bishops to make the case that the single issue of abortion should in fact take priority in the voting booth. They set out to close what they perceived as a dangerous loophole and to keep abortion as the only relevant issue in the election.
The second theme regards the bishops’ statements after the election, which continue to emphasize the primacy of the abortion issue. In his concluding address to the November bishops’ meeting (and after he sent a statement of congratulations to Barack Obama), Cardinal Francis George, the president of the bishops’ conference, gave a presentation on the 2008 election consisting of nine paragraphs. The first paragraph identifies some social justice issues: immigration, education, health care, religious freedom, and peace at home and abroad. The remaining eight paragraphs are devoted in varying ways to the abortion issue, specifically the Freedom of Choice Act. In the same month, Cardinal Francis Stafford gave a lecture at Catholic University of America in which he noted that “On November 4, 2008, America suffered a cultural earthquake.” He then described President-elect Obama’s rhetoric as postmodern and marking an agenda that is “aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.” The cardinal noted that “apocalyptic either means resistance to the divine and natural laws on reproduction and the preservation of human life or states the fundamental law of post-Christian world history: the more Christ’s kingdom is manifested as the light of the world …the more it will meet determined opposition.”
Why should we reflect on this use of rhetoric? Perhaps because it did not serve its purpose of dissuading Catholics for voting for a candidate who is, among other positions, moderately pro-choice. A majority of Catholics voted for Obama. In the diocese of Scranton, where Bishop Joseph Martino interrupted a parish group meeting on Faithful Citizenship to declare that he was the only authentic teacher of Catholic doctrine in the diocese, a significant majority of Catholics voted for Obama. What might we learn from this?
First, strong mandates about single issue voting, particularly when they are perceived to be imperatives to vote for a particular candidate or party, are not well received by the majority of Catholics. It is important, therefore, to find a way of addressing the critical issues of the day in a way that invites people to dialogue, to a frank discussion of differences; but also to a conversation that seeks to understand the foundations of one’s positions, what values are critical, and what political consequences follow from them. We must seek out potential compromises, and find ways to collaborate on contentious issues.
Second, the rhetoric, particularly of the sixty or so bishops mentioned above, was presented in a manner that was authoritarian and condemnatory. It strongly suggested “do what we say or else,” and the tone of many bishops’ comments was fairly harsh and strident. Again the abortion issue is important. Yet it is also important to recognize that fewer and fewer Catholics respond to such threats and condemnations. For better or worse, the Catholic population in the United States is part of a country and culture that prizes freedom and autonomy. Like other Americans, Catholics are used to making their own decisions. What may have worked as a strategy in an earlier age with an immigrant church whose members were poorly educated will simply not work for the majority of Catholics today.
A Call for Dialogue
I will make two suggestions. First, the Catholic community needs an honest dialogue on sexuality. Clearly a majority of Catholics reject the teaching on contraception, and women who are Catholic obtain abortions in about the same numbers as those who are not. Many Catholics have sexual relations—whether heterosexual or homosexual—prior to marriage or enter into some other form of a civil union. Yet discussion the use of condoms even to prevent the transmission of the AIDS virus is prohibited.
Part of this discussion will have to entail an examination of the methodology used in sexual ethics, a methodology that is primarily deontological or principle-based. When there is any reference to the core life issues (abortion or euthanasia) or sexual matters (contraception, sexual intercourse, homosexuality) the method is deontological. Absolute principles, rights or values are invoked and give rise to absolute norms that permit no exceptions. This approach is frequently grounded in a vision of natural law that affirms the integrity of biological acts that is inbuilt by the creator and cannot be violated. The methodology looks at each act separately, divorced from its context, and ahistorically with respect to norm or principle. Thus all acts of artificial contraception are absolutely prohibited, as is in vitro fertilization using the egg and sperm of a heterosexual married couple. Direct abortions are sinful, and the rights of the fetus are absolute from fertilization onward. There are no exceptions to these norms or, as we used to say, no parvity of matter in the area of sexuality. Behavioral consequences follow—sin, excommunication, the possibility of condemnation by the hierarchy if one dissents and possible exclusion from the sacraments.
Another method, one that emerges from the social ethics tradition, offers a better way to engage these issues. This tradition also recognizes the centrality of norms and rules, but these are typically addressed with reference to their historical development, and with much attention to their consequences. Natural law arguments are not always at the center of this method. Rather, one looks to the social ethics tradition, expert opinion, philosophical, political and social analyses to determine the appropriate range of action. The methodology used by the American Catholic bishops in developing their pastoral letters The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All modeled this approach to great advantage. These letters did, to be sure, identify some principles that could not be violated, but the bishops also acknowledged that not all would agree with all of their conclusions. This method explicitly accepts the moral appropriateness of disagreement, and few, if any, behavioral consequences followed from disregarding the teachings of these letters, even from those who explicitly rejected the letters and in some cases the authority of the bishops to teach in these matters.
And this leads to the second point: we need a change in rhetoric, from authoritarianism and condemnation to invitation and respect. In the heat of the moment and operating out of a sense of the critical importance of our position, we all have the tendency to speak strongly and shut out the opposition. This strategy does not win the hearts or minds of anyone and certainly does not lay a foundation for cooperation or reconciliation.
When the rhetoric of an argument is reinforced by a position of authority, the danger of neither side in an argument hearing the other is magnified exponentially. And when such statements are accompanied by an invitation to a dialogue that seems to consist primarily of being informed of the teaching of the church on a particular point, such invitations are unlikely to be accepted.
Getting from Here to There
We need to examine why discourse within the church has sunk to the level it has, and what we can do to recover a respected place in the public square. This is important because it is clear that Obama is not going to seek the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and if the Freedom of Choice Act makes it through Congress, he has said he will sign it. Yet if these positions drive the entire political debate for the next four or eight years, the Catholic community will have missed a critical opportunity to engage in constructive ways to reduce the perceived need for abortion—not to mention the danger of ignoring, among other social realities, the serious financial situation we are currently in.
Perhaps we in the church can again learn how to listen and learn from others, how to respect others even as we disagree with them, and how to participate positively to the resolution of the substantive issues of our day. Faithful Citizenship and the agenda of the Common Ground Initiative may serve as helpful frameworks as we begin this process. For practical purposes, let us consider three issues the Obama administration has pledged to take up in its first months in offices: abortion, stem cell research and health care.
With regards to abortion, Catholics should heed the suggestion offered by John Kavanaugh, S.J., in America: “Most people open to the facts recognize that a human life has begun by the end of the first trimester of a pregnancy. It is at this point that some common ground may be reached to protect unborn human life.” Kavanaugh’s is a compromise position, but one that enables some movement on the abortion question. And it provides a common ground for achieving some important goals for people on both sides of the debate.
Second, shift the debate on embryonic stem cells from the status of the embryo to a social justice argument about the place of such research in the overall mission to save lives. If the goal of biomedical research is to promote health, where does this research fit into that goal? Would not similar amounts of money spent on public health projects do more for the overall well-being of the population? Highlighting the social justice issues associated with stem cell research can make a critical contribution to this public policy issue.
Finally, there is the question of health care. Previous church forays into this debate have been bogged down over whether abortion would be included in a universal health care package. The discussion should shift instead to the benefits of a health care reform, focusing particularly on general wellness programs, maternal health care and intervention programs for children.
A shift in rhetoric will not resolve all problems nor make substantive disagreements go away. Yet seeking common ground is the first step to bringing about much-needed reforms, and will go a long way toward improving the quality of political and social discussion. Who could object to that?