U.S.NEWS & WORLD REPORT
Feb.19, 1990 Page 14
BY JOHN LEO
ON RELIGION: THE CATHOLIC POLITICS OF ABORTION
Just so you know where I'm coming from, I am what is known as a "cultural Catholic." This means I have not seen the interior of a church for at least 10 years. It also means I am the owner of your basic Catholic mind, which believes in norms, standards and community, can name many other amendments besides the First and can spot a moral issue at 200 paces. I think the church is much too obsessed with sex, and is wrong on contraception and premarital sex. But I think it is dead right on opposing the moral horror of abortion.
Now that this is out of the way, let's analyze the current Catholic politics of abortion. Catholic opinion tends to eddy around two powerful bishops, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
O'Connor is shrewd and blunt; he is squarely within the Irish East Coast thumb-in-the-eye Catholic tradition of standing up to a hostile, secular world. He is an updated version of Archbishop John Hughes, who threatened to burn New York City to the ground in the mid-l8OOs if the Know-Nothing mobs made a move against Catholics. When gays invaded his cathedral in December, O'Connor emitted a thunderous Hughes-like assessment that they would do it again "over my dead body."
Bernardin is in the Midwestern, non-Irish Catholic tradition of the lowered voice, greater emphasis on social justice and reaching out to non-Catholics. He is responsible for the "seamless garment" argument, successfully convincing his fellow bishops that if Catholics are going to carry on about abortion, they must oppose nuclear war and the death penalty, too.
In New York, O'Connor has said he would like to join an Operation Rescue expedition to block an abortion clinic. One of his auxiliary bishops went to jail for doing so and recently ventured the opinion that New York Governor Mario Cuomo might go to hell for his flip-flop on abortion.
Nothing like this happens in Chicago.
Pressing moral claims. O'Connor has been a godsend to gays and feminists looking for an abrasive prelate to isolate from the rest of the church. This is a cynical business that seems to be breeding the first wave of anti-Catholicism in more than 20 years. But in fairness, O'Connor has brought some of it on himself. He cut the legs out from under Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, even though there is plenty of room in Catholic theology for a Catholic to avoid running on an anti-abortion platform, just as there would have been plenty of room for Lincoln (had he been Catholic) to fudge the slavery issue as he did in 1860. You are supposed to press moral claims when you can be effective, not just announce them and get knocked out of office right away.
In addition to the prospect that historic anti-Catholicism will be used as a weapon in the abortion wars, the bishops feel beleaguered on many fronts. Abortion for trivial reasons, such as sex selection, seems to be spreading. The shrewd PR operation that changed pro-abortion into "pro-choice" has belched forth once again with "Who decides?" which is just as good as "Where's the beef" and shorter. This is a masterful (though completely dishonest) campaign that obliterates the moral issue and turns it into a fable about old males from church and state trying to enter a woman's bedroom. It is one of the great propaganda triumphs of our age. It is very hard to outline a moral argument when someone is deeply satisfied with a two-word bumper sticker.
But from the bishops' point of view, the biggest disaster is not the Supreme Court's decision in Webster or the slick wordsmiths. It is the sudden defection of all the Catholic politicians. Cuomo folded in New York, as did the leading Democratic candidates for governor in Illinois and Ohio.
In Chicago, where 4 of lO residents are Catholic, just about every Catholic pol from Dick Daley on down underwent a simultaneous sou1-searching conversion to the "pro choice" faith. This means that professional Catholic pols have concluded that Catholic voters won't punish them if they collapse on the abortion issue. Since pols know their constituencies better than we do, we have to assume they are correct.
Personal choices. If these politicians were sincere about being "personally opposed" to abortion, you would expect to see them working behind the scenes to build an anti-abortion consensus, or perhaps to draw the line against federal funding for abortion. But that hasn't really happened and probably won't. Nothing like it has ever been detected in the career of the popular Mario Cuomo, so why should lesser pols do more?
Back to the bishops. The pols are gone; the bunker mentality and anti-Catholicism may be returning. The morally brave and socially reckless Operation Rescue has not worked. lt has alienated the very people who need to be persuaded. The country is split 50-50 on the morality of abortion, just as it was lO years ago. Abortion is pulling the Catholic social agenda out of shape and may lead to more dangerous social strife. What can the bishops do?
Well, I know what I'd do. I would pull out of Operation Rescue, fold the effort to get a constitutional amendment and take my chances with the moral sense of the American people. With the feminist and public-relations distractions gone, the moral issue could be pressed with far more clarity and force.
Abortion may be a great moral evil, but it is folly to try jamming through a law. As Aquinas says, where there is no consensus, there is no law. And there is no consensus now, either way.
This brings us to Bernardin, the man of suasion, not political muscle. A few bishops at least want to drop the current anti-abortion tactics. No one knows how many, or if the Pope would stand for it. But if any such movement got started, the arrow would have to point away from New York. It would have to point toward Bernardin.
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