An Old-Fashioned Slug Fest E-mail
2004 Summer


All right, all right. Far from sticking his nose into the internal affairs of the Roman Catholic Church, an Episcopalian-the one talking at this moment-probably should undertake to keep lip tightly zipped. Much of the highly publicized stuff that prominent Anglicans dispense these days on matters theological and moral is, I confess, stunningly awful. I am particularly taken with the spacious viewpoint of one of our northeastern bishops, who, queried a few years ago regarding his commitment to scriptural authority, declared: "The church wrote the Bible. The church can rewrite it." The Bible as Weblog: you have to admit it's a striking concept.

But enough about us. What about the flowering of the debate this year in Roman Catholic circles concerning the imputed duty of elected Roman Catholics to support and protect, legislatively speaking, unborn life?

It is not that an Anglican would dare try to arbitrate such a scrap or even to kibitz the principals. On the other hand, Americans of every philosophical stamp, or none at all, have a stake in the outcome of ongoing attempts by some Catholics to introduce moral decisiveness to a controversy famous for laxity and evasion. The decisiveness consists in asking pointedly, meaningfully: How can you say you believe what you won't defend?

Large considerations push their way forward: religious freedom, religious duty, the premise of America as a land committed to the sovereignty of God, the relevance of that commitment amid the fast-growing taste for some gauzy fragment called "pluralism."

The bare bones of the matter have long been visible: Particular Catholic politicians who "personally" opppose abortion but decline to get in the way of women wanting them; particular Catholic bishops who have resolved to call these same politicians to account-advising them that a Catholic politician of this sort is a contradiction in terms.

Among these politicians is the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, John Forbes Kerry. This elevates the matter to some prominence. So do statements by particular Catholic prelates-Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis led the way months ago-to the effect that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should not receive, or be allowed to receive, the consecrated Body of Christ. The refusal of communion would signify the infidelity of these politicians to a crucial Christian principle, that of respect for life: that very life which the Author of Life restored to His crucified Son, that Son whom catholic Christians receive at the Altar, upon their tongues or outstretched hands.

Corpus Christi; "The Body of Christ;" "The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee . . ." (for so the Anglicans still sometimes say)-various formulas, a single reality; awful, terrible, in the sacred sense of those domesticated adjectives. What comes to pass as bodies of Christian people receive Christ's Body at the Altar? According to one ancient liturgy, "Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand."

You have to know-no other way of looking at it is possible-that it is serious business, this matter of the Mass, the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, the Lord's Supper. There have to be some rules, some requirements, some stringency in how the invitation list is composed. No less an authority than St. Paul advised, in this spirit, "Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." It may be that the apostle was attached to the Vatican in some bureaucratic capacity or other, but I have not heard of it. What we hear from him on this question, as on everything else, qualifies as "mere Christianity," to apply C. S. Lewis' characterization.

Notwithstanding that only a few bishops had by summer aligned themselves with Burke's intentions or program, the controversy was already achieving some legs. Forty-eight Capitol Hill Catholics, including some regarded (at least by the New York Times) as anti-abortion, protested in May to the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C. The letter they wrote called this prospective use of pastoral sanctions "deeply hurtful." (If modern politics has an overriding purpose, it must be that of ensuring no member of a major constituency ever feels "hurt" about anything.) A month later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in. The bishops' statement, adopted 183-6, was far less yielding than many of us, a decade ago, would automatically have predicted, as coming from bishops. It didn't lay down a unitary national policy. It did call on "those who formulate law" to work against "morally defective laws," and it warned Catholics in public life to protect human life and work against legal abortion, "lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and sinning against the common good."

It may be inferred that eucharistic theology isn't the mass media's intellectual long suit. On the other hand, newspeople recognize and value a good old-fashioned slugfest when they see one shaping up. This was one for sure: bishops vs. politicians, right-wingers vs. women, fundamentalists vs. progressives, all of it against the backdrop of the most bitterly contested presidential election in decades. It takes the breath away.

For which it may be high time in the case of us all, Catholics or Protestants, Democrats or Republicans. The whole matter of the "personally opposed" politician who publicly supports "abortion rights" is ripe for addressing, or perhaps just owning up to. Particular public figures need detaching from the large screens behind which, Wizard of Oz-like, they pump out noise and smoke. Politesse, weariness, moral ambiguity, fear, a pragmatic weighing of particular politicians' assets and liabilities-in different degree, these and related factors have over the years allowed self-styled political progressives to serve two masters: the truth and the feminist lobby. Not even to notice, far less care, is to abdicate the moral responsibility inherent in any decision to seek and assume public office.

No election cycle could possibly settle such questions once and for all. What this cycle might achieve is our introduction to the habit of looking at the moral element in politics. Politics as morality? Clearly a divisive, Cromwellian way of looking at things. No, thanks. But then think of politics divested of moral considerations-as with abortion. The will of the majority, or of those with the majority of the guns, is perforce superior to all other considerations.

We need carefully to ponder the bishops' premises, and those of others, in challenging the right of a Catholic elected official to dismiss the church's moral guidance as to abortion. By now, of course, we know fairly well how the land lies. Down this trail we have traveled hundreds, thousands, of times. The idea, as we generally receive it, is that the Supreme Court trumps the Vatican. Catholic politicians have for the past couple of decades clucked their tongues helplessly over their inability to rise to the occasion and oppose and resist abortion. We'd-love-to-but . . . is their carefully formulated position.

Then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo set the tone and tempo in 1984 when he spoke at Notre Dame University on "Religious Belief and Public Morality." Cuomo affirmed, among other things, that "to assure our freedoms, [Catholics] must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful." In other words, though Cuomo might himself "accept the church's teaching on abortion"-a rather pallid way of putting it, I should think-he wasn't about to "insist you do," too, lest by doing so he should imperil fellow Catholics' "right to be Catholic." The American scheme of things, as Cuomo depicted it, seems to rest upon religious quietude. The governor wrung cheers and tears with passages designed for the purpose. Not least in his debt were fellow Catholic politicians glad to see him running interference for them, distributing whys and wherefores ready for the taking. John Kerry has scooped up his own handful of these: voicing to an Iowa newspaper recently his personal opposition to abortion, his belief that "life begins at conception"; elsewhere letting it be known that "I don't tell church officials what to do, and church officials shouldn't tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life."

The Kerry website, without going into detail about the glories of aborting your unborn child if you jolly well want to (best not to arouse needless fears among the almost-converted?) expresses shock that "women are witnessing an unprecedented erosion of their basic rights," what with attempts to "gag doctors from even mentioning abortion to their patients, freeze funding for family planning across the world, [take] away their constitutional right to choose, and [ban] medical procedures even when a woman's health is at stake."

The rhetoric here is important to note: "erosion of rights"; "take away"; "ban"; "church officials"; "tell American politicians what to do"; "our public life." Some pretty disturbing stuff must be going on out there on the pro-life front, with the Church providing cover to the perpetrators, who are out there trying to "ban" things. Not only is candidate Kerry going to throttle their efforts, he wants to make quick work of any suspicion he might submit to orders from the Vatican. It's "church officials" against . . . you. Thus Kerry would put it. He's on your side, kid. No professionally employed religious authority is going tell President John Forbes Kerry "what to do." If any telling gets done, he'll do it himself.

There is a whiff here of John Kennedy's assurances to Southern Baptist audiences in 1960 that he wasn't running to become the Vatican's man in the White House; however, that was a time with religious sensibilities considerably different from ours. The tendency then was to regard religion as a natural player in public affairs: not the principal attraction but a large one certainly. Kerry is addressing different concerns. He seems to want it known that no religious concerns, period, never mind whose, are going to cancel out the American people's solemn secular will. This is a rather odd thing to be saying in a country proud of its religious commitments and undertakings. An odd thing but maybe also one that reflects where America could be moving-and where it will move faster and more decisively, the longer we pretend not to notice pretense like Kerry's.

That pretense, I say, is of honest Yankee refusal to kiss any Pope's solid gold ring. Which is ludicrous. What we witness actually is dishonest refusal to acknowledge the continuing claim on us of the ancient tradition of life's sacredness. The Vatican is one important party to that tradition, but not the only party by any means. The tradition is that of the West and East alike, from earliest Christian times.

Legal respect for unborn life-prior to Roe v. Wade-was founded on several factors, chief among them the divine origin of life. As the historian W. E. H. Lecky would note more than a century ago, pagan Rome and Greece had scant sympathy with unborn life. The Catholic Church, by contrast, came down strongly on the other side, denouncing abortion (in Lecky's words) "not simply as inhuman, but definitely as murder. In the penitential discipline of the church, abortion was placed in the same category as infanticide."

None of these considerations cut much ice with the Roe court, whose majority opinion, in 1973, reduced the religious point of view to little more than an interesting historical footnote. This figured. By 1973, the justices had spent a decade deconstructing the traditional view of public life and religious life as complementary rather than opposed; of church and state as dual pillars of the American experiment; of the religious tradition as foundational in the American concept of freedom. Talk about rewriting Scripture!

The notion foisted on us by the jurisprudence that began with outlawing recitation of a generic classroom prayer is that secular life and religion have relatively little to do with each other. Oh, well, maybe military chaplains, God's name in the national motto, a few things like that we might put up with; but let's not overdo it. To this effect the judicial establishment counsels.

The stout statements of founding fathers like Adams and Washington, attesting to the importance of religion in public life, escape judicial notice for the most part. An epistolary metaphor by Thomas Jefferson-"wall of separation between Church & State"-outweighs other testimonies, so far as the high court is persuaded, as to how the fathers meant us to understand church-state interaction. The Ten Commandments, we recently learned, may not be displayed in an Alabama court building. Offering "the Lord thy God" room on state property to advertise his wares might persuade casual onlookers that the State of Alabama attributed to God some special consequence and status. That would never do! Twenty-first-century jurisprudence instructs us (if not in so many words) to treat God as an opinion-a pretty strong but hardly definitive one. Nor does there presently seem much likelihood of reducing the height of that wall of separation the justices apparently have set their hearts on constructing.

What an American is obliged to assume, on Kerry's and Cuomo's joint showing, is that religious witness in our time has been reduced to impotence-for public purposes at least. Oh, well, maybe there's pragmatic value in the enduringness of the religious conscience. But such a conscience has to fend for itself. We can't have the state taking its cues from the kind of people who want to ban abortion. For that matter, we can't have the state even appearing to agree with what is coming out of an archbishop's mouth. The ancient assumption of a natural law, filling the whole of life with testimony to the wonder and the power of God, would seem an idea seriously past its prime. Can we start to understand now where secularism is getting us?

That barren locality, with its abysses and slippery slopes, does rather detract from the vision that a good Catholic boy like Kerry might be expected to have encountered somewhere along the way-a vision given memorable form in 1960 by the Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray, in his classic work, We Hold These Truths. Forty-four years, considering all that has happened in and to America since Fr. Murray wrote, have made clearer than ever before the nature of the relationship he sought to limn between the secular power and the Church.

The founding fathers, he observed, thought "the life of man in society under government is founded on truth, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible. If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke." And on from there: "[T]he first article of the American political faith is that the political community, as a form of free and ordered human life, looks to the sovereignty of God as to the first principle of its organization." As opposed to secularism, which sees "no eternal order of truth and justice . . . no universal verities that require man's assent, no universal moral law that commands his obedience." It sees instead majority rule as "the highest governing principle of statecraft, from which there is no appeal." And the churches, what are they under such a dispensation? Merely "private associations organized for particular purposes" and clearly subordinate to the state.

That would not count as a description of the world which Christians traditionally imagined themselves to be inhabiting-a world described in the old hymn as "my Father's," wherein "the morning light, the lily white declare their Maker's praise." For knowledge of where that world has gone you might make application to the U.S. Supreme Court: though some sense of the matter, and the accumulating force of the new doctrine, may be gathered on the Kerry website.

Brother to the abortion controversy is the fracas-growing fast now- over the use of fetal stem cells, hypothetically to find a cure for Parkinson's and other diseases. John Kerry and his team buy into the notion that President Bush, by hemming in the options of researchers (viz., permitting them to use only "old" stem cells) is again dancing to the tune of the professionally religious. And of course we can't have that, any more than we can have religious-inspired restrictions on the right to abort a pregnancy.

In debate, definition can be all-important. You seek to define a proposition the way that best serves your tactical purposes. Succeeding at that enterprise, you force opponents to fight on your turf. In this manner the stem- cell debate is fast shaping up. This thing is not about dead fetuses, we are assured; it is about science, and the prospective saving of real lives-your father's, your child's, your own-from nameless horrors. Religious arguments have to make room for more spacious considerations than just the cavils and carpings of-borrowing from Fr. Murray-"private associations organized for particular purposes." A creature of God-a fetus-we might once have supposed worthy of some unusual respect in these matters. But God might prove an overbearing participant in the discussion, possibly stopping the whole thing short and certainly interfering with those who entertain different views of His authority. What would happen to "pluralism" in such an environment? That's right-we wouldn't have it. And, for reasons the elite media would gladly explain to us, that would be very bad indeed.

Those Catholic bishops warning Catholic politicians of the spiritual consequences that flow from failing to deflect assaults on unborn life-such bishops are acting possibly with a keener sense of the moment than they themselves may sometimes perceive. Their intervention comes not a millisecond too soon, even if it invites the resentment of editorial writers, columnists, and of course Catholic politicians worried both about seeming too religious and not religious enough.

Speaking of such, and laying aside natural law considerations, have any of the objecting parties looked much into the fruitful thought of that old-fashioned Anglican, Edmund Burke, who laid out convincingly, for his time and our own, the strategy for responsible representation?

Burke's "> 

He declared: "To deliver an opinion is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear, and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions, mandates issued [e.g., you will at all times respect Roe v. Wade!], which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience-these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our Constitution . . ." There was something to be said in other words for conscience-for seeking to serve the people better than the people might imagine themselves at a given moment capable of being served.

Here was Burke on yet another occasion: "No man carries further than I do the policy of making government pleasing to the people. But the widest range of this politic complaisance is confined within the limits of justice . . . I never will act the tyrant for [the people's] amusement. If they will mix malice in their sports, I shall never consent to throw them any living, sentient creature whatsoever, no, not so much as a kitling, to torment."

To take in that last reference to living victims is to shiver with an intensity Burke could never have contemplated. But, then, you see, he believed "that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good, and of all comfort." Resuscitated, imported to America (whose resistance to the crown he applauded), fitted up with his own website and political action committee, the author of such sentiments would find his prospects narrow and himself shrilly accused of anti-pluralistic behavior. Would that stop him? No more, probably, than the same considerations inhibit courageous Catholics stepping forward today, speaking unwelcome truth to immense and daunting power.

And that truth? A fundamental one: You can't do this thing; not in "our Father's world" you can't.

William Murchison is Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University. He is also a long-time senior editor of this Review.