Affirming Life

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.

The threat by Catholic bishops to withhold communion from politicians who uphold abortion rights is an affront not just to democracy, but also to the best moral teachings of Catholicism.

Church leaders have been standard bearers for years in the effort to recriminalize abortion. They base their opposition to the procedure on the Catholic doctrine that human life begins at conception, and so aborting a fetus amounts to homicide and violates Catholicism’s absolute reverence for human life.

Last week the heads of the church upped the ante. During a meeting in Colorado, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a statement urging Catholic institutions to deny honors to politicians who support abortion rights. And while the statement didn’t require denial of communion — to the vocal disappointment of church hard-liners — it explicitly authorized bishops to take that step when they choose.

We’ve long held the view that the campaign to ban abortion, resting as it does on a particular view of when human life begins, violates the rights of others whose view of life differs. Civil law does not and should not require Catholics to undergo abortion if their conscience forbids it. But those whose faith — or lack of one — tells them that life begins at some other point should equally be free to follow their consciences. The law should not bar citizens from access to a medical procedure they consider ethical and essential, simply because it violates the religious principles of another group of citizens.

To be sure, every individual is free to advocate his or her opinions in a democracy, including the opinion that abortion is wrong. That’s democracy.

Where democracy is affronted is at the point where a church — the nation’s largest single church, as it happens — attempts to impose its view from above by threatening to withhold what its believers consider an essential religious rite. That’s nothing more than bullying, trying to bludgeon believers into substituting obedience for conscience. It’s unfair to believers and unfair to the system. It’s especially egregious in the heat of a pivotal election campaign — a campaign in which one of the candidates is a believing Catholic.

The threat is particularly startling because it is a blatantly selective, almost capricious application of church morality. Catholicism’s teachings on the sanctity of human life, while unsettling to some, are a model of consistency. They prohibit not only abortion, but also capital punishment and wars of choice. Pope John Paul II has been a powerful voice for the weak and defenseless throughout his papacy, speaking out for his church’s principles without distinction. He has confronted American presidents time and again on our nation’s outmoded addiction to the death penalty. During the Iraq crisis his voice, though muted by age, has been lifted repeatedly in defense of sanity and against the Bush administration’s rashness.

He also has spoken out repeatedly against what he has called a “culture of death” in the excesses of unregulated, free-market capitalism. Drawing on church doctrine that goes back a century, he has declared repeatedly that “capitalism needs to be circumscribed,” condemning the “structures of sin which deliberately steer the goods of the earth away from their true purpose, that of serving the good of all, towards private and sterile ends.”

Just five years ago he called on the Catholic church in America explicitly to help “in reducing the negative effects of globalization, such as the domination of the powerful over the weak, especially in the economic sphere.”

America’s bishops dishonored that doctrine of life last week. If they were consistent, they would have condemned all those who violate their traditions — war hawks, death-penalty advocates and free-market fundamentalists no less than abortion-rights advocates. They would be defending the rights of the born as vigorously as they defend the unborn.

If the bishops were faithful to their creed, they’d be threatening virtually every politician in America this year. God doesn’t belong to any political camp.

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