The National Catholic Review
Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
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When God and Caesar claim controlling jurisdiction over public policy in America, public servants who are Catholic can get caught between a religious rock and a public policy hard place. I know. I’ve been there. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson became the first president to support birth control as a public policy; he considered family planning services for the poor an essential part of his antipoverty program. As his top assistant for domestic affairs, though initially uncomfortable, I came to the conviction that I had an obligation to promote presidential policies, including family planning, so long as the government did not require anyone to adopt practices contrary to their religious beliefs.

 

Johnson’s aggressive posture on birth control earned him a stinging rebuke from the Catholic bishops in 1966. L.B.J., typically, wanted it both ways. He was, he told me, “not going to deny contraceptives to any poor person who wanted them,” but he sent me “to make peace with the Catholic bishops, because before long they may be the only allies we have on Negro rights and the poverty program.”

It was my first political negotiation with the hierarchy. I met several times with their Washington representative, the Rev. Francis Hurley. I reminded Father Hurley that L.B.J. was doing God’s work—trying to eliminate poverty, helping the elderly, promoting equal rights for minorities. “The bishops,” I argued, “should not attack and wound a president who, on balance, was advancing so many of their causes.” We crafted an uneasy truce: if the president used the term “population problem” (which also allowed for solutions like increasing available food) rather than “birth control” or “population control,” the bishops would stay silent. Johnson kept his part of the bargain. So did the bishops.

Those were the days when you could sit down with the bishops; they were sensitive to the separation of church and state in the wake of the cliffhanger election of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. The bishops and the laity accepted the assertion of the theologian Gustave Weigel, S.J., in his widely reported 1960 lecture at The Catholic University of America, that “the Roman Catholic Church would not attempt to interfere in the political activities of a Catholic president, nor would a Catholic president be bound by Catholic morality in deciding public issues.”

It is my personal experience as a White House aide in the Johnson administration and as a cabinet secretary for President Jimmy Carter that leads me to hope the Catholic bishops will not play the Eucharist card to press Catholic politicians to toe the pro-life (or any other) church line. I would prefer it if John Kerry (and the 48 congressional Catholics who wrote the bishops) expressed opposition to federal funding of abortion and voted to ban partial-birth abortion. But—having been there and done that, experiencing the complications, the compromises, the need to choose the lesser of two evils and the importance of having Catholics in public life—I believe public figures who are Catholic are entitled to exercise their own conscience to determine whether they are entitled to receive Communion. The Catholic tradition of leaving that decision to the individual Catholic and God applies to Catholics who have divorced, sinned or eaten food five minutes before Mass. It should apply to public officials.

As a citizen I consider it preposterous and wrong for the political parties to impose an abortion litmus test on eligibility for their party’s presidential nomination: pro-choice for Democrats, pro-life for Republicans. But that is no reason for the bishops to make the same mistake by imposing a similar litmus test on the right to receive Communion.

If some bishops play the Eucharist card on abortion, will not others feel free to play it on the death penalty, cloning, stem cell research or support for the Iraq war, which the pope and the bishops have condemned as an unjust, immoral adventure? Will Communion be denied just to those who vote pro-choice in Congress? Or will it also be denied to a senator like Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican whose outspoken support brought pro-choice Arlen Spector victory over the pro-life candidate for the Republican senate nomination in that state? Will it be denied to Catholic governors who refuse to use their leniency power to commute death sentences?

When I became secretary of health, education and welfare in 1977, I repeatedly confronted the tension between my religious beliefs and public policy—and the bishops repeatedly confronted me. My first baptism by episcopal fire came on the issue whether Medicaid should fund abortions. As a consequence of Roe v. Wade, Medicaid was then financing some 300,000 abortions a year. President Jimmy Carter and I sought to prohibit such funding “unless the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.”

Over our objection, Congress enacted a law that permitted Medicaid funding of abortions as well in cases of rape or incest “promptly reported.” At that point, my choice was to enforce the law or, as some suggested, resign. I had my say, and I was still free to work to change the law. I was not about to retire to some Walden Pond or Vatican Hill. I issued regulations giving women 60 days to make such reports, recognizing that in those days most women did not report such horrendous incidents unless they thought they were pregnant. The Catholic hierarchy erupted. So did President Carter. Both wanted a much shorter period, the bishops because they thought it would curb abortions; Carter because he thought it would reduce the opportunity for fraud. I held firm, believing that I had fairly reflected Congressional intent. The Congress agreed with me.

Next I discovered that H.E.W. was financing 100,000 sterilizations a year under guidelines more permissive than the law justified. The bishops wanted a complete ban; they considered morally unacceptable any experimentation or action that threatened the sanctity of life, including sterilization. Again I honored my obligation to follow the law. I issued regulations banning funds for the sterilization of anyone under 21 (on the ground that no minor could give informed consent to an irreversible procedure that goes to the essence of the life process) and of inmates of correctional facilities, mental hospitals or other rehabilitative facilities. To reduce the chances of sterilization under duress, I also forbade soliciting consent from anyone in childbirth labor, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or who was seeking an abortion.

Moments after the British scientists Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe electrified the world by announcing the birth of a normal child following in vitro fertilization, I was asked for my reaction, since the Catholic bishops had come out strongly against the procedure and I was a Catholic secretary of H.E.W. As a public official and nonscientist, I said my mind was open on whether the government should fund such research, and I established a commission representing a wide spectrum of opinion (including the moral theologian Richard McCormick, S.J.) to advise me. The group concluded unanimously that H.E.W. should support research into this procedure.

On the issue whether to fund fetal research—the prologue to the current stem cell controversy—I found in one corner the Guttmacher Institute, which favored unfettered research, and in the other Sargent and Eunice Shriver, who represented the opposing Roman Catholic viewpoint. I put the two sides in the same room, reminding Guttmacher of the serious questions of human dignity and morality and the Shrivers of the potential benefits of such research. I challenged them to recommend a policy and budget sensitive to these considerations and promised to fight for it. They did, we did, and the research began—and the controversy persists to this day.

In philosophy courses at Holy Cross College, I was taught that murder, suicide and euthanasia were morally wrong. I learned that each individual had an obligation to take ordinary means to preserve his or her life, but as Father Joseph Sullivan’s ethics text stipulated, “one is not obligated to take extraordinary means.” As H.E.W. secretary I had to make the vexing distinction between suicide, murder, euthanasia and natural death, between ordinary and extraordinary means of extending life, as our scientists wrestled with the will of God and each day unveiled a new medical machine, miracle pharmaceutical or surgical procedure.

The moral theology of the Catholic Church was an invaluable moral compass for me, but balancing my Catholic convictions with my obligations as a public servant was a wrenching intellectual, spiritual and emotional experience. In our secular democracy these issues of life and death involve questions about the right of individual Americans to decide and the obligation of the federal government to finance their decisions. They come freighted with religious beliefs and moral conviction, often further complicated by a lack of scientific certainty.

The Second Vatican Council encourages Catholics to rely more on individual conscience. But not until I became secretary of H.E.W. did I begin to appreciate the significance—and limitations—of my personal convictions in making public decisions in a pluralistic democracy. I had been immersed in the Catholic religion—devout parents and relatives, 16 years of Catholic education—but my faith had never been tested until I became H.E.W. secretary. At H.E.W. I went from the sidelines into the arena, from sitting in the pew at Mass on Sunday to living with my faith throughout the week.

I found no automatic answers in Christian theology and the teachings of the church or in the Democratic Party’s or the administration’s positions, or in the science of medicine, to the perplexing and controversial questions of public policy on abortion, sterilization, aging, in vitro fertilization, fetal research, extending or cutting off the final days of terminally ill patients, and recombinant DNA and cloning. I was grateful for my entire life experience, from the streets of Brooklyn and the Jesuit classrooms at Brooklyn Prep and Holy Cross to the West Wing of the White House and my years as a Washington lawyer. I brought it all to the decisions at H.E.W., and I needed every bit of it.

Determining appropriate public policy on these matters is too complex, morally as well as politically, in our pluralistic democracy to be resolved by a jerk—or bend—of the knee by public leaders, legislators and judges who are Catholic—or by the Catholic bishops who seek to influence such policy.

For other articles on Catholic politicians, click here.

Joseph A. Califano Jr. is president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979. His memoir, Inside: A Public and Private

Comments

Robert Fontana | 6/28/2004 - 2:09pm
I found Joseph Califano's artilce on life as a Catholic politician very insightful to the complex dynamics of a person of faith working in government. It gave me hope that the Catholic bishops do play a positive role in the moral discourse of the nation. It also reminded me of the critical importance of religious and moral formation of our youth who will be called upon to make life and death decisions amidst the "fog of life" when clarity about the right course to take is as clear as mud.

I do think Mr. Califano and other liberals mistakenly place abortion as one issue among many on the Catholic social agenda, e.g. capital punishment, welfare, Iraq war, and abortion.

For all of us in the Church, from the Catholic left to the Catholic right, the protection of and advocacy for the unborn ought to be the foundational issue upon which Catholic social ministry is built.

The Catholic right often acts as if the pro-life issue is the only one that matters. The Catholic left treats it as one issue among many. We have to find a way to close this gap between the left and the right. It is past time to construct a solid and unified Catholic social movement on a pro-life foundation that is intimately connected to the peace movement, the campaign for human development, welfare, care of the dying, capital punishment, etc.

Thomas V.Inglesby, (Sr.),MD | 6/22/2004 - 5:25pm
As a subscriber, supporter and reader of AMERICA, I found myself profoundly disappointed with the editors for allowing the former Secretary of HEW to publish his justifications for his actions and omissions, while occupying one of the most influential offices affecting the welfare of human beings in the United States and for that matter in many other parts of the world. His actions and public positions, while different from his personal beliefs, and the actions and public positions of the many other appointed and elected professed catholic officials, in my opinion, have done little to deter the epidemic of abortion in this country. In fact it is also my opinion that this has encouraged an even greater disregard for the value and sanctity of human life. Since Roe v Wade an estimated 30 million human beings have been destroyed in their mother's wombs. It is astounding that so many catholic people have not been more vocal in their opposition to those who either support this or passively accept it as "the will of the people." In our democratic pluralistic society, our laws, we are told should reflect the collective morals of our society. I too was the recipient of "16 years of catholic education," followed by four years of medical school and 6 years of postgraduate training. I have been involved in teaching medical students and resident physicians and have practiced medicine for nearly 40 years. My education and experience as a physician, both in Catholic institutions and those which are secular, has only reinforced my views concerning the value and wonder of human life. The current public discussion regarding the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of confronting our catholic politicians with their responsibilities, particularly in the areas concerning the taking if innocent human lives, is one which should have been actively ongoing for the past 30 years. Failure to adequately make this case, again in my opinion, has resulted in a great deal of confusion among an entire generation of people, regarding this issue. Differences of opinion regarding church teaching on matters of divorce, remarriage, birth control, capital punishment, war, lack of social justice at home and among nations of the world, are all matters of concern to any one attempting to maintain a good conscience, but the issue of abortion stands out clearly as the issue of our time. For these victims there can be no second chances, nor second opinions, nor courts of appeal. For these victims it is either life or death. Once that life is destroyed it is forever taken from us with all of its wonder and limitless potential.
(Most Rev.) Francis T. Hurley<BR>Archbishop Emeritus | 2/9/2007 - 3:59pm
In “Caught Between God and Caesar,” (6/28) Joseph A. Califano Jr. gives a self-portrayal of a Catholic in public life acting from convictions of conscience. It is an anecdotal snapshot from his recent book, Inside: A Public and Private Life. There he describes how he drew upon many resources to test his personal conscience as he confronted new moral situations, when as a Catholic he wanted to be true to his faith and also to his commitment to his government. He relied upon his family upbringing, his Catholic education up through Holy Cross College, discussions with his peers, study and reading, and consultation with moral theologians and bishops. His is an example of developing and testing a sincere, informed conscience. From the convictions of such a conscience he felt free to make decisions confidently as a Catholic. The words of Pope John Paul II come to mind from his encyclical The Splendor of Truth: “The authority of the church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians.”

Mr. Califano cites an example from his time as chief aid to President Johnson formulating legislative programs for the poor. The president wanted to avoid public criticism from Catholic bishops over the inclusion of birth control in legislation. Califano contacted me because I was at the time assistant general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference. On reading his article, I discovered that this was Mr. Califano’s first political negotiation with the hierarchy. It was not his last, and it started a lifelong friendship between us.

He speaks of us “crafting an uneasy truce.” Truce is not the best word. It connotes a sort of cessation of attacks, a political maneuver. In fact, at that time (1966) the president and the bishops had a common vision, namely, to stir up in the American people a preferential attention to the poor. He was developing his Great Society, and the bishops were beginning to implement the Second Vatican Council.

President Johnson was adamant about not denying birth control to poor women who wanted it, a yellow flag for the bishops. He was also insistent on channeling educational assistance to all poor children no matter what school they attended, even parochial ones, a yellow flag for those concerned with separation of church and state. For us at the bishops’ conference it was also a matter of conscience to deal with such a mix of issues in good legislation. The church should be involved in the public forum to lend its voice on social justice for the poor. At the same time, the church must recognize its own limits in the public forum in a pluralistic society. At certain times and on certain issues, it is permissible to tolerate some undesirable aspects of overall good legislation. (It should be noted that abortion was then still only a state issue and therefore not yet in federal legislation.) In the context of our discussion, our task was to craft language that would avoid unnecessary public skirmishes. That was done. From both perspectives, conscience was followed and good legislation resulted.

In his article, Mr. Califano also expresses the hope that Catholic bishops will not, in his words, “play the eucharistic card to press Catholic politicians to toe the pro-life (or any other) church line.” He supports, rightly, Catholic public figures and politicians in exercising their own conscience on both political decisions and the reception of holy Communion. To that I would add that such Catholic public figures might take a page from Mr. Califano’s book and describe how they might have gone through developing a sincere and informed conscience with which to test their Catholic convictions. It is not adequate simply to dismiss one principle, for example, protection of the life of the unborn, by invoking another, for example, the separation of church and state, to justify publicly proclaimed positions. A public figure, especially a political figure making public

Gerard P. Burke | 2/9/2007 - 3:49pm
Joseph A. Califano Jr.’s descriptions of the ethical conundrums he faced as Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic adviser and Jimmy Carter’s secretary of health, education and welfare put the flesh of reality on the moral uncertainties confronting both Catholic politicians and the Catholic hierarchy in the new century (7/21). One could feel his agony as he strove mightily to reach the best compromise on one difficult issue after another. Many other career fields, in and outside government, pose similarly difficult quandaries; the intelligence profession that I pursued was replete with moral perplexities.

Compromise in a host of endeavors, including domestic, foreign, trade, fiscal and various social policies, and in designing and passing their implementing legislation, is often desirable, good and even necessary for the functioning of the state. But compromise is logically, legally and morally unacceptable where the act at issue is gravely and intrinsically evil. Murder, for example, is one such issue. Here Catholic doctrine, moral law and natural law coalesce and are unequivocal. It does not take the Catholic Conference of Bishops or indeed the bishop of Rome to speak to such an issue. Whatever they might say by way of reinforcement is helpful to the faithful but is, in fact, redundant.

Thus it was that twice in the 1980’s, Bob Casey, at the time governor of Pennsylvania, who had been a year behind both Joe Califano and me at Holy Cross College, was denied the opportunity to address the Democratic National Convention because it was feared he might urge that a pro-life posture not be excluded out of hand from the party’s platform. He was given a chance to recant and resume his rightful role as one of the party’s most respected and attractive national leaders. In effect he was given the chance, if he toed the line, even to accede to the presidency. He said, “I can’t.”

So when Califano and others say it is important to have Catholics among the nation’s leaders, I say, “Fine”, so long as they’re Catholics who believe in and follow Catholic doctrine and not simply nominal Catholics willing to compromise anything and everything to avoid offending voters or jeopardizing their jobs.

Catholicism is not supposed to be easy. Jesus repeatedly told us how difficult it would be to follow him. Loving your neighbor is not enough. There are times when the only way you can resolve a moral dilemma is to eschew compromise, bite the bullet and yield to the will of the Lord.

Maleen Harvey Corrigan | 2/9/2007 - 3:33pm
After thoroughly reading the “Catholics and Politics” issue (6/21), I am saddened that the Eucharist has become a political weapon. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago denied holy Communion to gay activists because “they were using the Eucharist to make a political statement.” What exactly was he doing? In “Caught Between God and Caesar,” Joseph A. Califano Jr. refers to bishops playing “the Eucharist card.”

In “Prophecy for Justice,” my own archbishop, Raymond Burke, defends himself saying he is not using Canon 915 “as the imposition of a canonical sanction.” But he and Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, among others, not only would deny the Eucharist to certain politicians who “obstinately” persist “in manifest grave sin”; they also advocate withholding the sacrament from those who vote for such politicians.

And, finally, in “Unholy Politics” a voice of reason sounds through the Rev. John Beal. He says, “Zeal to protect the Eucharist from profanation by sinners can unwittingly lead to an even greater profanation by transforming the eucharistic celebration into a continuation of politics by liturgical means.”

As a Catholic who regards the Eucharist as the ultimate gift of life, I wonder why our bishops cannot look to Jesus for guidance. At the Last Supper, Judas had already made betrayal arrangements, and Jesus knew it. After supper, Jesus announced that Peter would cause scandal by publicly denying him. Yet Jesus, the “highest” priest, did not withhold that first Eucharist from either of those public sinners. I hope our bishops take note.

Robert Fontana | 6/28/2004 - 2:09pm
I found Joseph Califano's artilce on life as a Catholic politician very insightful to the complex dynamics of a person of faith working in government. It gave me hope that the Catholic bishops do play a positive role in the moral discourse of the nation. It also reminded me of the critical importance of religious and moral formation of our youth who will be called upon to make life and death decisions amidst the "fog of life" when clarity about the right course to take is as clear as mud.

I do think Mr. Califano and other liberals mistakenly place abortion as one issue among many on the Catholic social agenda, e.g. capital punishment, welfare, Iraq war, and abortion.

For all of us in the Church, from the Catholic left to the Catholic right, the protection of and advocacy for the unborn ought to be the foundational issue upon which Catholic social ministry is built.

The Catholic right often acts as if the pro-life issue is the only one that matters. The Catholic left treats it as one issue among many. We have to find a way to close this gap between the left and the right. It is past time to construct a solid and unified Catholic social movement on a pro-life foundation that is intimately connected to the peace movement, the campaign for human development, welfare, care of the dying, capital punishment, etc.

Thomas V.Inglesby, (Sr.),MD | 6/22/2004 - 5:25pm
As a subscriber, supporter and reader of AMERICA, I found myself profoundly disappointed with the editors for allowing the former Secretary of HEW to publish his justifications for his actions and omissions, while occupying one of the most influential offices affecting the welfare of human beings in the United States and for that matter in many other parts of the world. His actions and public positions, while different from his personal beliefs, and the actions and public positions of the many other appointed and elected professed catholic officials, in my opinion, have done little to deter the epidemic of abortion in this country. In fact it is also my opinion that this has encouraged an even greater disregard for the value and sanctity of human life. Since Roe v Wade an estimated 30 million human beings have been destroyed in their mother's wombs. It is astounding that so many catholic people have not been more vocal in their opposition to those who either support this or passively accept it as "the will of the people." In our democratic pluralistic society, our laws, we are told should reflect the collective morals of our society. I too was the recipient of "16 years of catholic education," followed by four years of medical school and 6 years of postgraduate training. I have been involved in teaching medical students and resident physicians and have practiced medicine for nearly 40 years. My education and experience as a physician, both in Catholic institutions and those which are secular, has only reinforced my views concerning the value and wonder of human life. The current public discussion regarding the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of confronting our catholic politicians with their responsibilities, particularly in the areas concerning the taking if innocent human lives, is one which should have been actively ongoing for the past 30 years. Failure to adequately make this case, again in my opinion, has resulted in a great deal of confusion among an entire generation of people, regarding this issue. Differences of opinion regarding church teaching on matters of divorce, remarriage, birth control, capital punishment, war, lack of social justice at home and among nations of the world, are all matters of concern to any one attempting to maintain a good conscience, but the issue of abortion stands out clearly as the issue of our time. For these victims there can be no second chances, nor second opinions, nor courts of appeal. For these victims it is either life or death. Once that life is destroyed it is forever taken from us with all of its wonder and limitless potential.