BALTIMORE — Barely a week after the elections marked a dramatic shift in the battle over life issues, the nation’s bishops’ conference gathered to reinvigorate its own defense of life.
At its semi-annual meeting in Baltimore Nov. 10-12, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also staked out a firm defense of religious freedom.
Not only did the election to the presidency of a strongly pro-abortion candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., animate the bishops’ meeting. The election of Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., as the first Catholic vice president raised expectations that their conference might adopt a unified national policy regarding the reception of the Eucharist by pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who once participated in civil rights protests demanding full equality for black Americans, rejoiced that a black American could be elected president. But he questioned the criteria many Catholics used to assess the candidates.
“We have to get the message out that there is no new way to be pro-life, as some abortion-rights supporters suggested during the campaign,” said Cardinal O’Malley.
During the 2008 campaign, pro-abortion Biden publicly contested Church teaching on abortion.
As the bishops gathered, the American Life League, Maryland Right to Life, Defend Life and the Catholic Media Coalition organized a prayer vigil, press conference and a full-page ad in USA Today designed to apply Canon 915 to voting. The canon states: “Those … obstinately persevering in grave and manifest sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion.”
But the bishops’ conference leadership didn’t vote on Communion-related issues. Instead, the conference president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, announced plans to issue a letter on the “present political situation” that would restate Catholic teaching on abortion, advocate the rights of Catholics to engage the political process, and affirm the bishops’ desire to work with President-elect Obama for the common good.
Issues related to Canon 915 were not included in an outline of the letter circulated during the meeting.
Cardinal O’Malley explained the bishops’ caution regarding a more aggressive implementation of Canon 915. “I’m not enthusiastic about asking people to deny Communion to other Catholics,” he said. “We leave it to individuals to take responsibility for their decision to receive the Eucharist. Our teaching involves every Catholic, not only politicians.”
The election of a Democratic president who has a strong pro-abortion agenda, along with strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, lent special urgency to unscheduled but critical discussions regarding potential threats to the religious freedom of both individual Catholics and Church-run institutions. At issue is the Freedom of Choice Act, proposed legislation that Obama has vowed to sign into law if passed by Congress. (See related front-page story.)
At the opening of the meeting, Cardinal George issued a powerful statement that compared the historic election of an African-American as president of the United States with the previous, equally historic election of the first Catholic president.
Though Obama was never “asked to renounce his racial heritage,” Cardinal George noted, “John Kennedy was asked to promise that his Catholic faith would not influence his perspective and decisions as president a generation ago.
“Echoes of that debate remain in the words of those who reject universal moral propositions that have been espoused by the human race throughout history, with the excuse that they are part of Catholic moral teaching,” the conference president continued.
In contrast to the celebratory mood of bishops’ meetings in the 1980s, when pastoral letters on nuclear weapons and economic policy drew wide attention from the media and earned the approbation of anti-nuke groups, the mood at the November conference appeared subdued, even tentative.
After more than 100 bishops issued statements clarifying the moral priority of Catholic teaching on abortion prior to the election, the outcome caused many to doubt the impact of their public witness.
Mark Gray, director of Catholic polls at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, was quoted in Our Sunday Visitor, pointing out that, in several cases, bishops’ statements did appear to have an effect.
But as Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., pointed out, “The election didn’t produce many ‘pure’ votes: California passed a referendum upholding traditional marriage, and many voted for the presidential candidate based on economic reasons.
“We should be careful about pinning hopes on elections and exaggerating their meaning,” he said. “But the outcome is a concern for everyone who cares about human life.”
The low priority many Catholic voters assigned to life issues also frustrated Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, author of the best-selling Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Public Life and an outspoken Catholic leader during the election.
The archbishop said he would welcome a stronger position articulated by the bishops, if only because it would make his work easier. “Without a unified position, those of us who speak out are branded ‘mavericks,’” he noted.
During the presidential campaign, Archbishop Chaput publicly requested that Sen. Biden, while in Denver for the Democratic Party Convention, “refrain from presenting himself for Communion if he supports a false ‘right’ to abortion.”
“It’s not always possible to wait for perfect collaboration,” Archbishop Chaput concluded. “We have a teaching of the Church. That is more important than policy.”
Joan Frawley Desmond filed this report
from the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore.