Craig Richardson on the "Public Witness, Public Scandal" conference.
On Thursday, the Ave Maria School of Law assembled an impressive group of scholars in Washington at the National Press Club to examine the controversy surrounding self-described Catholic lawmakers who continually ignore their faith when it comes to pro-life issues.
The forum, "Public Witness — Public Scandal: Faith, Politics, and Life Issues in the Catholic Church," was attended by more than 200 people in what proved to be a spirited and lively discussion on this critically important and timely issue.
The emcee for the full-day conference was Ave Maria School of Law’s Dean, Bernard Dobranski. He introduced the program by noting that the call of Vatican II, reiterated by our Holy Father John Paul II, is for all Catholics to use their place in life to transform the world and that those in public office have a special duty to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He noted that when Catholic elected officials support positions like abortion, which are the antithesis of what it means to be Catholic, they bring great scandal on themselves. They also create serious doubt in the minds of the faithful and confuse them as to whether the Church is really serious about its teaching on human life and whether they really need to worry about following such doctrine.
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, headed the first discussion, “Critique of Politicians’ Justifications.” Ave Maria School of Law had invited former Governor Mario Cuomo, who is credited with inventing the position “personally opposed but publicly for abortion,” but he was unable to attend and missed seeing George’s systematic demolition of his absurd position.
Professor George began his talk with a look at the Church’s position on life: that every human being, regardless of his stage of development, possesses fundamental rights, above all the right to life, and as such is entitled to the protection of the law. He then pointed out that life issues are really a matter of science and not philosophy or theology. Embryo, fetus, child, and adolescent all refer to stages in human development and what are needed at all stages are adequate nutrition and a hospitable environment.
George also noted that some who concede that life begins at conception claim that the unborn do not warrant rights because they are not “persons,” that only those with adequate mental capacity are “persons.” Taking this logic, he said, one could argue that human infants, severely mentally handicapped, and those with dementia are also not “persons” and therefore their lives can be also be taken. Indeed, he noted that some “ethicists” are currently making that very argument.
The Church’s position, he said, is superior because it holds that all humans, regardless of age, size, mental capacity, and stage of development are afforded an inalienable right to life simply because they are human beings. Everyone is equal, according to the magisterium, which solemnly declares for that reason that abortion, infanticide, embryonic research, cloning, and euthanasia are intrinsically evil. It is also why the Church stipulates that elected officials have a grave duty to protect human life at all stages. Their carrying out of this duty is a matter of extending justice to all and is not some “imposition” of Church teaching.
Professor George then dissected and rejected the arguments put forth by many of today’s politicians — Democrat and Republican alike — which are used to justify their support of abortion, cloning, embryonic research and other life issues. Sadly, he noted, many holding positions contrary to Church teaching claim to be Catholic. He then outlined the “Cuomo position,” which essentially argues that the Church’s position on abortion and other life issues are matters of “religion” which he must ignore because he is working in the public square where not everyone shares the same faith. George pointed out that the Church’s pro-life teaching is not a matter of religion; it is a fundamental norm of justice that can be viewed apart from faith. Killing the unborn, owning slaves, and exploiting workers would all be seen as matters of religion, that should not enter the public square according to Cuomo’s rationale.
The next panel, “Is Abortion Different from other Social Justice Issues?,” included Rev. John Langan, S.J., Cardinal Bernardin Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University and the Rose Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown, and Gerard V. Bradley, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame. Bradley pointed out that abortion is clearly different from other issues, including the war in Iraq and capital punishment, because abortion is intrinsically evil while the other two are not. Life must be defended with maximum force possible because an attack on the right to life is an attack on the very moral foundation of law and the political society. He also said he thinks Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s approach of allowing each bishop to impose his own sanctions against pro-abortion elected-officials is not ideal because it does not provide a uniformed response to the situation. In other words, the response doesn’t depend on the act in question, but rather on where an official happens to live or how well he or she knows a particular bishop.
Father Langan, after acknowledging that abortion is wrong, presented twelve points in the form of detached observations — odd coming from a member of the clergy whom one expects to be fully engaged in the battle. His points included the observation that we are a divided country when it comes to abortion, so a consensus position is going to be difficult. He said that pro-life advocates must recognize how unlikely it is that people will ever accept an all-out ban on abortion, so some type of compromise position is necessary. He maintained that single-issue voting (i.e., regarding abortion) should not be imposed upon the consciences of the faithful, a majority of whom do not support that Church’s position, and hence we should not write off pro-abortion Catholic candidates.
The keynote speaker for the luncheon was author Ken Woodard, who was the religion editor for Newsweek magazine for 38 years and currently serves as a contributing editor for that publication. Woodward, a Catholic, said what you would expect from a seasoned journalist who has clearly spent too much time in cynical Washington. He pointed out that Catholics vote for pro-abortion candidates because long ago they separated in their own minds their support for their Church from their support for their political party. He also noted that “the media” is not monolithic, so you cannot charge that they are anti-Catholic. In fact, he pointed out that the news media cover the Catholics more than any other religion. He also said that the bishops have fumbled the handling of the Communion issue in general, calling Bishop Raymond Burke’s claim that John Kerry should not show himself for Communion in his diocese “grandstanding.” Woodard added that the election is no time for the Catholic Church to be dealing with such teachings and that they are finding a great deal of resistance as a result among many Catholics.
The next panel, “Cultural, Social and Political Implications of the Controversy,” was led by Rev. Richard Neuhaus, Editor-in-Chief of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, and President of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City, along with Monika Hellwig, President and Executive Director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, DC. Father Neuhaus began his remarks with a blistering and effective rebuttal of Woodard’s assertion that Bishop Burke was “grandstanding,” and was met with an enthusiastic round of applause.
He then posited that American Catholicism is at a historic turning point and that our future witness is at stake. He noted that what happens in the Catholic Church has strong implications for all other Christians and people who are serious about morality in public discourse. He also said that it is a historical moment for the role of the Catholic bishops in America because there is a self-described Catholic running for president who holds positions contrary to the Church’s perennial teaching on life.
Father Neuhaus also provided a historical overview of what has occurred in America since the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, the last Catholic to seek the highest office in the land. He noted that the single most consequential event to occur since 1960 was Roe v. Wade, which fundamentally changed the dynamics of how people related to the political process of the American democratic system. In an exercise of raw judicial power the US Supreme Court wiped off the books laws in all 50 states that protected the unborn human being. It ushered in what he called a “lethal logic”, which reasons that only those who can grant rights actually have rights.
He also noted that there is so much controversy today surrounding pro-abortion Catholic politicians because it wasn’t handled properly by the bishops initially. He did commend today’s bishops for their actions because, given the circumstances of the sex-abuse crisis, they could have easily ducked this debate. He sounded a word of caution to those who advocate that the Church rid itself of dissident Catholics who ignore the Church on key teachings by noting that “Catholic” means universal and that we are all sinners. He concluded that the main difference he sees between 1960 and now is that the Catholic Church, led belatedly but boldly by the bishops, is battling a state-driven assault against one of the major teachings of the Church.
Monika Hellwig was the only speaker of the day to cause people to walk out of the room. It was somewhat difficult to follow her, but what was audible sounded a lot like the tired old radical feminist theology that disappeared along with 8-track players back in the 1970s. Hellwig mentioned the notion of a “seamless garment” about 5 times. She also said that we don’t live in a culture of death, but a culture of rape in which powerless women are raped both inside and outside of marriage and that we must address this situation before we can go on to address issues like abortion. In terms of this election, she says neither candidate is pro-life. She then claimed President George W. Bush was anti-life because he did nothing for welfare mothers, acted terribly in the Iraq war, did nothing for immigrants, did nothing about Sudan, and finally, because he did nothing to end abortion. It is frightening that Hellwig is head of an organization that claims to represent Catholic colleges and universities.
The final panel of the day, “Canon Law Aspects of the Controversy,” was led by Rev. John J. Coughlin, O.F.M., Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame. Father Coughlin explained that the bishops' responsibility in enforcing Canon 915 calls for withholding Communion from those who persistently, obstinately and publicly deviate from Church teaching on matters of great moral gravity. He also said that there are two reasons for withholding Communion, both pastoral: to minister to the offender in the hope of bringing him or her around; and to protect the faithful from the scandal that would ensue from inaction on the part of the pastor.
He also added that administering canon 915 calls for great care. He noted that pastors should be cognizant of the effects of their actions which, while ancillary and unintended, could have a bearing on the process they choose. The process must include efforts to counsel, teach, and persuade. Finally, he noted that the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Catholic faith is a sign of communion in the Mystical Body, which is violated when received by individuals who publicly, persistently, and obstinately behave in a way that is gravely sinful. Hence, the reception of the Holy Eucharist must be safeguarded from the possibility of being publicly perceived as trivial.
Space considerations prevent me more than barely covering the tremendous amount of information presented at Thursday’s event. Thankfully, in addition to being broadcast live on C-Span, it was taped by EWTN, which will air the conference in October. The Ave Maria School of Law also taped the program and will be selling video tapes as well as posting transcripts of some of the speakers on their website. The urgency of this informative and worthwhile discussion on the central issue of the day could not be greater for Catholic Americans.
St. Thomas More, pray for us.