Until the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision there seemed a natural affinity between the teachings espoused by the U.S. bishops and the policies and programs of Democrats and liberal Republicans. It was a marriage not of convenience, but of commitment: Progressive legislators led the way to passage of a vast array of legislation (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, public housing, Head Start) that reflected Catholic teaching, while bishops supported the use of tax monies aimed at improving the quality of life for all.
That all changed after Roe, as the partisan implications of the growing pro-choice and pro-life movements gradually came into focus.
A decade after the 7-2 decision, the parameters were set. Ronald Reagan's Republican Party became predominantly pro-life, their Democratic counterparts pro-choice. Today in Congress, Catholic Republicans represent a nearly unanimous antiabortion bloc, while Catholic Democrats, once a toss-up on the issue, are now largely (though not exclusively) pro-choice.
Meanwhile, commitment in Congress to the range of social and economic justice issues outside of abortion supported by the U.S. bishops is largely a Democratic Party phenomenon; as a group, Catholic Democrats are the most significant bloc of votes for the type of economic and social justice legislation to which the hierarchy regularly lends its support. And in the 31 years since Roe, Congressional Republicans, including the growing number of Catholics in their ranks, are increasingly opposed to government intervention into the "free market," skeptical of social welfare programs, and more likely to support military spending and tax cuts than Congressional Republicans of 30 years ago.
National Catholic political leaders, it seems, are as polarized as Congress itself.
These trends didn't just happen. They are the result of numerous factors --increasing Catholic economic affluence, the influence of the religious right on the Republican Party, and pro-choice activism among Democratic stalwarts. Not least among the reasons, however, was the decision of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy to make abortion an issue beyond political discussion, a moral and legislative absolute.
The implications of the hierarchy's choice are real and significant:
* In the corridors of Congress, it made the "preferential option for the poor" less important, a matter of "prudential judgment" over which "good Catholics" could differ without judgment or sanction.
* It undermined Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's 1983 call for a "consistent ethic of life," an idea that would involve a broad-scale dialogue in the public arena.
* It gave rise to a new type of Catholic legislator, typically Republican, who ignored church guidance on a range of economic, social and military issues while remaining in the hierarchy's good graces through adamant opposition to abortion rights.
It is clear that 20 years after Bernardin's call for a national dialogue about what might constitute a consistent ethic of life, we are more polarized and in dispute over the idea than was true in 1983.
In the 1976 election, Republican President Gerald Ford was mildly pro-choice; Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter was personally antiabortion. As late as 1980, presidential aspirant George H.W. Bush could mount a credible campaign for the Republican nomination (he won the Iowa Caucus) as a pro-choice candidate.
In 1981, Republicans regained the White House, and during the next several years President Reagan cut taxes, reduced social spending, increased the military budget and supported rightwing dictatorships in Central America. At the same time, Reagan's Republican Party adopted a strong antiabortion position, while the Democrats moved toward a pro-choice position.
In this difficult climate, with positions hardening on abortion and Republicans increasingly hostile to the bishops' liberal views on other issues, Bernardin tried to foster a dialogue about a "consistent ethic of life." With his leadership, the U.S. bishops published two important pastoral letters. The 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace," expressed their opposition to the continuing arms buildup and questioned the morality of nuclear deterrence. The 1986 pastoral, "Economic Justice for All," put the U.S. church squarely against "Reaganomics" and decried the growing gap between rich and poor.
While both pastoral letters met with severe criticism from conservative Catholics, including high-ranking Catholics in the Reagan administration, the process invited input from liberals, moderates and conservatives. The final versions, much debated by the bishops, reflected the church leadership's left-of-center approach to these issues, even as they promoted a dialogue on these fundamental questions among the Catholic laity of all political stripes.
The pastoral letters--hard-hitting but respectful of the range of Catholic opinion on complex public policy questions--represented the pinnacle of the Bernardin approach. Dialogue and discussion were the order of the day.
The bishops, however, would take a far different approach when it carne to abortion.
Conservative critics of the consistent life ethic claimed it "diluted the antiabortion focus of the pro-life movement by introducing opposition to the death penalty, nuclear war and social policies that cause poverty." So at the same time the pastorals were being discussed, these Catholic pro-lifers succeeded in separating the issue of abortion from the dialogue about other social justice issues.
>From their perspective, any philosophy that acknowledged complexity on the life issues, that called for respectful dialogue among people of good will, could diminish the importance of abortion as a political issue. But the consequences of adopting an absolutist stance, it is clear today, were also considerable. Primary among them was a diminution of the church's social justice teaching as the church gave its support to political leaders who rejected church guidance on a range of economic and foreign policy matters.
Congress and abortion
The antiabortion vote in Congress has been solid among Republicans of all religious groups, including Catholics. Catholic Republicans have provided the bishops the votes they wanted on abortion and related issues (stem cells, contraception) and have supported legislation to provide vouchers for children to help pay for private school education at the elementary and secondary levels.
But Republican Congressional support for other social justice issues has diminished since Roe. For example, only three of 49 Catholic House Republicans supported a 2003 welfare reauthorization measure backed by the bishops, only one opposed making the president's tax cut permanent, and just three supported lifting sanctions against Cuba. Each of these measures had overwhelming support from Catholic Democrats in the House.
Meanwhile, over the past three decades, Catholic Democrats have joined with Jews and blacks to support most of the social justice legislation passed by Congress. That is, even as their support for antiabortion legislation diminished, these Democrats have been the most supportive of legislation like Social Security, Medicare, minimum wage and the like.
A plea for dialogue
The bishops have the responsibility to inform the laity and all others who care to know about Catholic teachings not only about the church's teaching on abortion and birth control, but also its teaching about minimum wages, living wages, prescription drugs, universal health care and the like. Unless we are to assume that life is precious and must be defended at all costs only before birth, then we ought to ask ourselves if we are ready to insist that legislators in federal, state and local sectors of our society have the same moral obligation to protect life after birth.
The focal point of Bernardin's idea was dialogue. Dialogue requires that we put forth our ideas, beliefs and moral codes with the most persuasive evidence we can. It also requires our willingness to recognize that in a pluralistic society others may hold differing beliefs with as much firmness as we do ours. We must grant them the same respect that we ask them to grant us.
As the 2004 campaign for the presidency and control of Congress begins to heat up, we can only wish that we had pursued dialogue rather than denunciation and accusation in the post-Roe era.
But perhaps it's still not too late.
[William D'Antonio is professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, and currently an adjunct visiting professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America.]…