The Bishops & Obama

Absolutism & democratic deliberation

The gracious tone of Sen. John McCain’s election-night concession speech was both impressive and reassuring, especially his call for Americans to bridge abiding differences and forge the “necessary compromises” the nation requires. Unfortunately, that tone and sentiment were lacking in the response of many Catholic bishops to Barack Obama’s victory.

Most striking were the public statements made by apparently outraged bishops during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops fall meeting in Baltimore, November 11. Cardinal Francis George, president of the USCCB, released a brief official statement the following day, reflecting the bishops’ concerns over the supposedly imminent threat posed by President-elect Obama’s support for the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). The remarks of many bishops during the televised portion of the meeting were intemperate and polarizing, and their panic over FOCA is premature.

FOCA, which evidently aims to outlaw any restriction of access to abortion—such as late-term bans or parental consent for minors—is a piece of abortion-rights propaganda that was introduced in Congress in its earliest form in 1989. The bill has never gotten out of committee, even during the Clinton administration, and appears to be more a fundraising device and a rallying cry for prochoice groups than a serious piece of legislation. Its wording is imprecise, and the bill’s attempt to establish a fundamental right to abortion by statute is probably unconstitutional. Aside from one statement Obama made to an abortion-rights group eighteen months ago, support for FOCA did not play a significant part in his campaign. His commitment to work to reduce the number of abortions played a much larger part. Is it possible that this very divisive piece of legislation will now leap to the top of the new president’s agenda? True, Obama’s support for abortion rights is unambiguous, and politics is an unpredictable business. But it seems unlikely that the new president will seek to intensify the culture wars (a conflict he has repeatedly promised to mitigate) by aggressively pursuing such radical legislation. If he does, his effort to build a broad political coalition that embraces prolife voters will end in bitter disappointment and recrimination.

It is not surprising that the bishops vigorously oppose FOCA. They should. What is disconcerting is how opposition to the bill became the focus of their response to Obama’s election. Evidently goaded by a worst-case reading of the bill’s possible impact, and by tendentious speculation about Obama’s intentions, many bishops demanded that a confrontational approach be taken toward the new administration. “This body is totally opposed to any compromise,” proclaimed one bishop. “We are dealing with an absolute,” said another, “there is no room for compromise.” Others called for a “war” against abortion, and urged the church to adopt an unyielding “prophetic” voice.

Prophecy has its place, but if citizens bring only absolute demands into the political arena, democratic deliberation and consensus-building become impossible. As the political philosopher Michael Walzer reminds us in his essay “Drawing the Line: Religion and Politics,” decision-making in a pluralistic democracy “requires an acceptance of the open, pragmatic, contingent, uncertain, inconclusive, and tolerant character of all arguments, positions, and alliances on the political side of the line.” Rejection of compromise, Walzer warns, is a “kind of political escapism, where what is being escaped is the day-in, day-out negotiation of difference.”

Changing the practice of abortion in this country will first require changing the hearts and minds of millions of its citizens. Important progress has been made in this regard, but it is fragile and easily reversed when the prolife movement is perceived as hostile to the political process itself or ideologically extreme, as the defeat of yet another referendum outlawing abortion in South Dakota showed in November. When the bishops speak and act in ways that seem designed to preclude political compromise, they fall into this trap. Some bishops may see themselves as harried prophets speaking to an unhearing people. But the unborn need more than prophets. They need the most persuasive political advocates possible, advocates who recognize the necessity of bridging differences and striking compromises in order to save lives. As Bishop Blase J. Cupich of South Dakota cautioned his colleagues, “Keep in mind a prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin, and it seems to me what we need is a prophecy of solidarity, with the community we serve and the nation that we live in.”

The bishops must find that voice again, and put it to good use in the ongoing struggle against the violence of abortion and the host of other ills plaguing this nation. Anything less, as Walzer notes, is escapism.


Related: Bad Law: What Foca Is—and Isn't, by Cathleen Kaveny
A Pattern of Missteps, by the Editors