Prochoice Politics and Church Law: What the Catholic Anti-Abortion Lobby Does Not Want You to Know

By Evans, Roxanne; Morello, Sara | Conscience, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Prochoice Politics and Church Law: What the Catholic Anti-Abortion Lobby Does Not Want You to Know


Evans, Roxanne, Morello, Sara, Conscience


POLITICIANS AND LAWMAKERS expect criticism and censure from their political opponents, it goes with the territory. Politicians and lawmakers who are prochoice expect further vitriol from anti-choice activists. Recently, the church hierarchy and ultra-conservative Catholic activists have raised the ante in a concerted campaign to censor and intimidate prochoice Catholic politicians.

But assertions by anti-choice activists that church law automatically excommunicates those who vote and advocate prochoice politics and everyone who has or performs abortions are false. And even though church law does say abortion is illegal, and also allows for bishops to take action against those who support a woman's right to choose, remarkably few have. Canon law, scripture and the teachings of church councils, theologians, bishops and popes underscore the right and duty of Catholics to act freely, and according to their conscience, and not succumb to threats, no matter where they come from.

Late in 2002, a Catholic priest who runs an orphanage in Sacramento, California, announced that Gray Davis, the prochoice Catholic governor of California, wasn't welcome at an orphanage to distribute Christmas toys to the children because of his stance on abortion. Davis moved the traditional gift distribution to a state government building.

Then, early in 2003, the Vatican issued the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. The doctrinal note pointedly told Catholic lawmakers that they cannot put aside church doctrine when it comes to making decisions in their capacity as elected officials.

Rather, the document asserted, elected officials who are Catholic should advance church teaching. The document said that elected officials must toe the church line on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. But Catholic lawmakers should not be intimidated by the doctrinal note or by the bishops.

Reaction to the note was immediate. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, put the doctrinal note into perspective. "The Doctrinal Note seems to be a throw-back to a pre-Vatican II conception of the relationship between the Roman Catholic church and the state," she said. "It asserts that on issues that involve concepts and definitions of the human person, no opinions other than those of the Catholic church can be asserted as relevant to the formulation of public policy. This assertion of an absolute truth, owned by the Roman Catholic magisterium, flies in the face of modern science and theological studies," she said.

She continued, "Catholic policy makers and lay people are better educated in their moral and public responsibility than this document presupposes. They have rejected in the past church demands that they slavishly apply church positions to public policy. This document will not change that respect for essential freedom of inquiry and individual conscience that policy makers have and cherish."

POLICY MAKERS ATTACKED

Perhaps emboldened by the release of the Vatican document, Sacramento Bishop William K. Weigand intensified the debate in California by calling on Gov. Davis to abstain from receiving Communion because of his prochoice position. The bishop said Davis couldn't be a Catholic in good standing and be prochoice. Some viewed the bishop's comments as a veiled threat of excommunication; Weigand said that wasn't his intent.

Davis, not to be cowed by the bishop responded, "I'm unapologetically prochoice and I am not changing my position." (1)

Other prochoice Catholic elected officials have found themselves in similar situations, seemingly created in a deliberate attempt to bully or embarrass them. For example, school officials at a Catholic all-girls high school in Michigan took a lunch with the state's first female governor--who is a prochoice Catholic--off a fundraising auction block. …

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