The National Catholic Review

I was raised a Catholic. I know in my bones that I would not hold the views I hold today if it were not for the values I learned in Catholic school. I am, I think it is fair to say, a Midwestern, populist progressive in the tradition of Robert LaFollette, George Norris and Theodore Roosevelt. Their progressive values, their drive for social justice and their passion for a square deal for the little guy are deeply rooted in the prophetic Jewish tradition and Christian social teaching. Few people have been more eloquent in their expression of those values than Pope Leo XIII, John XXIII and Paul VI. Virtually every issue I have fought for in my 35 years of service in the Congress of the United States has been driven by the values I learned from the nuns at St. James elementary school in Wausau, Wis. Through the years, I have voted to oppose an unjust war in Nicaragua, a fruitless war in Vietnam and a premature war in Iraq because I believe in the message of the Beatitudes, Blessed are the peacemakers. Because I believe we are our brother’s keepers, for 10 years I led efforts to push unpopular foreign aid legislation through the House of Representatives.

And because of the message Whatsoever you did for the least of them, you did for me (Mt 25:40), I have fought for a special preference for the poor on such issues as health care, low-income heating assistance, taxation based on ability to pay and federal investments in education programs, like Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that focus on the economically disadvantaged. Because I also believe in the dignity of work and the rightness of providing equal opportunityas Bill Moyers has said, People [are] equal in humanity but unequal in resourcesI support strengthening labor unions and raising the minimum wage. I consequently believe that the major task of modern religion is to help people understand their responsibilities toward one another. The task of government is to enable people to meet those responsibilities in an effective way.

There must be a moral purpose to public life, and as a public servant I try to apply my religious beliefs broadly, not narrowly and dogmatically. But I also recognize that the test of any American in public life, as John F. Kennedy said to a group of Southern Baptist leaders in 1960, is not what kind of church I believe in, but what kind of America I believe in, because this country does not belong to any one church; it belongs to people who belong to all churches and people who belong to none. It is ecumenical.

I have fought passionately for the issues I have mentioned because I think it is the right and moral thing to do. But I have never thought that those who disagree with me are not good Christians or good Catholics. In a democracy, public officials must reserve to themselves prudential judgments about how and under what circumstances to apply moral principles in a pluralistic society. But there are some in my own religion who believe it is the obligation of Catholic public officials to impose, through law, their religious values on issues such as abortion, upon those who do not share our religious beliefs.

I agree with my church that abortion in most cases is wrong. My wife and I lost two children, one immediately after birth and one shortly before birth. We do not need to be reminded of the preciousness of life; we are only too acutely aware of it. But I also understand that the Supreme Court has ruled in numerous cases that there are limits to what government can constitutionally do to limit a woman’s range of choices in determining whether to have an abortion.

In trying to deal with those questions over the last 30 years, I have tried to think through how to reflect both my respect for my own religious values and my respect for the constitutional processes of this American democracy. During that time I have voted well over 60 times for limitations of one kind or another on a woman’s right to choose abortion. I have, for instance, accepted as a reasonable compromise the Hyde Amendment on Medicaid funding for abortions and have even worked with Representative Henry Hyde (Republican of Illinois) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the question of how to apply that amendment to health services provided under H.M.O.’s. I have voted to limit abortion rights in prison and for passage of proposals limiting later-term abortions. I also worked to reach a compromise on the complicated question of how best to persuade the Chinese government to end its policy of forced abortions. So I suppose it is fair to say that my record on abortion is mixed. I make no apology for that. I believe these issues are complicated.

I do not believe that a woman has an absolute constitutional right to determine whether she might have an abortion at any time during her pregnancy. But neither do I believe it is constitutionalor enforceablein this society to require a woman to carry a pregnancy to full term if she has been raped or if there is a risk to her life or her health. In such cases, while I would hope a woman makes a choice against abortion, under our Constitution the choice is not mine. It is not any bishop’s. It is hers.

In short, I believe there are competing sets of equities on the part of the woman and the fetus that are far more complicated than some people on either side of the issue care to admit. So through the years I have tried to sort out those equities, guided by both my moral views, and my prudential view of how best to deal with these issues without tearing our society apart.

Some time ago I received a letter from Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis., expressing his unhappiness with my votes on five or six issues related to abortion. For about a year we exchanged private letters about those differences. A few months ago, he wrote to me threatening to use his ecclesiastical authority to punish me if I did not conform my voting record to his view of what Catholic dogma required. I told him I could not do that.

Two issues seemed especially to trouble the bishop, who is now archbishop of St. Louis. One was my vote on the question of stem cell research. The other was the question of what limits should be placed on access to military hospitals for female military personnel. The bishop wanted me to vote to deny permission to female military personnel to use a military hospital for abortions. I told him that I hoped that no member of the armed services would seek an abortion, but that I was simply not prepared to deny to any woman stationed in Iraq, wearing the uniform of the United States, the use of a military hospital for any purpose.

On the matter of stem cell research, I informed the bishop that I had voted to ban reproductive cloning butwith the tremendous desire of sick and dying people afflicted with Parkinson’s, diabetes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other scourgesI did not believe it possible to prevent science from engaging in potentially lifesaving research. I told him that in my estimation, the church had no better chance to stop research into regenerative medicine than it had centuries ago in trying to stop Copernicus and Galileo from positing that the earth revolved about the sun rather than the other way around. I told him that I believed that the best way to assure attention to ethical concerns associated with embryonic stem cell research was to have that research conducted under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. If it were not, it would be conducted elsewhereif not in the United States, then in some other country.

On November 4, 2003, the bishop sent me a letter calling on me to refrain from receiving Communion if I did not conform to his wishes. A short time later, he followed through on his threat. At the same time, a spokesman from his office also indicated that any woman who used contraceptives should also question whether she should receive Communion. In response to the bishop’s action, I issued the following statement:

 

I have said on many occasions that I agree with the Catholic Church about the undesirability of abortion, but this country is not exclusively Catholic. Bishop Burke has a right to instruct me on matters of faith and morals in my private life andlike any other citizento try to persuade, not dictate how I vote on any public matter. But when he attempts to use his ecclesiastical position to dictate to American public officials how the power of law should be brought to bear against Americans who do not necessarily share our religious beliefs on abortion or any other public issue, he crosses the line into unacceptable territory. The U.S. Constitution, which I have taken a sacred oath to defend, is designed to protect American citizens from just such demands. The U.S. Constitution says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. That means that in an American democracy no one, not a public official and not a bishop, gets to impose by law his religious beliefs on people of other religions who do not necessarily share those same beliefs.

 

I very much regret that the bishop saw fit to take the course of action he has chosen. But I make no apology for insisting that he distinguish between his right to try to persuade me on how to vote on any issue and his right to dictate my vote.

In Faithful Citizenship, published last October, the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Conference indicated its belief that Christians should not be single-issue people when it said, quoting the Vatican’s Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (November 2002),The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. That is why I believe that if the full texture and context of all my legislative actions were to be reviewedand given the fact that at least 100 members of Congress have voting records more at variance with church wishes than my ownI firmly believe that Archbishop Burke’s action says much more about him than it does about me.

The basic problem is that I remain a John Courtney Murray kind of Catholic, while Archbishop Burke is not. Murray was the key American theologian who advised the American Catholic bishops during the deliberations of the historic Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII. Archbishop Burke and I differ only occasionally on what is moral and what is not. But we differ significantly about what requirements the law can be expected to impose in a democratic society on those who do not share our religious beliefs.

In a memo to Cardinal Cushing regarding legislation, Murray wrote: The authority of the church does not decide what the civil law should be. This decision rests with the civil community, its jurists and legislators. He added: Out of their understanding of the distinction between morality and law and between public and private morality, and out of their understanding of religious freedom, Catholics repudiate in principle a resort to the coercive instrument of law to enforce upon the whole community moral standards that the community itself does not commonly accept.

In his book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), Murray discussed the right and the obligation of legislators to reserve to themselves prudential judgments about what was enforceable through law in a multireligious societya society that does not just guarantee majority rights, but in fact also guarantees the rights of minorities against the majority. Murray said: It is not the function of the legislator to forbid everything that the moral law forbids, or to enjoin everything that the moral law enjoins. He then went on to say: The scope of law is limited. Moreover, though law is indeed a moral force, directive of human society to the common good, it relies ultimately for its observance on coercion. And men can be coerced only into a minimal amount of moral action. Again from this point of view the scope of law is limited.

Society has unfortunately demonstrated for centuries that abortions will be performed regardless of the law. That raises the question of whether it is truly moral to discourage disrespect for all law by passing laws that are unenforceable. Murray was conscious of that when he wrote the following: A legal ban on an evil must consider what St. Thomas calls its own possibility.’ That is, will the ban be obeyed, at least by the generality? Is it enforceable against the disobedient? He asks: What are the lessons of experience in the matter? What is the prudent view of resultsthe long view or the short view? These are the questions that jurisprudence must answer, in order that legislation may be drawn with requisite craftsmanship.

That is why, while I detest abortion and agree with Catholic teaching that in most instances it is morally wrong, I decline to force my views into laws that, if adopted, would be unenforceable and would tear this society apart. That judgment may be wrong, but it is a judgment honestly arrived at, and one that I am obligated to make.

Within the last month the U.S. Catholic bishops, whose single direct responsibility is to the Catholic Church, agreed that individual bishops have the right to exercise their own prudential judgment in deciding how and when to try to apply Catholic teachings in their dealings with public officials. Surely they would not deny to public officials the same exercise of prudential judgment that they claim for themselves, especially when public officials have an even more complex set of responsibilitiesto church teachings and to the general public, which might or might not share those teachings.

In my exchange of letters with Archbishop Burke, I tried to make the distinction between winning an argument through persuasion and trying to win it by coercion through the force of law. Father Murray also addressed that issue when he wrote the following: In the United States at present all the religious groups arefrom the sociological, even if not from the statistical, point of viewminority groups. He then concluded: Any minority group has the right to work toward the elevation of standards of public morality in the pluralist society, through the use of the methods of persuasion and pacific argument.

But then he continued, In a pluralist society no minority group has the right to impose its own religious or moral views on other groups, through the use of the methods of force, coercion, or violence. Law by its nature is coercive.

That is why I applaud the actions of the Catholic hierarchy in trying to win the public debate about the morality of abortion, but it is also why I reserve to myself the decision about what conduct I can impose on others who are not of my religion. In my view, Bishop Burke attempted to use his interpretation of theology to coerce me into taking specific positions on matters that I believe are matters of constitutional law. The difference between us is that I am not trying to force him to agree with my judgments, but he is attempting to force me to agree with his. That in conscience I cannot do.

One last thought. People who agree with the stance of Archbishop Burke often cite the action of Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel of New Orleans in 1962 directed against three New Orleans Catholics who promoted segregation. I remember that well. The difference is that Archbishop Rummel acted against three people who were trying to obstruct the implementing of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, which under our system is the law of the land. Archbishop Burke is doing just the opposite. He is attempting to single me out because I will not take actions that I have considered to be subversive of federal court decisions that are still the law of the land that I have taken an oath to uphold, whether I like it or not.

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David R. Obey, a Democrat, has represented Wisconsin’s Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1969.

Comments

Dan Hannula | 5/8/2010 - 4:47pm

We will miss your wisdom in the halls of Congress Dave.  You will always be my Congressman.  I wish you a long and happy retirement. May 8, 2010.

Elizabeth Rogers | 8/24/2004 - 4:39pm
Thank you for publishing Congressman David Obey's piece in "America" magazine. It is heart-warming to learn of a veteran of Congress who lives in the public arena as a conscientious, intelligent Catholic. Recently you published Joseph Califano's article, and there too we heard from a Catholic whose practice of his religion and moral judgements when in public life, and currently as well, bring honor upon the Catholic Church. Recently American Catholics have been witnessing a stream of criticism and even censures of officials from our Church. These men provide reason to hope!
Richard H. Escobales,Jr. | 8/18/2004 - 11:17pm
In his article in “America, ” Congressman Obey confronts two issues: legalized abortion and embryonic stem cell research. To keep this letter relatively short, I will only address the first issue.

Perhaps the key to understanding the conflict between Congressman Obey and Archbishop Burke lay in answers to the following questions. Is legalized abortion morally wrong because it is condemned by Catholic Bishops? Or is legalized abortion condemned by Catholic Bishops because it is intrinsically evil?

I believe that the bishops have condemned legalized abortion because it is intrinsically evil.

Legalized abortion has three immediate consequences. It serves to deprive unborn human beings of life. It simultaneously assaults basic human rights. And it transmogrifies the meaning of basic constitutional protections. To effect legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun essentially had to vacate portions of the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Since one does not abort what is not alive , Justice Blackmun’s statement in Roe, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins” is biologically curious.

But the statement is also very revealing. What in effect the Court is saying in Roe is that in cases of questions of fact as to whether human life is present or not, constitutional protections to that life do not apply. What this means is that the Court sanctions the destructions of that life regardless of whether it is human or not. This establishes a precedent fundamentally destructive of the basic protections enshrined in the above amendments.

Legalized abortion also has other consequences. According to one recent count [www.nrlc.org/abortion/], since 1973 when Roe v. Wade was decided, America has had 44,670,812 legal abortions. This loss of American lives far exceeds the current population of Spain. The loss of such enormous numbers of Americans has already created significant economic, social and national security problems, problems that I predict will only be exacerbated as time goes on.

Given these realities, Congressman Obey’s declaration “I decline to force my views into law that, if adopted, would be unenforceable and would tear this society apart” rings hollow. I am not a bishop and so cannot impose ecclesiastical sanctions. But as a citizen I have watched in sadness as successful Catholic politicians like Drinan, Cuomo, Kerry, Kennedy, and Pataki facilitate legalized abortion. In so acting these politicians have played a major role in the destruction of the country.

Laws are broken all the time. That is why society establishes sanctions for the transgressors. And so my response to Representative Obey is that legalized abortion has and will continue to “tear this society apart ” in far more fundamental ways than its abolition.

I have no patience with a candidate like Senator Kerry who votes against a ban on partial birth abortion, but says that he believes that human life begins at conception. And while I have very grave reservations about the reckless and sometimes inept neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, I believe that the likely election of Senator Kerry to the office of the President will prove far more harmful to the long term welfare of this country than Osama bin-Laden could ever be.

Henri Fromageot | 8/17/2004 - 10:06am
First, Mr. David R. Obey, writes that he fought for the poor, taking to heart “ Whatsoever you did for the least of them, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). The example he cites of his good works shows that he is sensitive to selected social issues. However, because of abortion being the law of the land, and because he does not want to impose he views on others, he chooses to let 5,000 daily abortions, i.e., the legal killing of innocent children. What did he do to prevent this onslaught? May I respectfully suggest that the choice ought to be to keep the child or to give the child up for adoption, a much more honorable choice than the one recommended by Planned Parenthood.

Second, Mr. Obey justifies abortion on the ground that it is the law of the land. In Nazi Germany, the law of the land was to eliminate the Jews along with the handicapped and various other groups. In fact, those courageous Germans who protected Jews did it at great peril to their own lives (see a recent article in The Sunday Times). All this is very well documented in a remarkable collection of essays in Rachel Weeping by Rev. James T. Burtchaell, CSC, an eye opener for Mr. Obey.

Third, Mr. Obey does not realize that abortion is not a religious issue. It is simply a human rights issue, wherein an aborted human being is denied the right to live on the ground that “it” is unwanted. The laws of nature are not coercive; they just demand to be followed, since not following them could well lead to grave societal woes. Forty million aborted human beings since Roe vs. Wade is a huge societal loss.

Fourth, Mr. Obey is incorrectly criticizing Archbishop Burke’s views. These are not the Archbishop’s views. It just so happens that the Archbishop enunciates clearly what the Catholic Church has always upheld, namely the right to live of every human being from the moment of conception.

Finally, it is just sad to see Mr. Obey, who says he “detests abortion” and yet has taken an oath to protect the law of the land rather than its unborn citizens. Nobody forces Mr. Obey to be a Catholic. One becomes a Catholic or remains such only by invitation. One is free to choose to follow the law of the land rather than the Ten Commandments, or Matthew 25:40 for that matter, but then he has de facto ceased to be a Catholic.

Terence Fitzgibbons | 8/13/2004 - 1:03pm
First off, I would have to say that Archbishop Burke's threats and rebukes are not helpful in this debate. I feel very uncomfortable using the Eucharist as a bargaining tool for political issues. My (idealistic) hope is that the nourishment in the sacrament will some day bring Obey, Kerry, and countless others closer to Truth and to the truth on this matter--that is, the inviolability of life.

I agree with Congressman Obey that, as Catholics, the issues are far more complex than just abortion. Catholic Social Teaching calls us to defend the rights of the poor, the laborers, the environment, etc...all these typically "left" issues. And so I thank Congressman Obey for his service to justice in these matters. I think this article belongs in America Magazine because it continues fruitful debate.

However, Congressman Obey's moral reasoning in regards to abortion is inherently flawed. The previous letters to the editor point out these flaws. For example, just because abortion laws will be broken if passed (which is a false presumption anyway) does not mean we should not work to prohibit abortion.

I would just say, then, one thing about Congressman Obey's last comment about the oath he took to the country. He essentially says that he has to follow the Supreme Court whether he likes it or not. But oaths are man-made. I recently took an oath when I was commissioned in the Navy two months ago. I take my oath seriously. But if my oath requires me to participate in a pre-emptive, unjust war and I personally deem that war to be unjust, then "goodbye oath." Because stronger than and before any oath is my baptism to the Lord and the Church and my struggle to commit to justice and the truth.

Therefore, Congressman Obey, please do not use an oath as a copout. If you believe in the invialobility of life, then stand up for it. If you do not, then perhaps we can persuade you--and you are correct, "persuade" rather than "dictate." But, in the meantime, your rationalization and moral reasoning falls short.

Robert E. McNulty | 9/16/2004 - 5:41pm
Once again I ask all to remember that the Church has always taught that human life begins at ensoulment as have the other mono-theistic religions. It has NOT always taught that human life begins at conception. For those who believe it does, I again ask: If God infuses a soul at conception, what happens if twinning occurs 10 days later?
Joseph Kash | 9/10/2004 - 5:05pm
I am glad the writer of this letter who is not sure that there is anything absolute was not the one who decided the fate of American slavery! I wonder what the writer of this letter thinks of the decimation of the Native American Indians in this country? Was this absolutely wrong? Is infanticide absolutely wrong? Illinois has decided that it is not. I guess a relativist needs to let this law stand so that those who think killing live children for convenience is OK. I am supprised by the response of letter writers who praise Mr. Obey becuase he has taken a position contrary to Church teaching so eligantly.

After reading these letters, it is obvious that the Bishops and clergy are failing in their role as teachers. The readers of America magazine need more articles that help them understand their faith.

Joseph L. Keefe | 8/26/2004 - 1:33pm
Mr. Obey’s comment (Aug 16) to Bishop Burke that bishops should use persuasion and not try to win arguments through coercion is a number of years too late. The Bishops have been using persuasion for 30 years to change opinions on abortion. They have succeeded with millions... but have failed with many Catholics including almost half of the Catholics in congress. In the present congress almost 40 Catholic congressmen and 9 Catholic senators did not vote once for a pro-life bill. It appears as if many of the Bishops have tired of this “persuasion” tactic and decided to get a bit tough.

Mr. Obey’s attempt to make abortion a strictly Catholic issue is completely wrong when he says “I agree with the Catholic Church about the undesirability of abortion but this country is not exclusively Catholic …”. It should be obvious to anyone that tens of millions of non-Catholics agree with the Catholic position on abortion! In the present congress about 72% of all pro-life votes come from non-Catholics.

He also says “no one … gets to impose his religious beliefs on people of other religions ...” simply means that the religious people – Catholics, Protestants & Jews – have no right to insist that they be heard on subjects involving morality. The secular population -– Planned Parenthood and the ACLU -- however, have every right to promote their version of the “moral order”.

This is simply absurd! The “separation of Church & State” does not mean that the Bishops have no right to insist on being heard in the political arena! Each Bishop is a citizen of this country and has the same rights as every other citizen. The Church in America is an American institution and has the same rights as does the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Mr. Obey articulates the modern secular theme - - Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and when Caesar demands it, God must release it and keep His big mouth shut.

Frank Sales | 8/22/2004 - 10:42pm
It occurred to me that the "twinning" argument would lead one to conclude that if one day science can clone a human from one of my cells, I did not yet possess a soul until the cell was harvested.

Prateep Ghose | 8/6/2004 - 9:21pm
Congressman Obey has taken his position on abortion after much thought, study and prayer. That is a good definition of conscience. God gave us free will, and, as men and women committed to our faith, we are all encouraged to do just that. Denying communion is a harsh reminder of past excesses of the Inquisiton and does not belong in a church built on love and charity.

In the mosaic of issues that form us as a country, is abortion the only issue Archbishop Burke interested in? What about the death penalty? What about gun control? What about universal health care? What about the social issues of poverty and inequality?

Archbishop Burke reminds me of the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament, so concerned about looking good that they fail to see the real goodness that is around him. I believe Jesus called them the "whitened sepulchers".

Stephen Nevin | 8/28/2004 - 9:20pm
Thank you for publishing the article by Rep. David Obey, "My Conscience, My Vote." I suspect that it took some courage to do so.

Rep. Obey could have been writing to express my convictions in this complicated matter. After seventy years committed to the values of my faith (Catholic) and my country I view the effort of some, particularly members of the hierarchy, to reduce the many moral issues we face to one issue, abortion, as trumping all, a calamity in the making. Furthermore, the attempt to morally blugeon politicians into compliance might work in religiously fundamentalist societies. It will not work in ours.

The Church faces an educational challenge as regards this, and many other moral issues. Fear, intimidation and punishment will not work.

Patricia Laux | 8/27/2004 - 11:35am
I thoroughly enjoyed the article "My Conscience, My Vote" written by David Obey that appeared in the August 16-23, 2004, issue of America. If he served my Congressional district, he would certainly have my vote!

What a thoughtful, thorough, and profound set of points he made about the very complex world of conscience! As I have gotten older, it has often struck me that more than just my hair has become gray. The world just isn't a black and white place in my experience, as many single-issue Catholics would like it to be. I'm truly not sure if I would say ANYTHING is absolute - there are just too many extenuating circumstances and situations that color the process of decisionmaking.

And even if something is black and white to me, do I have the right to impose my view on another person who may have come to a different conclusion entirely, through the very real process of forming their conscience? I wouldn't presume to play the role of God, so my answer would be no.

The whole denial of Eucharist issue has rankled me for many months, and in fact I wrote a letter to the editor of our diocesan newspaper The Compass on the subject recently. I will quote only a small portion of that letter here - quite by chance I came upon the perfect riposte to folks like Bishop (now archbishop) Burke in the pages of a wonderful book by Fr. Ron Rolheiser called Against an Infinite Horizon: The Finger of God in Our Everyday Lives, specifically on page 85 into 86. The italics are his, and he says it better than I ever could:

“…namely, that the eucharist is the primary sacrament of reconciliation and that going to eucharist is not a moral statement: We go to eucharist because we need health, not because we are healthy. One of the great tragedies is that, inevitably, when we need eucharist the most, when we most need to touch the body of Christ because of the moral and psychological mess we find ourselves in, we stay away because we think (or have been told) that to go to communion we must first put out lives in order.

“It highlights too even a more significant point: God’s forgiveness, unlike our own, is lavish, scandalous, unmeasured, unmemoried, and beyond all exacting and recriminations.”

Matthew Wright | 8/22/2004 - 10:50am
In the August 16-23 issue of America Representative David R. Obey wrote a much nuanced apologetic tome (My Consciense, My Vote) in defense of his decision to dissent from the Church’s consistent teaching that abortion is always an objectively evil act. I must admit that living in Indiana, I have never, until now, heard of David Obey. I have, however, heard the arguments to which he appeals and the ‘almost right’ premises upon which he builds his own personal moral high ground. I have yet to be convinced, or impressed, by either.

There are not a few major leaps in logic to be found in Mr. Obey’s article. I wish to focus on the most radical because they put him on the tracks he rides to arrive at the depot of dissent.

Mr. Obey mistakenly thinks that he agrees with Church teaching on the issues of life. He says, “I agree with my church that abortion in most cases is wrong.” The Church does not teach this. She teaches that abortion in all cases is wrong. This is apparently a matter of poor catechesis that Archbishop Burke has no doubt tried to help Mr. Obey understand. If Mr. Obey’s local bishop isn’t a high enough authority on the matter, how about the bishop in Rome? In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II unequivocally calls abortion an infamy that does more harm to those who practice it than those who suffer from the injury. He also says abortion is “a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” No wiggle room can be found in this or any other church doctrinal statement relative to abortion. If this is true, then wouldn’t one’s conscience, if it is properly formed, want to condemn all abortions?

Mr. Obey says the way to fight abortion, at least the kind he thinks is wrong, is to persuade. Yet nowhere on his website (on August 22, 2004) could I find the word abortion, let alone any condemnation of it.

Mr. Obey has come to the conclusion that “the major task of modern religion is to help people understand their responsibilities toward one another.” I hardly know what to make of such a watered-down feel good statement. One thing that should be mentioned is that this is not what his religion thinks it is tasked with doing. As successors to the 12 apostles, the bishop’s mandate is to spread the Good News to all the ends of the earth. For a Catholic, religion isn’t an instrument to be manipulated by government so that people know their responsibilities toward one another. To group the Catholic faith in with all other religions as having one common task helps me to understand his reticence to adhere to his bishops teaching. Perhaps he views Church doctrine as not necessarily better than any other belief system (especially his own).

To say that the problem is “that I remain a John Courtney Murray kind of Catholic, while Archbishop Burke does not” is to miss the point entirely. Father Murray argued for the right of all persons to have religious freedom. Protecting the unborn is in no way injurious to that right. One is not coerced into adherence to the Catholic faith by requiring that they do not kill the living person in their womb. This is THE MOST BASIC of all human rights. I’m afraid that when it comes to fighting for social justice, Mr. Obey is majoring in the minors by neglecting to fight for the most defenseless, the unborn.

Robert E. McNulty | 8/21/2004 - 6:45pm
I am astounded at the letters written concerning Congressman Obey's statement that abortion is the law of the land. Of course it is. What do they want him to do about it? If he were to propose a consitutional amendment outlawing abortion, it wouldn't even get out of committee.

Second, as I have pointed out previously, the Church has not always taught that human life begins at conception (about an 8 hour process.)The Church has always taught that human life begins at ensoulment and the view of when that occurs varied widely. Pope Gregory XIV said that abortion was not murder until the fetus was animated. St. Jerome said not until it had its arms and legs. Not until Pius the IX was it stated that ensoulment occurred at conception.

If God infuses a soul at conception, what happens when twinning occurs say 10 days later? The Anglicans solve this by saying ensoulment occurs at 14 days, after the possibility of twinning has gone. Muslim say four months, Jews at Birth.

I hope this demonstrates the Church has not "always taught."

Phil Soucheray | 8/19/2004 - 7:30pm
Would Mr. Obey please answer the simple questions, "What does it mean to be a Catholic Christian, and what does it mean to be a leader who happens to be a Catholic Christian?"

The representative from Wisconsin acknowledges the value of the moral compass he was given in his youth, but he seems to think it doesn't point the right direction anymore. Either that, or he isn't inclined to follow it.

If Mr. Obey understands and is confident in the rightness of the Catholic Church teaching that abortion is morally wrong, then I would hope that Mr. Obey would be leader enough to use his position to consistently argue for legislation that points out that rectitude and holds us all to the higher standard of truth -- even if the legislation that results isn't all it could be.

If Mr. Obey has misgivings about the fundamental moral rightness of the teaching on abortion, I would hope he would be able to acknowledge that and abstain from Communion until he's resolved his misgivings. Ecclesial threats would have no meaning if he did.

But Mr. Obey says he can't or won't do much more than he is now to counter abortion. He says his oath to uphold the law of the land prevents it. He says Constitutional proscriptions against establishment of religion stand in the way. Indeed, he says abortion is a fact of life and that stricter laws would be broken, therefore unenforceable, and would therefore encourage disrespect for all law.

As a leader, I suggest Mr. Obey is in Washington to be a voice of conscience. If he accepts the notion that life is a gift of God and abortion wrongly ends that life, then it doesn't matter if he is Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or Atheist -- he should be exercising his voice of conscience on behalf of what is right, regardless of whether it winds up in final legislation or not. At least he will have fought the good fight.

David Hollenbach, S.J. | 8/16/2004 - 8:48pm
Congressman Obey's article shows just the kind ethical and political wisdom needed to advance the cause of Catholic values in a pluralitic society. He has long shown this wisdom in his legislative work. I wish the positions advocated by his critics, including those who are bishops, were as effective in advancing the cause of human dignity as he is. My thanks to him for his illuminating reflections.

Mary Kay Carleton | 8/15/2004 - 8:51pm
Thank you for David Obey's comments in "My Conscience, My Vote". As the election comes closer, I have become more and more distressed at the number of people who ask me how I can be Christian and vote against the current administration, discouraged by the e-mails I receive titled "A vote for Bush is a vote for Christ". I wonder, as a Christian, where does this leave me? Judged by others, that's where. I cannot in good conscience forsake all the other teachings of my faith for a single issue. I believe it would be irresponsible.
Joseph Kash | 8/5/2004 - 11:54pm
The liberal Democrat claims that the constitution can evolve. They claim that there is a "pneumbra" in which you can find (or create) rights which where not originally intended by the law maker.

The liberal Democrat however claims that when it comes to abortion the constitution is static and unchangeably. They claim that they cannot do anything about abortion because our constitution gives a woman the right to choose.

This right to choose was created by liberal justices. This right was not originally in the constitution. This right was created from the "pneumbra" where any right can be created by any justice.

It is essential that we return the abortion issue back to the legislature so that people like Mr. Obey can debate this issue. Mr. Obey wipes his hands clean claiming that he cannot do anything about the murder of the unborn. Does he really believe that life begins at conception?

Edward A. Burke | 8/13/2004 - 10:26am
Congressman David R. Obey in "My Conscience, My Vote" (Aug. 16-23) reprises his response to a letter he received November 4, 2003, from Bishop Raymond L. Burke, of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The bishop's letter asked Rep. Obey to refrain from receiving Communion as long as he continued to publicly support abortion. The congressman's reply to the bishop concludes: "in an American democracy no one, not a public official and not a bishop, gets to impose by law his religious beliefs on people of other religions who do not necessarily share those same beliefs."

Bishop Burke, of course, was not trying "to impose by law his religious beliefs" but merely advising Rep. Obey that if he persisted in publicly supporting abortion, he must not do it while tacitly proclaiming himself in public an exemplary Catholic. If the bishop had looked the other way and continued to allow the congressman to receive Communion without admonition, it would have raised this question in the minds of many of the faithful: If the Roman Catholic Church, as represented by Bishop Burke, does not take its own moral teachings seriously, why should anyone else?

Like Congressman Obey, Senator John Kerry has been basking publicly in his Catholic affiliation before the electorate as one who is "personally opposed to abortion, but..." Both legislators, along with other congressional co-religionists who flaunt their baptismal heritage while groveling for votes on their "buts," should ponder deeply the words of renowned Quaker parliamentarian and statesman Edmund Burke. Addressing the Electors of his district in Bristol, England, November 3, 1774, Burke refuted his opponent's claim that a member of parliament ought to make his will subservient to the will of the electorate, and that parliament is merely a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, and that each of its members must maintain those interests, as an agent and an advocate, against other agents and advocates. Burke replied:

"Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.

"Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have a great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitting attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

"But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure. No, not from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable.

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but also his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

Howard J White | 8/11/2004 - 1:01pm
Mr Obey is quite passionate about social justice issues but not so about life issues. He has no problem with forcibly taking one person'd goods and giving them to another (taxation is not voluntary!). However when he weighs the right to life of a defenseless being, he is not so passionate.

It seems to me he has the priorities reversed; one must as a matter of conscience tow the line with life issues and use prudential judgment in other areas of social justice.

Does Mr. Obey believe that Archbishop Burke is not familiar with John Courtney Murray? I really don't think he is a Murray kind of Catholic!

Connie May | 8/11/2004 - 12:08pm
Thank you so much for this article by David Obey. I think his name is so accurate in that he obeys his informed conscience. Would that more people took seriously their responsibility to do the same. Our parish is trying to encourage this kind of considered choice making as we approach this election. I am making this article widely available to those who are werious about making their faith an integral part of their decision making. Please give us more of this kind of information.
Frank Sales | 8/11/2004 - 11:24am
Congressman Obey presents an inherently untenable position. If the fetus is a life, as he seems to accept, he is morally bound to protect that life from direct attack. The Constitutional rights of the mother are trumped by the paramouncy of the right to life of an innocent being.

Obey says that abortions will continue to occur even if he legislates against them, implying that the resulting disrespect for the law is a greater evil than the object of the law. Is he suggesting that a law that will be broken by some or many is not worth passing?

I am glad that you published this article. It demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of Catholic politicians who refuse to do all that is prudentially possible to protect the unborn and simultaneously claim to be in communion with the Church.

Steven A. Sisa | 8/10/2004 - 9:39pm
Congressman Obey flies into the web of abortion rights attracted to the false light of secular law and a permissive society. His painstakingly eloquent, impassioned rationalization of his 'almost OK' approach to abortion holds no water to an essential truth. Even the most "progressive" humanist concedes, on scientific basis, that life begins at conception. Just ask Catholic Senator Kerry. Congressman Obey, in league with Catholic Senators Kerry, Kennedy, Durbin, Daschle , and Catholic Congresswoman Pelosi, among other similarly blinded Catholic legislators, votes time and again to allow the destruction of future generations of innocent life.

Congressman Obey's self- defense is that his votes limit the killing. Great. Tucked deep into his defense is the clearly false (ignorant?) notion that Catholic teaching prohibits abortion in almost all cases. Well, no wonder Mr. Obey's conscience is twisted. The Church's infallible papal teaching is as consistent as it is absolute, reinforced by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). The moral teaching forbidding abortion is not ambiguous, and it is held by more than just the Catholic Church. There is no ecclesiastic dispensation for legislators lacking courage to fight for innocent life.

A viable fetus knows only the life-giving breath of God through its mother. Slaves to the wanton demands of political plurality, Congressman Obey and his allies fail, time and again, to promote a basic respect and protection for unborn life from its conception that the Gospel and Scripture command. Thus, with their witting support over the years, thousands of innocents die every day.

There is no excuse that stands the test of eternity.

R Rood | 8/7/2004 - 1:51pm
"To love people you have to ignore a good deal of what they say while they are being honest, because you are not living in the Garden of Eden any longer." - Flannery O'Connor

James Croegaert | 8/6/2004 - 12:03pm
I have recently heard Cardinal George express concern about government's intrusion into religious matters. Specifically, health care and what Catholic hospitals may or may not be required to do, is at issue, and as someone working in a Catholic hospital, I believe his concern is well-founded. But I think also that nothing compromises the Church's stand on these things - which I think critically important - and its right to determine its own course, more than bishops who misunderstand the Church's place in a democratic society. Such misunderstanding and its clumsy expression only weakens the Church's moral voice at those points where something really is at stake.

I thought Congressman Obey's article demonstrated all too well how (at that time) Bishop Burke was doing exactly that. There are challenges enough to authentically exercising one's faith in our society without pastoral leaders misapplying their considerable power. I am grateful to Congressman Obey. While I do not agree with all his points, the courage of his well-articulated faith makes me glad to be both Catholic and American.

Charles E. Bouchard, O.P. | 2/19/2007 - 5:41pm
Representative David Obey’s apologia for his stance on abortion is the most thoughtful and nuanced statement I have ever seen by a politician (“My Conscience, My Vote” 8/16). It made me proud to be a Catholic and a Democrat.

Mr. Obey shows how difficult it is to walk the fine line between American individualism and the Catholic commitment to the common good. He also makes it clear that the problem we face is not between religion and politics, but between morality and public policy. When we confuse the two, as John Courtney Murray rightly pointed out, we make a wreckage of them both.

His emphasis on the role of persuasion is particularly important. As members of a public church, we Catholics cannot abandon our traditional strategy of persuasive collaboration in favor of legal interdiction. To do so would be to acknowledge that we have failed in our mission of moral transformation and that we are now asking the government to do by coercion what we could not do by preaching and reasoned argument.

William D. Ibach, S.J. | 2/19/2007 - 5:39pm
It was with both amazement and sadness that I read Representative David Obey’s recent article, “My Conscience, My Vote” (8/16). The battle over giving/refusing Communion to folks who either disagree with us or live on the margins of our faith continues to rage.

That does not amaze me or sadden me so much as what has not been said (at least to my knowledge) by any cardinal or bishop in the United States, namely the following reference to the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes: “We must distinguish between the error (which must always be rejected) and the person in error, who never loses his dignity as a person even though he flounders amid false or inadequate religious ideas. God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts: he forbids us to pass judgment on the inner guilt of others.”

As far back as 1958 our canon law professor, Rev. Maurice Walsh, S.J.—recently deceased at Campion Center, Weston—taught us clearly and forcefully. When a person whom a priest knows to be floundering comes up the aisle for Communion, the priest is never to refuse Communion and thus embarrass that person in front of his/her parish or religious community. The priest is always to judge in favor of the person approaching the altar.

(Rev.) David Hugh Werning | 2/19/2007 - 5:37pm
Regarding Representative David Obey’s recent essay in your journal, (“My Conscience, My Vote” (8/16), I would agree with him that no bishop ought to coerce any parishioner into taking any course of action. The Catholic faith would be served much better when all Catholics witness to Sacred Scripture and sacred tradition by their willing surrender in thought, word and deed to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Included in this surrender, by the way, is respect for the bishop as the primary teacher in the diocese as well as for the individual’s informed conscience.

On the latter point, Representative Obey seems to be well informed, dropping heavy quotes from John Courtney Murray and Thomas Aquinas to anchor his argument. The substance of his argument, as far as I can tell, is that as a public official sworn to uphold the United States Constitution, he cannot force his private religious beliefs on his diverse constituency, especially when a particular moral issue is “unenforceable.”

The argument is very weak. First of all, is there any issue in politics that does not have a religious or moral dimension? Second, if we should not pass laws that are unenforceable, then are we to allow the legalization of drug use? Do we promote prostitution as a legitimate occupation? Third, who said abortion is an exclusively religious issue anyway? One does not have to appeal to Catholic doctrine to denounce abortion; there are other sources, like biological science, natural law, and the U.S. Constitution (remember “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” etc.), which can be enlisted to defend the human life being formed in the womb. The right to life is a human right, inalienable and God-given. Mr. Obey is a sly one and can give any bullying bishop a run for his money.

Nevertheless, what is most disturbing about Mr. Obey’s essay, for me, is not his specious argument, but his frightening ability to bifurcate himself into one part Christian and one part politician. He complains much about his complex position, but leaving one’s believing self in the church must take quite a load off one’s politicking self in the chamber. Would that Mr. Obey were a bit more complex, instead of swallowing whole hog the party line.

In fact, if he’s looking for direction in his impossible situation, then perhaps he should put down Thomas Aquinas and pick up Thomas More.

Marion Ragsdale | 2/19/2007 - 6:23pm
I found it interesting that not one letter you printed (Letters, 10/18) in response to Congressman David Obey’s essay, “My Conscience, My Vote” (8/16), and Germain Grisez’s “Catholic Politicians and Abortion Funding” (8/30) was written by a woman.

But that small detail aside, I have to admit that while the writers by no means agree with one another, each letter was so well written, presenting differing views so skillfully and thoughtfully, that I am even more conflicted than ever about the issue of denying Communion to a public official who disagrees with us on matters of morality, such as abortion.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of these particular letters is their overall charitable tone, their lack of what the editorial, “The Catholic Mind,” in the same issue, decries as “petty name-calling, ad hominem arguments and a ‘gotcha’ politics of denunciation.”

Talk about studying a complex problem from all angles without rancor; only a Jesuit journal could create this cerebral dilemma! Thanks—I think.

Carol F. Williams, M.D. | 2/19/2007 - 5:16pm
The article by David R. Obey, “My Conscience, My Vote,” (8/16) raises the question, is it “truly moral to discourage disrespect [sic] for all law by passing laws that are unenforceable?” Abortion was illegal before Roe v. Wade. Yet in those years before Roe, obstetricians and gynecologists of my generation day after day saw women with the gruesome complications of “back alley” abortions. Those desperate women were economically as well as socially destitute. They most often arrived in the emergency room alone, abandoned not only by the men who had begotten the pregnancies but also by their families and certainly by the abortionist. Many became permanently sterile either from the pelvic infections that followed the procedure or from life-saving hysterectomies. It is estimated that in the years before Roe, one-third of the maternal mortality rate in the United States was attributable to illegal abortions.

All this changed with Roe. The decline in mortality rate that began with the advent of antibiotics continued steeply downward. A whole generation of physicians and nurses has never attended a woman with complications of an illegal abortion. While the true incidence of abortion prior to Roe will never be known, the magnitude of abortion as a symptom of social illness is very visible now. Abortion is a reportable procedure. The more than one million done yearly in this country is mind-boggling, but remembering what the country experienced before abortion became legal should give us pause about seeking to return it to the illicit realm of omerta, the scandal that everyone knows about but talks about only behind closed shutters.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the past five years indicate that both the number and the rate of abortion are declining. The decline in numbers can be partially explained by the shrinking population base of women aged 15 to 44 (the “official” age of fertility), but the decline in the abortion rate suggests that a shift in attitude is occurring. The reasons for this are unclear. One possibility is pre-abortion counseling that points out available resources that can enable a woman to carry the pregnancy to term. The strongest deterrent to abortion may be the sight of the tiny beating heart, hands, feet and face of an unborn child on ultrasound.

A healthy society is abortion-free. The church rightly holds out to us the vision of achieving such a goal; and most Americans want that, I believe. When one is dealing with a symptom, however, prudence requires that one seek out and treat the cause, the primary illness, in order to eliminate the symptom.

Elizabeth Rogers | 8/24/2004 - 4:39pm
Thank you for publishing Congressman David Obey's piece in "America" magazine. It is heart-warming to learn of a veteran of Congress who lives in the public arena as a conscientious, intelligent Catholic. Recently you published Joseph Califano's article, and there too we heard from a Catholic whose practice of his religion and moral judgements when in public life, and currently as well, bring honor upon the Catholic Church. Recently American Catholics have been witnessing a stream of criticism and even censures of officials from our Church. These men provide reason to hope!
Richard H. Escobales,Jr. | 8/18/2004 - 11:17pm
In his article in “America, ” Congressman Obey confronts two issues: legalized abortion and embryonic stem cell research. To keep this letter relatively short, I will only address the first issue.

Perhaps the key to understanding the conflict between Congressman Obey and Archbishop Burke lay in answers to the following questions. Is legalized abortion morally wrong because it is condemned by Catholic Bishops? Or is legalized abortion condemned by Catholic Bishops because it is intrinsically evil?

I believe that the bishops have condemned legalized abortion because it is intrinsically evil.

Legalized abortion has three immediate consequences. It serves to deprive unborn human beings of life. It simultaneously assaults basic human rights. And it transmogrifies the meaning of basic constitutional protections. To effect legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun essentially had to vacate portions of the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Since one does not abort what is not alive , Justice Blackmun’s statement in Roe, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins” is biologically curious.

But the statement is also very revealing. What in effect the Court is saying in Roe is that in cases of questions of fact as to whether human life is present or not, constitutional protections to that life do not apply. What this means is that the Court sanctions the destructions of that life regardless of whether it is human or not. This establishes a precedent fundamentally destructive of the basic protections enshrined in the above amendments.

Legalized abortion also has other consequences. According to one recent count [www.nrlc.org/abortion/], since 1973 when Roe v. Wade was decided, America has had 44,670,812 legal abortions. This loss of American lives far exceeds the current population of Spain. The loss of such enormous numbers of Americans has already created significant economic, social and national security problems, problems that I predict will only be exacerbated as time goes on.

Given these realities, Congressman Obey’s declaration “I decline to force my views into law that, if adopted, would be unenforceable and would tear this society apart” rings hollow. I am not a bishop and so cannot impose ecclesiastical sanctions. But as a citizen I have watched in sadness as successful Catholic politicians like Drinan, Cuomo, Kerry, Kennedy, and Pataki facilitate legalized abortion. In so acting these politicians have played a major role in the destruction of the country.

Laws are broken all the time. That is why society establishes sanctions for the transgressors. And so my response to Representative Obey is that legalized abortion has and will continue to “tear this society apart ” in far more fundamental ways than its abolition.

I have no patience with a candidate like Senator Kerry who votes against a ban on partial birth abortion, but says that he believes that human life begins at conception. And while I have very grave reservations about the reckless and sometimes inept neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, I believe that the likely election of Senator Kerry to the office of the President will prove far more harmful to the long term welfare of this country than Osama bin-Laden could ever be.

Henri Fromageot | 8/17/2004 - 10:06am
First, Mr. David R. Obey, writes that he fought for the poor, taking to heart “ Whatsoever you did for the least of them, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). The example he cites of his good works shows that he is sensitive to selected social issues. However, because of abortion being the law of the land, and because he does not want to impose he views on others, he chooses to let 5,000 daily abortions, i.e., the legal killing of innocent children. What did he do to prevent this onslaught? May I respectfully suggest that the choice ought to be to keep the child or to give the child up for adoption, a much more honorable choice than the one recommended by Planned Parenthood.

Second, Mr. Obey justifies abortion on the ground that it is the law of the land. In Nazi Germany, the law of the land was to eliminate the Jews along with the handicapped and various other groups. In fact, those courageous Germans who protected Jews did it at great peril to their own lives (see a recent article in The Sunday Times). All this is very well documented in a remarkable collection of essays in Rachel Weeping by Rev. James T. Burtchaell, CSC, an eye opener for Mr. Obey.

Third, Mr. Obey does not realize that abortion is not a religious issue. It is simply a human rights issue, wherein an aborted human being is denied the right to live on the ground that “it” is unwanted. The laws of nature are not coercive; they just demand to be followed, since not following them could well lead to grave societal woes. Forty million aborted human beings since Roe vs. Wade is a huge societal loss.

Fourth, Mr. Obey is incorrectly criticizing Archbishop Burke’s views. These are not the Archbishop’s views. It just so happens that the Archbishop enunciates clearly what the Catholic Church has always upheld, namely the right to live of every human being from the moment of conception.

Finally, it is just sad to see Mr. Obey, who says he “detests abortion” and yet has taken an oath to protect the law of the land rather than its unborn citizens. Nobody forces Mr. Obey to be a Catholic. One becomes a Catholic or remains such only by invitation. One is free to choose to follow the law of the land rather than the Ten Commandments, or Matthew 25:40 for that matter, but then he has de facto ceased to be a Catholic.

Terence Fitzgibbons | 8/13/2004 - 1:03pm
First off, I would have to say that Archbishop Burke's threats and rebukes are not helpful in this debate. I feel very uncomfortable using the Eucharist as a bargaining tool for political issues. My (idealistic) hope is that the nourishment in the sacrament will some day bring Obey, Kerry, and countless others closer to Truth and to the truth on this matter--that is, the inviolability of life.

I agree with Congressman Obey that, as Catholics, the issues are far more complex than just abortion. Catholic Social Teaching calls us to defend the rights of the poor, the laborers, the environment, etc...all these typically "left" issues. And so I thank Congressman Obey for his service to justice in these matters. I think this article belongs in America Magazine because it continues fruitful debate.

However, Congressman Obey's moral reasoning in regards to abortion is inherently flawed. The previous letters to the editor point out these flaws. For example, just because abortion laws will be broken if passed (which is a false presumption anyway) does not mean we should not work to prohibit abortion.

I would just say, then, one thing about Congressman Obey's last comment about the oath he took to the country. He essentially says that he has to follow the Supreme Court whether he likes it or not. But oaths are man-made. I recently took an oath when I was commissioned in the Navy two months ago. I take my oath seriously. But if my oath requires me to participate in a pre-emptive, unjust war and I personally deem that war to be unjust, then "goodbye oath." Because stronger than and before any oath is my baptism to the Lord and the Church and my struggle to commit to justice and the truth.

Therefore, Congressman Obey, please do not use an oath as a copout. If you believe in the invialobility of life, then stand up for it. If you do not, then perhaps we can persuade you--and you are correct, "persuade" rather than "dictate." But, in the meantime, your rationalization and moral reasoning falls short.

Robert E. McNulty | 9/16/2004 - 5:41pm
Once again I ask all to remember that the Church has always taught that human life begins at ensoulment as have the other mono-theistic religions. It has NOT always taught that human life begins at conception. For those who believe it does, I again ask: If God infuses a soul at conception, what happens if twinning occurs 10 days later?
Joseph Kash | 9/10/2004 - 5:05pm
I am glad the writer of this letter who is not sure that there is anything absolute was not the one who decided the fate of American slavery! I wonder what the writer of this letter thinks of the decimation of the Native American Indians in this country? Was this absolutely wrong? Is infanticide absolutely wrong? Illinois has decided that it is not. I guess a relativist needs to let this law stand so that those who think killing live children for convenience is OK. I am supprised by the response of letter writers who praise Mr. Obey becuase he has taken a position contrary to Church teaching so eligantly.

After reading these letters, it is obvious that the Bishops and clergy are failing in their role as teachers. The readers of America magazine need more articles that help them understand their faith.

Joseph L. Keefe | 8/26/2004 - 1:33pm
Mr. Obey’s comment (Aug 16) to Bishop Burke that bishops should use persuasion and not try to win arguments through coercion is a number of years too late. The Bishops have been using persuasion for 30 years to change opinions on abortion. They have succeeded with millions... but have failed with many Catholics including almost half of the Catholics in congress. In the present congress almost 40 Catholic congressmen and 9 Catholic senators did not vote once for a pro-life bill. It appears as if many of the Bishops have tired of this “persuasion” tactic and decided to get a bit tough.

Mr. Obey’s attempt to make abortion a strictly Catholic issue is completely wrong when he says “I agree with the Catholic Church about the undesirability of abortion but this country is not exclusively Catholic …”. It should be obvious to anyone that tens of millions of non-Catholics agree with the Catholic position on abortion! In the present congress about 72% of all pro-life votes come from non-Catholics.

He also says “no one … gets to impose his religious beliefs on people of other religions ...” simply means that the religious people – Catholics, Protestants & Jews – have no right to insist that they be heard on subjects involving morality. The secular population -– Planned Parenthood and the ACLU -- however, have every right to promote their version of the “moral order”.

This is simply absurd! The “separation of Church & State” does not mean that the Bishops have no right to insist on being heard in the political arena! Each Bishop is a citizen of this country and has the same rights as every other citizen. The Church in America is an American institution and has the same rights as does the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Mr. Obey articulates the modern secular theme - - Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and when Caesar demands it, God must release it and keep His big mouth shut.

Frank Sales | 8/22/2004 - 10:42pm
It occurred to me that the "twinning" argument would lead one to conclude that if one day science can clone a human from one of my cells, I did not yet possess a soul until the cell was harvested.

Prateep Ghose | 8/6/2004 - 9:21pm
Congressman Obey has taken his position on abortion after much thought, study and prayer. That is a good definition of conscience. God gave us free will, and, as men and women committed to our faith, we are all encouraged to do just that. Denying communion is a harsh reminder of past excesses of the Inquisiton and does not belong in a church built on love and charity.

In the mosaic of issues that form us as a country, is abortion the only issue Archbishop Burke interested in? What about the death penalty? What about gun control? What about universal health care? What about the social issues of poverty and inequality?

Archbishop Burke reminds me of the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament, so concerned about looking good that they fail to see the real goodness that is around him. I believe Jesus called them the "whitened sepulchers".

Stephen Nevin | 8/28/2004 - 9:20pm
Thank you for publishing the article by Rep. David Obey, "My Conscience, My Vote." I suspect that it took some courage to do so.

Rep. Obey could have been writing to express my convictions in this complicated matter. After seventy years committed to the values of my faith (Catholic) and my country I view the effort of some, particularly members of the hierarchy, to reduce the many moral issues we face to one issue, abortion, as trumping all, a calamity in the making. Furthermore, the attempt to morally blugeon politicians into compliance might work in religiously fundamentalist societies. It will not work in ours.

The Church faces an educational challenge as regards this, and many other moral issues. Fear, intimidation and punishment will not work.

Patricia Laux | 8/27/2004 - 11:35am
I thoroughly enjoyed the article "My Conscience, My Vote" written by David Obey that appeared in the August 16-23, 2004, issue of America. If he served my Congressional district, he would certainly have my vote!

What a thoughtful, thorough, and profound set of points he made about the very complex world of conscience! As I have gotten older, it has often struck me that more than just my hair has become gray. The world just isn't a black and white place in my experience, as many single-issue Catholics would like it to be. I'm truly not sure if I would say ANYTHING is absolute - there are just too many extenuating circumstances and situations that color the process of decisionmaking.

And even if something is black and white to me, do I have the right to impose my view on another person who may have come to a different conclusion entirely, through the very real process of forming their conscience? I wouldn't presume to play the role of God, so my answer would be no.

The whole denial of Eucharist issue has rankled me for many months, and in fact I wrote a letter to the editor of our diocesan newspaper The Compass on the subject recently. I will quote only a small portion of that letter here - quite by chance I came upon the perfect riposte to folks like Bishop (now archbishop) Burke in the pages of a wonderful book by Fr. Ron Rolheiser called Against an Infinite Horizon: The Finger of God in Our Everyday Lives, specifically on page 85 into 86. The italics are his, and he says it better than I ever could:

“…namely, that the eucharist is the primary sacrament of reconciliation and that going to eucharist is not a moral statement: We go to eucharist because we need health, not because we are healthy. One of the great tragedies is that, inevitably, when we need eucharist the most, when we most need to touch the body of Christ because of the moral and psychological mess we find ourselves in, we stay away because we think (or have been told) that to go to communion we must first put out lives in order.

“It highlights too even a more significant point: God’s forgiveness, unlike our own, is lavish, scandalous, unmeasured, unmemoried, and beyond all exacting and recriminations.”

Matthew Wright | 8/22/2004 - 10:50am
In the August 16-23 issue of America Representative David R. Obey wrote a much nuanced apologetic tome (My Consciense, My Vote) in defense of his decision to dissent from the Church’s consistent teaching that abortion is always an objectively evil act. I must admit that living in Indiana, I have never, until now, heard of David Obey. I have, however, heard the arguments to which he appeals and the ‘almost right’ premises upon which he builds his own personal moral high ground. I have yet to be convinced, or impressed, by either.

There are not a few major leaps in logic to be found in Mr. Obey’s article. I wish to focus on the most radical because they put him on the tracks he rides to arrive at the depot of dissent.

Mr. Obey mistakenly thinks that he agrees with Church teaching on the issues of life. He says, “I agree with my church that abortion in most cases is wrong.” The Church does not teach this. She teaches that abortion in all cases is wrong. This is apparently a matter of poor catechesis that Archbishop Burke has no doubt tried to help Mr. Obey understand. If Mr. Obey’s local bishop isn’t a high enough authority on the matter, how about the bishop in Rome? In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II unequivocally calls abortion an infamy that does more harm to those who practice it than those who suffer from the injury. He also says abortion is “a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” No wiggle room can be found in this or any other church doctrinal statement relative to abortion. If this is true, then wouldn’t one’s conscience, if it is properly formed, want to condemn all abortions?

Mr. Obey says the way to fight abortion, at least the kind he thinks is wrong, is to persuade. Yet nowhere on his website (on August 22, 2004) could I find the word abortion, let alone any condemnation of it.

Mr. Obey has come to the conclusion that “the major task of modern religion is to help people understand their responsibilities toward one another.” I hardly know what to make of such a watered-down feel good statement. One thing that should be mentioned is that this is not what his religion thinks it is tasked with doing. As successors to the 12 apostles, the bishop’s mandate is to spread the Good News to all the ends of the earth. For a Catholic, religion isn’t an instrument to be manipulated by government so that people know their responsibilities toward one another. To group the Catholic faith in with all other religions as having one common task helps me to understand his reticence to adhere to his bishops teaching. Perhaps he views Church doctrine as not necessarily better than any other belief system (especially his own).

To say that the problem is “that I remain a John Courtney Murray kind of Catholic, while Archbishop Burke does not” is to miss the point entirely. Father Murray argued for the right of all persons to have religious freedom. Protecting the unborn is in no way injurious to that right. One is not coerced into adherence to the Catholic faith by requiring that they do not kill the living person in their womb. This is THE MOST BASIC of all human rights. I’m afraid that when it comes to fighting for social justice, Mr. Obey is majoring in the minors by neglecting to fight for the most defenseless, the unborn.

Robert E. McNulty | 8/21/2004 - 6:45pm
I am astounded at the letters written concerning Congressman Obey's statement that abortion is the law of the land. Of course it is. What do they want him to do about it? If he were to propose a consitutional amendment outlawing abortion, it wouldn't even get out of committee.

Second, as I have pointed out previously, the Church has not always taught that human life begins at conception (about an 8 hour process.)The Church has always taught that human life begins at ensoulment and the view of when that occurs varied widely. Pope Gregory XIV said that abortion was not murder until the fetus was animated. St. Jerome said not until it had its arms and legs. Not until Pius the IX was it stated that ensoulment occurred at conception.

If God infuses a soul at conception, what happens when twinning occurs say 10 days later? The Anglicans solve this by saying ensoulment occurs at 14 days, after the possibility of twinning has gone. Muslim say four months, Jews at Birth.

I hope this demonstrates the Church has not "always taught."

Phil Soucheray | 8/19/2004 - 7:30pm
Would Mr. Obey please answer the simple questions, "What does it mean to be a Catholic Christian, and what does it mean to be a leader who happens to be a Catholic Christian?"

The representative from Wisconsin acknowledges the value of the moral compass he was given in his youth, but he seems to think it doesn't point the right direction anymore. Either that, or he isn't inclined to follow it.

If Mr. Obey understands and is confident in the rightness of the Catholic Church teaching that abortion is morally wrong, then I would hope that Mr. Obey would be leader enough to use his position to consistently argue for legislation that points out that rectitude and holds us all to the higher standard of truth -- even if the legislation that results isn't all it could be.

If Mr. Obey has misgivings about the fundamental moral rightness of the teaching on abortion, I would hope he would be able to acknowledge that and abstain from Communion until he's resolved his misgivings. Ecclesial threats would have no meaning if he did.

But Mr. Obey says he can't or won't do much more than he is now to counter abortion. He says his oath to uphold the law of the land prevents it. He says Constitutional proscriptions against establishment of religion stand in the way. Indeed, he says abortion is a fact of life and that stricter laws would be broken, therefore unenforceable, and would therefore encourage disrespect for all law.

As a leader, I suggest Mr. Obey is in Washington to be a voice of conscience. If he accepts the notion that life is a gift of God and abortion wrongly ends that life, then it doesn't matter if he is Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or Atheist -- he should be exercising his voice of conscience on behalf of what is right, regardless of whether it winds up in final legislation or not. At least he will have fought the good fight.

David Hollenbach, S.J. | 8/16/2004 - 8:48pm
Congressman Obey's article shows just the kind ethical and political wisdom needed to advance the cause of Catholic values in a pluralitic society. He has long shown this wisdom in his legislative work. I wish the positions advocated by his critics, including those who are bishops, were as effective in advancing the cause of human dignity as he is. My thanks to him for his illuminating reflections.

Mary Kay Carleton | 8/15/2004 - 8:51pm
Thank you for David Obey's comments in "My Conscience, My Vote". As the election comes closer, I have become more and more distressed at the number of people who ask me how I can be Christian and vote against the current administration, discouraged by the e-mails I receive titled "A vote for Bush is a vote for Christ". I wonder, as a Christian, where does this leave me? Judged by others, that's where. I cannot in good conscience forsake all the other teachings of my faith for a single issue. I believe it would be irresponsible.
Joseph Kash | 8/5/2004 - 11:54pm
The liberal Democrat claims that the constitution can evolve. They claim that there is a "pneumbra" in which you can find (or create) rights which where not originally intended by the law maker.

The liberal Democrat however claims that when it comes to abortion the constitution is static and unchangeably. They claim that they cannot do anything about abortion because our constitution gives a woman the right to choose.

This right to choose was created by liberal justices. This right was not originally in the constitution. This right was created from the "pneumbra" where any right can be created by any justice.

It is essential that we return the abortion issue back to the legislature so that people like Mr. Obey can debate this issue. Mr. Obey wipes his hands clean claiming that he cannot do anything about the murder of the unborn. Does he really believe that life begins at conception?

Edward A. Burke | 8/13/2004 - 10:26am
Congressman David R. Obey in "My Conscience, My Vote" (Aug. 16-23) reprises his response to a letter he received November 4, 2003, from Bishop Raymond L. Burke, of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The bishop's letter asked Rep. Obey to refrain from receiving Communion as long as he continued to publicly support abortion. The congressman's reply to the bishop concludes: "in an American democracy no one, not a public official and not a bishop, gets to impose by law his religious beliefs on people of other religions who do not necessarily share those same beliefs."

Bishop Burke, of course, was not trying "to impose by law his religious beliefs" but merely advising Rep. Obey that if he persisted in publicly supporting abortion, he must not do it while tacitly proclaiming himself in public an exemplary Catholic. If the bishop had looked the other way and continued to allow the congressman to receive Communion without admonition, it would have raised this question in the minds of many of the faithful: If the Roman Catholic Church, as represented by Bishop Burke, does not take its own moral teachings seriously, why should anyone else?

Like Congressman Obey, Senator John Kerry has been basking publicly in his Catholic affiliation before the electorate as one who is "personally opposed to abortion, but..." Both legislators, along with other congressional co-religionists who flaunt their baptismal heritage while groveling for votes on their "buts," should ponder deeply the words of renowned Quaker parliamentarian and statesman Edmund Burke. Addressing the Electors of his district in Bristol, England, November 3, 1774, Burke refuted his opponent's claim that a member of parliament ought to make his will subservient to the will of the electorate, and that parliament is merely a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, and that each of its members must maintain those interests, as an agent and an advocate, against other agents and advocates. Burke replied:

"Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.

"Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have a great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitting attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

"But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure. No, not from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable.

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but also his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

Howard J White | 8/11/2004 - 1:01pm
Mr Obey is quite passionate about social justice issues but not so about life issues. He has no problem with forcibly taking one person'd goods and giving them to another (taxation is not voluntary!). However when he weighs the right to life of a defenseless being, he is not so passionate.

It seems to me he has the priorities reversed; one must as a matter of conscience tow the line with life issues and use prudential judgment in other areas of social justice.

Does Mr. Obey believe that Archbishop Burke is not familiar with John Courtney Murray? I really don't think he is a Murray kind of Catholic!

Connie May | 8/11/2004 - 12:08pm
Thank you so much for this article by David Obey. I think his name is so accurate in that he obeys his informed conscience. Would that more people took seriously their responsibility to do the same. Our parish is trying to encourage this kind of considered choice making as we approach this election. I am making this article widely available to those who are werious about making their faith an integral part of their decision making. Please give us more of this kind of information.

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