The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh

On a January Monday, after busloads of pilgrims returned from this year’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis witnessed the installation of Archbishop Raymond Burke. It was an appropriate juxtaposition of events: local news coverage prior to the installation had focused on the archbishop’s opposition to abortion in Wisconsin, and the most sustained applause during his inaugural homily came after his affirmation of human life from conception to natural death. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that no bishop has gone as far as Burke, in opposing abortion. At the end of his tenure as bishop of La Crosse, Wis., he had directed diocesan priests to refuse Communion to three pro-choice Catholic legislators and issued a pastoral letter, Dignity of Human Life and Civic Responsibility.

The letter is centered in the received teachings of the Catholic Church and is closely aligned with the judgment of Pope John Paul II. Catholics must resist abortion in their own lives and in their culture. The right to life is foundational to all other rights. And yet: when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality (The Gospel of Life, No. 73c).

Well, most Catholic politicians have professed their personal opposition to abortion. The question is what they do politically. And there’s the rub.

We live in a society that is not Catholic. That presents a political problem to pro-life Catholics, especially if they wish to argue their case in the public square. The archbishop’s action might reinforce the impression that abortion is a religious issue. This impression, in turn, could weaken political effectiveness, just as it can weaken academic discourse.

In my work as a teacher of medical ethics in the philosophy department of a Catholic university, one of my main tasks is to show how opposition to abortion is not necessarily a matter of faith, but rather a matter of reasonable inquiry and openness to evidence. A powerful case can be made to support the argument that a human being’s life begins at fertilization. My argument is less persuasive, however, if a student suspects that I maintain it because of the threat of excommunication. The whole point is to present the case to anyone willing to use reason and consider the facts of genetics and embryological development. To make this a function of religious belief immediately excludes many of my students, just as in politics it may undercut efforts to persuade the civil community.

The political group Democrats for Life strives to influence the Democratic Party. Are they to understand that they must leave a party that has a platform affirming abortion rights? Although they may agree that the right to life is the foundation upon which all other rights are based, some of them wonder why it is only abortion (and remarriage without an annullment) that seems to merit prohibition from Communion. Democrats for Life, moreover, can reason that in the context of the passage from The Gospel of Life quoted above, they reduce the harm of abortion in a society where it is not possible to completely abrogate a pro-abortion law.

I think Archbishop Burke might not have any difficulty with this position. The problem he faces is the sense that there are some Catholic politicians who will not even entertain the subject of limiting abortion, much less openly discuss it.

One does not have to be a Catholic to see that the prenatal pictures on refrigerators are pictures of little human beings. Hence my profound disappointment with many Democrats. It is the wall of hardened diffidence and repression. The right to abort has become an unquestioned presupposition. Try to be a pro-life Democrat. It is not easy. Try to get an endorsement for national office. It is impossible. (Can one be excommunicated from a political party?) Pro-choice dogmatism is as rigid as any dogmatism. And one dogma will not defeat another dogma except by sheer force. What can challenge a political dogma, however, is the hard work of crafting public policy, political organization, activist mobilization and careful argument.

And yet the problem of participation in the Eucharist remains. It is clear that a Catholic bishop has the right, and perhaps sometimes the duty, to refuse Catholics Communion, which is a sign of unity in faith. This prospect has been raised in the past with respect to vociferous segregationists and the Irish Republican Armyboth politically charged situations. So look at the problem that a Catholic bishop might have. If you judge, for example, that terminating the lives of second and third trimester fetuses is clearly killing innocent human beingsagainst God’s law, the natural law and the moral tradition of the church wouldn’t you think you have a heavy obligation to do something about it? If some Catholic politicians seem unwilling even to talk with you about it or give their reasons for supporting unrestricted legal abortion, would you, as a bishop, question whether they should receive Communion as fully integrated members of your faith community?

Perhaps that is what the new archbishop of St. Louis is confronting. (And perhaps a conversation can begin.)

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Robert M. Rowden | 2/24/2004 - 11:11pm
Father John Kavanaugh writes that a powerful argument can be made that human life begins at fertilization. Not true. A powerful argument can be made that human life begins at conception. Fertilization, the entry of a sperm cell into the cytoplasm of an egg, usually occurs in the fallopian tube and is followed as much as 24 hours later by the fusion of the nuclei of egg and sperm (conception) forming a new organism.

While it may seem like nit-picking, the distinction is important since,if we are to make a convincing argument from genetics and embryology, scientific accuracy is a must. Furthermore, the distinction is not without moral implications since it raises doubt about the "morning after" pill being classified as an abortifacient.

I congratulate Father Kavanaugh on his recent award by the Catholic Press Association, and as usual, I agree with the premise of his article. Unfortunately, in my neighborhood, pro-life Democrats are hard to find.

E. Patrick Mosman | 2/9/2007 - 9:55am
In “Abortion, Faith and Politics” (2/16), John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., should have reminded all politicians that by calling attention to their Catholic faith and in the same breath voicing support for abortion rights, a public act of scandal, as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 2284-6), is committed. Paragraph 2286 is directly applicable to people in their position. It reads: “Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion. Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structure leading to the decline of morals....”

Catholic Democratic senators who deny support to or oppose judicial appointees because of an appointee’s belief in the Catholic teaching that abortion is a moral evil should be reminded, even by denial of the sacrament, that their political beliefs provoke scandal.

Peter M. Kopkowski | 2/9/2007 - 11:00am
Much to my surprise, I find myself taking exception to what John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., says in his column on Feb. 16. Perhaps I misunderstand him. He seems to be saying that he agrees with the actions of bishops who refuse Communion to politicians who vote “pro-choice.” He seems to say that such refusal is based on Communion being “a sign of unity in faith” that is restricted to “fully integrated members of our faith community.” In the first place, I question the action of anyone who calls himself or herself a follower of Christ who ignores Christ’s very clear admonition to “not judge.” No priest or bishop can judge the state of soul of anyone but himself, and to judge a politician who comes forward seeking Communion seems clearly against the very clear words of Jesus. Secondly, we don’t have to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” because we have very clear example at the Last Supper, when he is described in Scripture as sharing “Communion” with all his Apostles, in spite of his knowledge (and comments) that Judas had already betrayed him and was no longer a “member of the faith community.” I think that we have to stop seeing Communion as a reward for good behavior and restore it to its place as a sign of inclusiveness and welcome to all who ask for it.

Robert J. DuBrul | 2/9/2007 - 9:54am
John Kavanaugh, S.J., speaks from an ethical point of view in “Abortion, Faith and Politics” (2/16) regarding the actions of Bishop Raymond Burke, now archbishop of St. Louis, but I think he misses the larger issue. This was action based on the attempted exercise of power and force, hierarchical and political. It may have worked long ago, but no longer. The laity have lost their fear of arbitrary actions by their bishops and have replaced it with trust in a good God and their own judgment. Archbishop Burke’s action is selectively ethical and patently political, in that he addressed only elected officials he opposed on one issue, abortion, but not those voting against other issues the church opposes, like the death penalty, war and issues of simple justice.

I wonder if the bishops and ethicists have ever considered what would be the outcome of success in this approach. What would happen if the bishops uniformly condemned Catholic politicians whose ethical and moral positions they opposed, and the politicians acquiesced to their bishops’ demands? Would it not put us back to pre-Kennedy times, when Catholics were thought to be beholden to their bishops and pope and therefore unsuitable for high public office? Would not these same politicans lose their jobs in many cases, because their place in an egalitarian system would be compromised? And then who would the bishops go to regarding other justice issues, such as health care, especially for children, and concern for the poor?

Archbishop Burke’s action makes very little sense, unless it is seen simply as an attempt to exercise power. What are the ethics regarding that?

Richard H. Escobales Jr. | 2/9/2007 - 9:53am
While I enjoyed reading “Abortion, Faith and Politics,” by John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. (2/16), I was frankly disappointed with your lackluster editorial “The Abortion Debate Today” in the same issue.

Yes, your editorial was professional and informative. Yes, one needs to keep one’s emotions in check as one examines this most contentious of issues. But legalized abortion has resulted in the destruction of 40 million American lives.

Legalized abortion is destroying diversity in this country. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, “Black women are more than three times as likely as white women to have an abortion, and Hispanic women are two and a half times as likely.” Is this not a human tragedy of immense proportions?

In addition to the damage to the American human infrastructure since the enactment—I use the word deliberately—of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the 1973 abortion decisions establish precedents that are fundamentally destructive of basic constitutional guarantees like due process, equal protection, the right of people “to be secure in their persons” and the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Does anyone really believe that a late-term abortion does not inflict cruel and inhuman punishment on the fetus?

I have publicly questioned the wisdom of President Bush’s Iraq initiative. But as misguided as that may have been, it pales in comparison to the rank inhumanity of the national Democratic Party and its shameless embrace of legalized abortion.

Robert M. Rowden | 2/24/2004 - 11:11pm
Father John Kavanaugh writes that a powerful argument can be made that human life begins at fertilization. Not true. A powerful argument can be made that human life begins at conception. Fertilization, the entry of a sperm cell into the cytoplasm of an egg, usually occurs in the fallopian tube and is followed as much as 24 hours later by the fusion of the nuclei of egg and sperm (conception) forming a new organism.

While it may seem like nit-picking, the distinction is important since,if we are to make a convincing argument from genetics and embryology, scientific accuracy is a must. Furthermore, the distinction is not without moral implications since it raises doubt about the "morning after" pill being classified as an abortifacient.

I congratulate Father Kavanaugh on his recent award by the Catholic Press Association, and as usual, I agree with the premise of his article. Unfortunately, in my neighborhood, pro-life Democrats are hard to find.