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C. N. Sue Abromaitis on Rhetorical Evasions of the Pro-Life Imperative
For over three decades I have watched with increasing grief and incredulity the efforts by various leaders of the Catholic Church to paper over the material and formal cooperation with evil of Catholic politicians who support the death of the innocent under the guise of a concern for women and a respect for personal freedom and the law of the land. (The principles will apply to other churches with pro-choice politicians, though they will have their own disciplinary arrangements and problems.)
The most pernicious and successful evasions of the obligations to call evil by its name and to exercise the required discipline of the church have been the mantra “personally opposed but” and the metaphor “the seamless garment.” Now there is another method for papering over the support by Catholic politicians for abortion: the transformationist alternative to either separationist or interventionist positions.
The mantra was the gift of the Jesuit priest, Robert Drinan, who supported abortion before Roe v. Wade. His formulation, “personally opposed but,” dominated addresses, letters, defenses, and campaign speeches throughout the end of the last century, and still find their way into print and talk today. The banality of this phrase was exposed when the word “slavery” was substituted for “abortion.” But banality, like intrinsic dishonesty, is not enough to prevent the incantation of these words.
The metaphor was the gift of late Cardinal Bernardin. His opposition to abortion was never the issue. His metaphor, the seamless garment, became, somehow, the basis of equating actions that are always per se evil, like abortion and euthanasia, with those that involve prudential judgments about implementation and/or application, like poverty, capital punishment, and war.
Slovenly thinking in moral theology is always harmful. The carelessness of thought behind “the seamless garment” has been particularly pernicious because it provides cover for Catholic politicians who are pro-abortion. They are able to cite their political positions on specific legislative programs that promise to ease the lot of the poor and their absolute opposition to capital punishment or war as proof that their seamless garment is fuller than the one covering their pro-life opponents who demur (for reasons of principle) from particular legislative programs, or support the imposition of capital punishment, or believe in the just-war theory.
No Middle Way
Those were the methods of the past thirty years. We now have a twenty-first-century way to continue disguising pro-abortion politicians. The so-called “transformationist” position is presented as the middle way between “separationism” and “interventionism.” Transformationists see persuasion as the answer to the continuing scandal of prominent Catholics voting for abortion and against any constraint of it.
They acknowledge that morality and the state cannot be separated and reject the “separationist” mode of thought. But equally, they reject any official intervention in the lives of erring politicians. They apply the pejorative word “interventionist” to those (especially bishops) who insist that the public sin of advocating abortion cannot co-exist with full communion with the church. “Interventionist” implies interference, the work of a busybody and, in this case, a violator of the separation of church and state.
Transformationists often cite, as proof that “ intervention” fails, a politician’s winning an election after his bishop said that he could not receive Communion. The confusion of thought is off-putting. The bishop did not bar the politician from Communion because he thought doing so would make him lose. He barred him because his actions were a public evil and put his own soul in peril.
Transformationists also insist that members of the laity have special competence in their own sphere, which a bishop has no right to judge. But this has no relevance to a bishop’s refusing Communion to a public dissenter. The bishop is not telling politicians or voters what to do in their particular areas of competence. He is being a bishop, a shepherd, exercising his God-given authority to chastise the sinner in the hope that such action will lead to repentance on his part and on the part of all who would substitute their political agendas for the moral law.
Transformationists often argue that public statements of the moral teachings of the church violate the need for dialogue. They refer to Christ’s Last Supper with the apostles, including Judas and Peter, as proof that all are welcome at the altar of the Lord and that Catholics, particularly politicians, are not to be publicly pressured. But again, no one is debating political issues. The bishops are performing their pastoral duty in saying that public sinners are cut off from the church and in calling on sinners to repent. Their immortal souls are at stake.
Some decades ago a bishop in Louisiana refused a Catholic burial to a prominent politician who was also a public racist, and similarly a bishop in New York refused a well-known criminal a Catholic burial. Were these bishops “interventionists”? Yes. Is that a bad thing? No.
One can only imagine what a public and serious intervention by bishops immediately after Roe v. Wade might have accomplished. Perhaps Justice William Brennan would not have become increasingly perfervid in his pro-death decisions if the bishops in the United States had declared that he could not persist in his immoral acts and receive Communion. Had the bishops spoken out immediately about the separation from the body of the church that promoting abortion would bring, perhaps there would not be so many prominent members of Congress and state and local officials supporting abortion while claiming to be Catholic.
Although the past cannot be changed, it can serve as a warning about the future. Neither the mantra nor the metaphor seems to have resulted in the many Catholic judges, politicians, and voters who used them having greater respect for innocent life. Anything short of a proclamation by the bishops of this country that there is a profound gulf between those who do not protect innocent human life and full communion with the church will result in a continuation of the scandal. The gulf cannot be papered over by clichés and cheap think.
C. S. Lewis once noted that without courage there is no virtue. To be a faithful follower of Christ has always required extraordinary courage. One need only reflect on the martyred bishops in the early Church, and the martyred bishops in the Communist countries to realize that such courage is available. If they could face the stake or the gulag, our bishops can face a senator or a governor.
C. N. Sue Abromaitis is Professor of English at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland.