Saturday, October 18, 2008

Catholics, Life Issues, and the Elections: Where the Truth Lies

A report on Whispers in the Loggia blog today says that Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver will critique Catholics supporting Obama at a dinner for his ENDOW ministry tonight ( ENDOW is an organization of “Catholic feminists” who profess to educate women about their God-given role in church and society.

It does this through, inter alia, courses using textbooks discussing the “dignity” of women written by . . . men ( ENDOW seeks to inculcate “authentic feminism” among Catholic women through the “theology of the body” of the late pope John Paul II. That theology sees the roles (and consequently the religious vocations) of men and women as essentially different, due to the biological differences between men and women. In the worldview of this theology, men and women are “complementary,” and are destined by biology to follow complementary paths in church and society.

One implication of this theology of complementarity is that women’s role to be help-meets to men prohibits them from ordination (and thus power of governance) in the Catholic church. John Paul II declared the issue of women’s ordination off limits for theological discussion, before offering women his encyclical on women’s dignity and complementary role as supporters of males in church and society.

Among the founders of ENDOW, and its current president, is Marilyn Coors, wife of corporate executive and Republican political leader Pete Coors. Coors has donated generously this election cycle to the McCain campaign, the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee, and several Republican candidates in her state (

And why do I bring up these political connections as I discuss Archbishop Chaput’s arguments about abortion and Catholic voters? I do so because one of the central tenets of Chaput’s critique of some Catholics’ support for Obama is that this platform integrates the abortion issue into a range of life issues inherent in the “seamless garment” analogy.

Chaput wants to maintain that the refusal of some Catholic Obama supporters to make opposition to abortion the single leg on which all political choices stand suggests that these Obama supporters have a wider agenda, rooted in the seamless garment image—and that this agenda is not sufficient to compel Catholic support.

The text of Chaput’s ENDOW speech is on the Clerical Whispers blog. Chaput notes,

And here's the irony. None of the Catholic arguments advanced in favor of Senator Obama are new. They've been around, in one form or another, for more than 25 years. All of them seek to ''get beyond'' abortion, or economically reduce the number of abortions, or create a better society where abortion won't be necessary. All of them involve a misuse of the seamless garment imagery in Catholic social teaching.

As I read this rather flippant dismissal of the argument that one must make moral and political choices about life issues by looking at the whole range of those issues (the seamless garment), two things leap out at me. The first is the implication that only liberal Catholics, those likely to vote for Obama, have an agenda that has broader implications than abortion.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a dangerous argument for Archbishop Chaput to make . . . to a group of “authentic feminists” headed by the wife of a Republican political leader who gives lavishly to Republican causes. The wider agenda argument cuts both ways, does it not? There clearly is an agenda attached to the “pro-life” politics of conservative Republicans, and in this election cycle, a significant number of Catholics are repudiating that agenda, because it has not worked!

It has not reduced the number of abortions. It has been largely—even exclusively—ineffectual. Many of us believe it was designed to be ineffectual, to gain our votes while never intending to do anything to limit or stop abortions, since life issues were not its central concern, and, indeed, may not even have been on the horizon of its concerns.

And that’s the second glaring flaw that I’m amazed Archbishop Chaput does not see in his argument. As with the “hidden agenda” argument, the argument that some Catholics have promoted a seamless-garment approach for 25 years without seeing this approach bear fruit cuts both ways, as well.

Who has dominated American political life, after all, from the Reagan years forward? Who has had predominant control of Congress and the White House in the past 25 years? Whom have Catholic bishops such as Chaput told us to elect year after year, on the basis of pro-life promises? Who has had the power to change the abortion situation and has failed to do so?

If we are to vote on the basis of empty promises about the single issue of abortion, while that issue is rooted in other sociological factors that are clearly life issues related to abortion, when is it time to admit frankly that the promises we’ve been given were false promises? And to seek other, more productive, options to attain our goals?

When is it time, in other words, for Catholic leaders like Chaput to admit that the alliance they have encouraged American Catholics to make with a single political party, whose record on life issues is abysmal and a shocking contradiction to Catholic values, has not merely failed to serve life, but has been anti-life? Why should Catholic voters concerned about abortion not look closely at (and Chaput’s argument implies that they should not) issues like the Iraq War or the response to Katrina, as we consider returning “the” “pro-life” party to power?

To isolate one life issue among many from a seamless garment approach: the “pro-life” leaders Chaput and his cronies have sought to force us to elect have consistently resisted universal health coverage. In an economic climate of uncertainty and diminishing expectations even for middle-class Americans, the lack of assured healthcare for an infant is a not-inconsiderable problem for a mother weighing the choice to carry a pregnancy to term. Asking a young mother who has no economic security and no expectation of certain healthcare both for herself and her infant to bear a child without the assurance that this child will receive adequate healthcare after it is born is serious business.

And it is business that Chaput’s mono-focused, tunnel-vision argument cavalierly overlooks.

Is it any wonder that many Americans, including many Catholics, increasingly ask whether the Catholic commitment to pro-life values is really anything other than rhetoric? Or whether the Catholic alliance with “the” “pro-life” party is really about something other than life issues, given the dismal life record of “the” “pro-life” party?

Chaput’s speech ends on even thinner ice. It concludes by speaking of the attempt of Catholics supporting Obama to “neutralize the witness of bishops.” Chaput says,

The truth is that for some Catholics, the abortion issue has never been a comfortable cause. It's embarrassing. It's not the kind of social justice they like to talk about. It interferes with their natural political alliances.

In my humble opinion, there’s quite another truth at stake in what is going on now, with the renegotiation of Catholic political alliances. The truth is, I am sorry to say, that many of us who are Catholic have seen no clear witness on the part of our bishops to the life issues that Chaput tells us to make paramount as we vote.

The truth is, many of us have seen quite a bit of counter-witness in the activities of bishops like Charles Chaput and his ally Francis George, whom Chaput’s lecture praises. I cannot hear anything Archbishop Chaput says, about abortion or any other issue, without recalling that in recent years he has:

▪Fought legislation that would change Colorado’s statute of limitations on child abusers, and would thus make it easier for those abused as children to obtain justice and healing through the courts;

▪Fought the implementation of yearly audits of clerical sex abuse cases in Catholic dioceses in the U.S.—audits proposed by the National Review Board established by the bishops themselves;

▪Lambasted theologians and their ministry as teachers in the church; sought to reduce the ministry of teaching to the pastoral ministry exercised by bishops and the pope;

▪Fought legislation that seeks to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation by religious employers;

▪Used Catholic Charities and its services to the poor as a bargaining chip in the preceding fight;

▪Praised the attempt of the previous pope to override the authority of national bishops’ conferences and to make the papacy a centripetal force in a centrifugal time (to quote Chaput);

▪Built a seminary in his diocese known less for preparing good pastoral leaders with strong theological backgrounds than for producing foot soldiers in the battle for Truth in the image of Charles J. Chaput.

You see, in my view, Archbishops Chaput and Archbishop George have an agenda as much as I do. And it’s an agenda that does not serve Catholic pro-life values effectively at all, in my view. The pro-life witness of bishops such as Chaput and George has been vitiated by many of their political activities that radically undercut a bona fide pro-life ethic.*

Among Catholic voters, the coming election is not merely a referendum about issues of life. It is a referendum about the effectiveness of the bishops' “witness” to the values of life, about the bishops as pastoral leaders. And in my view, the fact that, despite haranguing and bullying by some bishops (and the silence of the majority of bishops in the face of this disgraceful behavior), a large number of Catholics intend to vote for the candidate the bishops do not wish to anoint, speaks volumes about the failure of the pastoral strategy of Chaput, George, and other influential leaders of the American Catholic church in the past 25 years.

*Does Archbishop Chaput really think that American Catholics can hear a call to venerate the "witness" of bishops like Cardinal George without remembering that Voice of the Faithful recently called for the resignation of Cardinal George after his shocking "deceit, cover-ups and secrecy" in clerical sex abuse cases has recently been revealed (