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Politics and Church, Integrity & Hypocrisy
by James Hitchcock
May 1, 2004
Do churches have the right to determine who are members in good standing? The answer seems obvious, but now we are being told that there is a category of people to whom that does not apply. They are, of course, politicians. Several bishops have raised the possibility of denying communion to public officials who support abortion. (Those who call themselves "Vatican II Catholics" might recall that that venerable council called abortion "an abominable crime.")
The objection is that this violates the principle of separation of church and state, in that church officials are dictating how politicians must vote. But that is not precise. I know of no bishop who has simply instructed someone to vote a particular way. Instead they warn that, if a public official votes a certain way, certain consequences may follow. This is merely a fact of life. All our actions have consequences, including some we might not want. Politicians are not entitled to a free ride.
Those who criticize the bishops themselves violate the separation of church and state by in effect telling the bishops who is a member of the Church in good standing. Should plumbers, bank presidents, and computer programmers, but not politicians, be subject to ecclesiastical discipline? Denying bishops that authority seriously diminishes the freedom of the Church.
Sharon Davis, wife of the former governor of California who was once (only once) denied communion, used the recent pro-abortion rally in Washington to urge Catholic women to refuse to receive communion, as an act of protest. I think she may have it right.
Catholic politicians who support abortion say that their consciences require them to do so. That implies that Catholic teaching on the subject is simply wrong, and those politicians should cease the pious fraud of claiming to be "personally opposed." (The Catholic mayor of San Francisco has rattled off a whole list of Catholic teachings from which he has "liberated" himself.) Such people should admit publicly, "I'm really not a Catholic, and it is hypocritical for me to pretend that I am." But they are more than eager to profess their Catholicism if they think it brings political advantage.
Much of the criticism of bishops is itself hypocritical. When Pope John Paul II came to St. Louis in 1999, he made a plea for a man on death row, and the governor (who was not a Catholic) commuted the sentence. There was no outcry over separation of church and state. Another dramatic incident has been shoved down the memory hole because to recall it now would be inconvenient. In 1962 the archbishop of New Orleans excommunicated several Catholic politicians for their unyielding defense of racial segregation. The resistance began to crumble, and liberals praised the archbishop for his courage.
Liberals have not in the meantime had second thoughts about religion and public life. Rather the issues have changed. Some liberals ask whether the bishops are going to deny communion to those who support the death penalty, and they make it clear that they would approve if this were done. In the end their complaint comes down to "You're not supporting our agenda."
Catholic politicians who support abortion claim that they cannot impose their own views on the public. But this is disingenuous. All polls show the country split down the middle on the issue, with a solid majority in favor of banning partial-birth abortions. When a politician takes a position, he is favoring one part of his constituency over another.
This is an especially acute issue for the Democratic Party, because there has been a substantial leakage of voters over the "social issues," especially abortion, and the party has been willing to let those people go almost without a fight. Although most blacks vote Democratic, polls also show blacks more opposed to abortion than are whites. There are ample grounds for pro-life politicians to say, "I'm just responding to the will of the people."
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's latest works, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.] E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock
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