As all who care are aware, last month the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted by a large margin to – in the USCCB’s own words – “… task [its] Committee on Doctrine to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.” In the Catholic faith, under the doctrine of “Transubstantiation,” the whole substance of bread and wine are changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus (the “Eucharist” or “Communion”) when consecrated by the priest during the Mass. The words describing the Doctrine Committee’s assignment, innocuous in and of themselves, were widely interpreted as an initiative by conservative Catholic bishops to issue a statement disfavoring the provision of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians such as President Joe Biden. The USCCB’s action stirred immediate and intense controversy, and apparently caused the body to issue a qualification that “There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.” Even so, American Bishops’ overwhelming support for creating a document which might at least impliedly cast disapprobation upon pro-choice Catholic politicians underscores the marked rift between Catholic liberals and conservatives that has developed in the U.S. Catholic Church.
That life begins at conception is one of the core tenets of the Christian faith. Even the fiercest pro-choice advocates will presumably acknowledge that if one accepts the premise that the fetus is indeed a person, the conclusion that abortion is murder is inescapable. No one can deny the emotional force, the hope, the prayer that drives a couple yearning to have a child and the joy that accompanies their earliest awareness that a baby is in the mother’s womb; it makes one wonder why the Almighty grants conception to some who have no wish for it, while withholding the blessing from others so desperately seeking it.
I nonetheless find the seeming thrust of USCCB’s initiative deeply troubling both as a Catholic, and as an American. From a personal standpoint, I, like the President, have been a practicing Catholic my entire life. I, and I assume the President, believe that life begins at conception. My spouse and I, and I assume the President and Mrs. Biden, would not have aborted a fetus. It accordingly appears to me that despite the fact that I have tried for close to seven decades – while admittedly frequently failing — to be a faithful Catholic, any disapprobation that the majority of American Catholic officialdom may, even by implication, level at Mr. Biden is also directed at me, given my support for his candidacy against a materialist with notable fascist tendencies who, notwithstanding his purported “pro-life” stance, enthusiastically incites false and hateful discord among our people and intentionally implemented demonstrably inhumane border policies while in office.
I will always believe that the best way forward for our nation is through accommodation of competing positions held in good faith (i.e., not espoused for political or other self-interest). Abortion is the one issue that seems to me by its very nature to defy compromise between Americans sincerely holding conflicting views. That said, I would submit that Christians’ belief that life begins at conception — no matter how fervently held — is, inherently, no more (or less) than a matter of Faith. Many scientists reject the notion that the few cells existing upon and for a period following conception constitute “life.” I claim no expertise in other religions, but understand that neither Jewish nor Islamic scholars consider life to begin at conception, and that these Faiths do not prohibit abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. There are certainly millions of Americans of other or no faiths who reject the notion that life obtains either at conception or for a period thereafter. Justice Harry Blackmun, in Roe v. Wade, observed, “It is undisputed [i.e., even those defending the Texas criminal abortion statutes at issue in Roe conceded] that, at common law, abortion performed before ‘quickening’ – the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, appearing usually from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy – was not an indictable offense. … In this country, the law in effect in all but a few States until mid-19th century was the preexisting English common law.” [Note to the Originalists now sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court. ;)]. Notwithstanding more recent holdings arguably designed to limit abortion rights, the Supreme Court held in Roe and has maintained since that a woman has the constitutional right to abort a fetus. It is Mr. Biden’s duty as President to protect women’s constitutional rights as defined by the Supreme Court and to not impose his personal faith beliefs on the American people – the majority of whom, if polls are to be believed, favor women’s right to early term abortions.
Despite its backtrack, there is no little irony in the USCCB’s apparent intent to pressure Mr. Biden, given the reassurance that then-Democratic Presidential candidate U.S. MA Sen. John F. Kennedy delivered in September, 1960, to a conference of Protestant Ministers fearful of the influence that the Vatican might seek to assert on a Catholic president:
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no … minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote … I believe in an America … where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials …. I want a chief executive … whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation. … Whatever issue may come before me as president … I will make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”
One of our children remarked to me recently that while our family was being raised, there was much greater emphasis in our household on our Catholic faith than there was on our identity as American citizens. Despite my many failings, I hopefully still place much greater weight on what I believe the Almighty expects of me than I do upon my responsibilities as an American. Even so, I have not been able to avoid the conclusion that in a diverse secular civil society pledged to separate the affairs of church and state, I should accept the fact that my religious beliefs regarding abortion are not shared by a substantial segment of my fellow citizens. I accordingly cannot make the abortion issue my overriding civic focus. I fear that any attempts by American Catholic hierarchy to impose its views upon the nation generally will ultimately severely undermine the Church’s mission in the United States.
Although Mr. Kennedy’s words obviously no longer resonate with U.S. Catholic officialdom, I would venture that the following passage offers ample ground for reflection – perhaps providing solace, perhaps evoking despair — for an American Catholic who seeks in good conscience to differentiate between faith and civic responsibilities:
“[Then the Pharisees said,] ‘Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?’ … Jesus said, ‘… Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’”
Mt. 22: 17 – 21