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.