What Wasn’t Said
One of the most well-received speeches at last week’s Democratic National Convention was the one given by Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby founded and supported by American women religious. Campbell was one of the principal organizers of the “Nuns on the Bus” tour that tried to raise awareness about poverty and the failings of the federal budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI).
There was much in the speech with which I heartily agree, such as its criticisms of the Ryan Budget and its defense of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, I had a hard time finding anything in the speech with which I disagreed.
It was what wasn’t said that bothered me. At a convention where the Democratic Party’s full-throated support of abortion rights was emphasized by speaker after speaker, Sr. Simone’s speech did not mention abortion at all. There was one tangential reference toward the end, where Sr. Simone stated that extending health insurance to the uninsured was “part of my pro-life stance.” The line provoked a roar of applause, no doubt because it allowed the overwhelmingly pro-choice crowd to rest secure in the (false) conviction that most pro-life advocates care nothing for the poor.
When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released its doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference on Women Religious earlier this year, it noted that “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death…” This comment provoked a great deal of criticism and numerous counter-examples were offered by the LCWR’s defenders.
Unfortunately, I think that Sr. Simone’s speech is an example of the problem the CDF was trying to highlight. While I have no doubt that her personal motivations for speaking were noble ones, there is no question that the leaders of the Democratic Party put her on that podium for a very specific reason. She was there to symbolize the support of the Church (or at least part of it) for the party’s agenda. I do not think Sr. Simone sought such a role, but once it was thrust upon her, it came with a responsibility to present the social teaching of the Church in its fullness.
American women religious have a noble and long-standing tradition of “speaking truth to power.” With respect to the unborn, however, are not the leaders of the Democratic Party an example of a “power” that needs to hear “truth?”
Would it have been so difficult to invoke the late Cardinal Bernadin’s concept of a “seamless garment?” To recall, in the spirit of Hubert Humphrey, that the moral test of government is how it treats those in the “dawn of life,” “the twilight of life,” and the “shadows of life?” To highlight the political heroism of Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI), who stood boldly for both health care reform and the right to life and lost his congressional seat as a result?
I do not wish to hold Sr. Simone uniquely accountable for a problem that exists across the Church’s ideological spectrum. For years, politically conservative Catholics—and more than a few bishops—have presented a truncated version of Catholic social teaching that appears to suggest that the only morally acceptable option for Catholics is to pull the lever for the Republican Party.
The solution, though, is not to become a mirror image of the other side. It is for Catholics to develop a truly independent voice that can hold both parties accountable, supporting them when they defend the common good and the dignity of the human person and challenging them when they do not. It’s clear we have a long way to go.