How does a pro-life believer best publicly disagree with President Obama, who possesses iconic cultural and political status?
And how best does a believing and active Catholic Christian respond to anti-Catholic persecution and anti-Catholic injustice in public life?
As Bill Clinton used to say, I’ll first consider the second question, then respond to the first one.
Defending Life while Rejoicing at Being Persecuted
On the one hand, our Blessed Lord taught us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and to rejoice when we are persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12). On the other hand, Scripture calls upon us to respect and defend the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the alien (Exodus 22:21-23; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 24:17-18), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church urges us to disarm the aggressor (CCC 2265).
Herein I propose that the best way to strike a balance on this question is to accept persecution of one’s own person in Christian joy, but to continue to defend in the public square the truth and the rights of others–especially of the innocent, particularly the unborn–as citizens claiming the rights of any citizen and of any human.
About forty years ago, when I was still in college, my late father asked me to consider a similar set of questions. He had received a letter from his old high school teacher, Fr. Virgil Blum, SJ, who was in the process of establishing the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. My father was thinking about the turn-the-other-cheek / defend-the-innocent-and-the-truth question. I recall at the time coming down myself on the turn-the-other-cheek side, but acknowledging that distortions of truth and unjust attacks against individuals needed to be publicly refuted. We agreed then that the Catholic League was worth supporting, and my Dad became one of Fr. Blum’s early backers in this effort.
Christians and Catholics are today openly persecuted in a “red” or bloody manner in many Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries, and in a mostly “white” or un-bloody manner at this time in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. In the United States, which brought with it the legacy of British anti-Catholicism, Catholics had a long climb up to open public acceptance until John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960. U.S. Catholics bore a special burden in proving that they could be both truly Catholic and truly American. This struggle is reflected in many ways in American Catholic church and school architecture of the early part of the 20th Century, which blend both American and Catholic themes.
Films such as The Fighting 69th (1940), starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, showed how Catholics were willing to fight for America.
The HHS Rule Controversy
But in the past few weeks, Catholics in the U.S. have begun to face perhaps the most significant church-state conflict in over a century.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) confirmed a rule on 1/20/12 that almost all private health care plans must cover sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception effective August 1, 2012. According to the NCHLA website, “Non-profit religious employers that do not now provide such coverage, and are not exempt under the rule’s extremely narrow definition of religious employer, will be given one year—until August 1, 2013—to comply.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York acting as spokesman, has published a number of responses on their website, calling for Catholics and people of good will to urge Congress and the President to take specific actions to respect religious freedom, such as supporting the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179, S. 1467).
Besides writing Congress, other politicians, and the President, and voting one’s conscience, what other actions are appropriate for believers?
Certainly, violent actions are forbidden and are dreadfully self-defeating. Such extreme action is not only immoral in itself, but would discredit religious believers and the pro-life cause. Only the deranged or an agent provocateur would suggest violence in this case. History has shown, especially in the case of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, that contemplating extreme or violent action can activate an even more direct persecution, and marginalize religious believers for centuries. Catholics were only able, by the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, to regain their right to religious freedom in England more than two hundred years after the Gunpowder Plot. The British monarch is still forbidden to join the Catholic Church.
Extreme rhetoric in response to the HHS rules is also not appropriate, and will in the long run prove ineffective. Appeals to constitutional, Biblical, and universal human rights on behalf of others, these others being the unborn and those believing taxpayers morally objecting to pay for sterilization and abortifacients, promise to be the most effective.
But mere words are not enough. Politicians can and in some cases must be voted out of office over this issue peacefully through the constitutionally-established electoral process.
There is also the question whether the honors and courtesies usually granted to certain politicians, such as appearances speaking to students and faculties, should be given. This is not yet the time for any across the board end to these practices, but each case should be carefully reconsidered. But this is also not the time for Catholic institutions to shower politicians, labor, and business leaders who support abortion rights with awards and knighthoods.
A Failure as Men
This HHS challenge faces the Catholic Church in America at a time when, weakened by the priest abuse scandals, it lacks unobstructed access to the public square without every message from the Church being confounded and scrambled by the scandal.
A few comments on the clergy scandal are therefore apt, because present communication from the Catholic Church is heard in light of it, and little effective communication is possible without addressing it. In a powerful sense, a Catholic bishop’s public words have the priest abuse scandal static humming behind them.
Recently, I have begun to think of the failure of certain bishops and clergy as responders to the priest abuse scandal in a different way: The failure of these bishops and priests was not only a failure of church “headship,” but a “natural law” failure in the traditional male role as the defender of children. Certain bishops and clergy have failed in the priest abuse crisis in a manly sense, as men, in their paternal role. This failure brought into question not only the integrity of ineffective bishops and clergy, but their very manhood.
Because certain bishops and clergy appeared to fail as men in this natural law sense, they have in a very visceral way especially lost the confidence of many women who still value the male as defender. Four decades of political correctness have not wiped out this traditional expectation for the male. Many Catholic men who value this expectation are likewise sickened by this failure.
This loss of confidence in certain bishops and leading clergy is of Biblical proportions. I recall Professor Scott Hahn’s theory of Adam as the failed husband for his silence in not defending his family when Satan came to tempt in Genesis 3. Prof. Hahn assigned great significance to the silence of Adam in this passage.
Weakened by the clergy scandals, our Catholic Church “headship” is therefore in need of redemption in a theological sense, which we believe is a grace given by Christ. The redemption in the social sense will take many years, and depends on the repenting actions of the clergy and of all believers. The episcopacy must understand the depth of their failure in not just the hearts but in the guts of the faithful. I cannot stress more emphatically that this redemptive action includes bishops and clergy reaffirming and in a sense reestablishing their own Christian manhood.
In the mean time, Catholics must effectively communicate as citizens against violations of human and religious freedom, and in particular against the HHS rule in question. This effectiveness of communication depends on the individual acts of millions of believers in contact with their own government officials despite the constant static of the clergy scandals. We should not be deterred by scandal into allowing serious violations of human rights and religious freedom.
It is fortunate that Cardinal (effective mid-February, 2012) Timothy Dolan serves as the spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Bishops in this instance. Despite continual attempts to smear him, his integrity and forthrightness continue to shine through. I do not doubt that there will be aggressive efforts to discredit him going forward. Cardinal Dolan is the right man to stand before the faithful both on the question of episcopal redemption and on defending the unborn and the consciences of those who recognize the rights of these holy innocents. Please see his 1/25/12 Wall Street Journal article.
The bishops’ strong stance on the defense of innocent life is not only redemptive in a theological sense, but in a natural law, manly sense. They are restoring their manhood by acting as the defenders of the innocent, and provide a stunning contrast with the unmanly compromises of business, labor, and government leaders who somewhere along the line decided that they would betray themselves on the defense of innocent life, perhaps, as the old saying goes, to be “happy” in this world rather than “right.” The bishops are seen by many critics in their strong pro-life stand as being on the wrong side of history, when they in fact are on the right side of eternity.
Since potentially millions of pro-life citizens may in one way or another speak to the HHS rule controversy, below I offer some background information on some of the social and political forces at work, which I hope will be helpful for these pro-life citizens as they communicate with their government representatives.
Toward Disagreement with an Icon
Barack Obama is not only the President of the U.S., but commands additional power as a cultural icon.
Many, not only social progressives but also the young, see President Obama as the standard-bearer for movements for human and civil rights, whose election vindicated their lifelong efforts. The Grant Park, Chicago celebration of the President’s election on November 4, 2008 was for many the high point of their lives.
Pro-life believers see this same President as the most radical pro-choice politician ever to hold high office, who would not support a proposed Illinois law providing medical care for infants who survived abortion.
The U.S. Catholic population reflects this divergence of views, and the success of President Obama’s agenda has depended on his ability to in a real sense divide and conquer the U.S. Catholic population on the question of life. He has taken great pains, most recently in his speech at the 2/2/12 National Prayer Breakfast, to establish how a believing Christian can support his own pro-choice policies, with some skirting of the direct question on whether a believer can support abortion rights.
Many socially progressive Catholics agree with the President, but their position has become much more difficult to reconcile with Catholic teachings. Whether by accident or by design, the President’s actions have begun to tear apart the recurrent claim that one can be both a social progressive–if that includes abortion rights–and a faithful Catholic.
While Benedict XVI forcefully linked life ethics and social ethics in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, many progressive Catholics have operated since the 1960s as if this link was not necessary. The President has now brought through the HHS Rule a firm decision on this matter to the doorstep of Christians in general, but to socially progressive Catholics in particular.
But First a Bit of History
Since President Obama arose politically from Chicago, I offer some history on what led to this turning point:
Chicago, the historic home of the Haymarket Affair and thereby the partial inspiration for May Day as an International Workers Day, has a long and varied tradition of progressive and radical political activism.
From the Haymarket martyrs, to Chicago and Illinois labor pioneers, to the intellectual progressives and philosophical pragmatists such as John Dewey and Jane Addams, to the Lakefront Liberals and community activists of today in the tradition of Chicago’s Saul Alinsky, to the violent anti-war protests and later education reforms of Bill Ayers, an amalgam of progressive ideas and traditions has firmly established itself within specific layers of Chicago culture. Over the 20th Century the progressive Chicago panacea of choice shifted from eugenics to abortion.
But despite the “brief, shining” progressive moment of the Harold Washington mayoral administration, 1983-1987, almost every institution established by the Chicago progressive reformers, from the pioneering Juvenile Court system and Chicago Park District to the Cook County Hospital to even the Chicago Public Schools, became a fiefdom within Chicago machine politics. The Chicago progressives, despite periodic vociferous protestations sometimes descending into sullen resignation, and despite the earnest shadow-government machinations of Chicago foundations and civic organizations, have likewise ultimately enabled the “Chicago Way” of one-party machine politics to rule Chicago for decades. Barack Obama himself prior to his presidency endorsed an inept Cook County Board president who had to be forced from office for incompetence. Chicago progressive history is thus comprised of recurrent vainglorious visions that continually evaporate into politics as usual.
Chicago also evidences a distinct tradition of activist Catholicism with likewise early roots prior to Leo XIII‘s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Chicago Catholic Action, with mentors like Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, erupted during its heyday of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s into either “Specialized Catholic Action Movements” in the European Jocist tradition such as the Young Christian Workers, the Christian Family Movement, and the Young Christian Students, or into the separately-founded and imported Catholic Worker, Friendship House, or into the parallel and more institutional youth and labor-oriented efforts of Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Sheil, including the Sheil School of Social Studies (1943-1954), and the Chicago Labor Alliance, the latter led by former Catholic Worker and Loyola University educator Ed Marciniak. Later Chicago Catholic activist organizations, such as the Association of Chicago Priests, the Eighth Day Center for Justice, and allied activist non-sectarian organizations (but heavily supported with Catholic dollars) the Industrial Areas Foundation, United Power for Action and Justice, and several others, drew upon these Chicago Catholic activist traditions.
These two Chicago activist traditions, the progressive and the activist Catholic, have complexly intersected both in terms of social networks and in terms of ideas since the late 1800s, especially in labor, politics, philanthropy, neighborhood life, higher education, civic leadership, and clergy politics. Catholic organizations have generously funded community organizing in Chicago since the 1930s, including the work of a young community organizer named Barack Obama in the 1980s, whose move to the U.S. presidency echoed Chicago’s potent blend of strong-arm, one party rule with a progressive patina. By this Catholic-funded work, Mr. Obama earned his status as an “honorary Catholic” among religious Chicago progressives.
The traditions of Chicago progressivism and Catholic activism meet, if not merge, in another significant way, in their descent into pragmatism, not of the philosophical variety, but of the political and economic. The style of leadership among some of the elites of political Chicago and religious Chicago is therefore sometimes indistinguishable, and appears established along the categories of political power and money power alone. From time to time, one might find within Chicago church circles a brash, confrontational approach to action, including not-so-subtle forms of blackmail and intimidation, similar to what one might encounter in Chicago politics. As we say, “It’s a tough town.”
Since the time of the 1960s Kennedy-era “New Breed” Chicago Catholics, activity between Catholic and progressive activists represented itself in a number of free-flowing and permeable relationships. Catholic activists, and especially inner-city Catholic pastors and religious, have had strong standing in neighborhood and civic affairs.
Numerous neighborhood, community and economic development, professional, and civic organizations have been founded in the Chicago area in recent decades with the backing of Catholic talent and resources. In tandem with the growth of these organizations, a number of leading Chicago Catholic clergy, following the lead of Hillenbrand protege Msgr. John J. Egan, have strategically oriented their civic efforts into an interfaith and intentionally secular dimension, in order to broaden the base of support, participation, and power. This strategy, which heavily relied on coalition-building across a wide spectrum of organizations, coincided with the end of the influence of Catholic Action organizations as such, while still paradoxically relying on money donated from Catholic parishes and the Archdiocese of Chicago as a whole to sustain the bulk of these efforts.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, originally founded as the Campaign for Human Development in 1970 by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, but with significant impetus from Chicago Catholic clergy and in particular Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Michael R. P. Dempsey (1918–1974), who served as co-founder and first national director of what later came to be called CCHD, has served, among other things, to extend the Chicago style of Catholic community and development activism nationally. In an important way, the CCHD has institutionalized the pattern laid down by the original requests by Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Sheil and later Msgr. John J. Egan to Cardinal Samuel Stritch to fund Saul Alinsky’s community organizing with Archdiocesan funds.
These traditions of secular and Catholic progressivism overlapped most dramatically when a Chicago diocesan priest, Rev. Carl Lezak (1937-2009), served as head of the Illinois ACLU from July, 1971, until he resigned September, 1972.
The late Fr. Lezak’s clericalization of civic action was only one of several such incidents in Chicago history, a usurpation of the lay role against which Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, unheeded, warned his protegees in the clergy. A number of these clerical interventions prevented the development of a lay reform tradition independent of one-party rule. Progressive Catholics therefore could not envision themselves voting against the dominant party, but would coalesce with almost liturgical devotion around this or that reform candidate for relatively minor office, thus shoring up of one-party, corrupt government in Chicago and Illinois.
The desire to participate in a glorious public jubilee like Chicago’s November 4, 2008 Grant Park celebration is a powerful one, as is the desire to belong to a larger group. Perhaps a desire to belong, an attachment confusing self-image with public interest, has long prevented socially progressive and labor activist Catholics from deserting one-party rule and throwing the rascals out. This attachment has shaped Chicago and Illinois toward one-party, pro-abortion oligopolies.
But there may be another reason for the staying power of one-party rule in Chicago and Illinois, and that may be abortion itself. Minus the abortion rights controversy, many voters would have switched parties long ago over financial mismanagement and public scandals. But the abortion issue has kept the otherwise reform-minded progressives inside the dominant party, thus perpetuating corruption. Abortion is in many ways the glue that holds the Democratic party together in Illinois and beyond.
Progressive Chicago Catholicism has long misunderstood power as originating solely in money and in politics, but has missed, as Blessed John Paul II well and better understood, the power of culture.
Progressive, pro-choice Catholicism has fed off the illusion that life issues can be set aside for the sake of a wider social justice agenda. Progressive Chicago Catholicism has accepted a permeable, non-Aristotelean definition of justice not inclusive of the rights of the vulnerable unborn, but tied to their own self-image as compassionate and just.
It appears that some of these contradictory progressive dreams and politics–and illusions–have been exported by Barack Obama from Chicago to the nation.
The End of the Church as Mediating Institution?
But now Catholics may face a choice between following their President’s health care policies and following their Church. The President promised a “Sensible Conscience Clause” at Notre Dame in 2009 but did not deliver on it. There is therefore no tangible bridge between the pro-life Catholic and Barack Obama’s “fundamental change.”
And equally critically, the important role of the Church as a mediating institution in society, an institution standing between the power and abuses of government and the defenseless, the very institutional foundation of progressive Catholicism, is being shaken away.
It is at this point an open question whether we will see the state slowly seize all health care away from pro-life charitable institutions, like the Tudor monarchs seized the monasteries, ending their charitable services to thousands who thereby had nowhere to go. If some day the government does seize the health care industry, we can expect that it will manage to combine therein the worst inefficiencies seen in Cook County government.
A strong clue to the intent of the Obama Administration in this HHS case can be found in the final chapter of economist Paul R. Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, in which he urges a coming administration to in very determined fashion continue to lock in progressive reforms so that they can never be undone.
So, How Does One Disagree with an Icon?
First, more traditional Catholics should refrain from shouting “I told you so” to their progressive friends. This is a time for Church unity, not one-upmanship.
Second, the Herod analogy (as slaughterer of the innocents) should not yet be used by Catholics in President Obama’s case. St. John Fisher famously used this analogy regarding marriage with Henry VIII when all else failed, and an enraged Henry VIII lived up to the tagline by treating St. John Fisher as Herod treated Fisher’s namesake St. John the Baptist. All else has not yet failed with President Obama. (Strictly speaking, St. John Fisher had not even used the literal word “Herod” in reference to Henry VIII. Fisher had written in a book defending the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII that he, Fisher, was willing to die like St. John the Baptist defending the authenticity of their marriage. Henry drew the Herod reference himself. Fisher evidently thought and prayed for quite some time about invoking St. John the Baptist. The book he wrote on the royal marriage took him two years, and when the King’s men inventoried St. John Fisher’s possessions after his imprisonment in 1534, they found a replica head of St. John the Baptist on a platter in Fisher’s chapel.)
Third, Catholics should not bemoan any persecution they personally endure for their pro-life beliefs, but bear such persecution, invoking St. Thomas More, merrily.
Fourth, besides writing their legislators and voting their consciences, the very most effective thing pro-life Catholic grown-ups can do to oppose the HHS mandate and the pro-choice agenda is to speak first with their own teen and young adult children. These young adults are the most heavily propagandized generation in human history, regularly hearing from MoveOn.org, Change.org, Rock the Vote, MTV, etc., having hardly ever seen an intact family displayed on television for any length of time, having been carefully led through college’s second and hidden dorm curriculum, and having their own humor and thus thought processes constantly shaped by politicized late-night comedians. The most effective way therefore for pro-life Catholic parents to oppose the pro-choice position is for Catholic parents to personally explain the reasoning behind Catholic pro-life positions first to their own voting children, and then to dialogue with their children about their reaction. Pro-choice politicians absolutely count on the young adult vote, and expect young adults to sit out the HHS controversy. Happily, these young adults are growing more pro-life. Nothing would put pro-choice politicians into a panic more than receiving thousands of e-mails against the HHS mandate from high school and college students and young professionals. Another such panic would ensue if bishops and pastors systematically began to speak personally with high school and college young adult groups against the HHS mandate and enlist such letters on a regular basis.
Fifth, the way to oppose an icon is not to directly attack the icon, but to change the world around the icon so the icon loses its cultural power. This is how the power of culture trumps the power of money and politics. The way to change this world around the icon is to let loose the reasoning behind the pro-life position: the defense of innocent human life. There is no more powerful idea than the defense of the innocent. By unleashing the HHS mandate, the President and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius may have inadvertently set this very time for the powerful idea of the defense of innocent human life to come.
Six, by focusing on the reason for religious freedom in this HHS case–the defense of innocent human life–as opposed to simply religious freedom and freedom of conscience in and of themselves, defenses of religious freedom and conscience are then grounded on a doubly strong moral basis: they are not just about the person claiming religious freedom and freedom of conscience, but about the purpose and reason freedom is being exercised: the defense of the innocent unborn. This recalls Benedict XVI’s April 17, 2008 Catholic University of America Address statement to Catholic Educators that “Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in–a participation in Being itself.” The religious freedom we seek is not freedom from, but freedom for–freedom for the good of another, in this case, for the innocent unborn.
Seventh, I wish Jimmy Cagney were around to drive home the point about the objections pro-life Catholics (whose numbers are growing) are making to President Obama: We are both loyal Catholics and loyal Americans, and are exercising our own rights in legitimate defense of others. But Jimmy Cagney has joined, I pray, the Communion of Saints (he did die on screen at least once to save the Dead End Kids in Angels with Dirty Faces), so we’ll have to make this point ourselves.
This is indeed a moment of moral choice for Catholics and for people of good will. I pray that this moment remains a peaceful one, and is resolved through reason and good will.
Cardinal Francis George’s 2/5/12 letter for parish bulletins on the HHS ruling.
The 2/6/12 Wall Street Journal article by Robert P. George and O. Carter Snead, Planned Parenthood’s Hostages.
© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved
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