Vincible ignorance

The bishops on prochoice politicians

Edward I. Koch, the former mayor of New York City, says he sometimes wondered how he had managed to have such a good relationship with the late Cardinal John O’Connor despite their opposing views on abortion rights. Koch, who is Jewish, says he once asked a Catholic law partner why O’Connor would not let prochoice Catholics speak at the cathedral and yet “he never hesitates to invite me.” “I’m grateful,” Koch said, “but I don’t understand.” “You’re invincibly ignorant and therefore you’re excused,” his partner explained. Koch says the cardinal “roared with laughter” when he heard a phrase from moral theology textbooks applied to his friend, the mayor.

Koch told me that story when I asked him about a passage in the U.S. Catholic bishops’ interim statement Catholics in Political Life, which was approved in a 183-6 vote at their June meeting. “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” the bishops wrote. “They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

This paragraph has gotten relatively little attention because news accounts focused on the hot-button political topic of whether bishops can deny Communion to prochoice Catholic politicians. Yet if the bishops follow through on this passage, it could have significant consequences for the everyday interactions between Catholic organizations and elected officials.

It’s hard to imagine that the sort of public friendship Koch and O’Connor enjoyed could flourish if the bishops enforce this paragraph. Koch basked in O’Connor’s praise and friendly barbs when he sat in the front row at midnight Mass, and they greeted each other heartily on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They even coauthored the book His Eminence and Hizzoner, in which the prochoice Koch revealed deep misgivings about abortion.

The bishops’ statement is so broadly worded that it could apply to these “honors or platforms” granted Koch, a Democrat who won election as mayor three times in a city more than 40 percent Catholic. The sanction is not limited to Catholics or even to politicians; as written, it covers far more than honorary degrees.

If taken literally, it would chill the relations that bishops and various Catholic institutions cultivate with elected officials. And it’s clear that some bishops will take it to unexpected extremes. After all, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs has proposed barring from the Eucharist Catholics who “would vote” for a prochoice politician.

In New York City, where I’ve written on politics and religion since the early 1980s, it’s difficult to even find a major-party candidate who is prolife. Catholic organizations often develop productive relations with politicians who are prochoice. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani has, for example, appeared in advertising for Manhattan College, his alma mater, and led a fundraising drive for a Catholic hospital. Giuliani, who is Catholic and Republican, has also been a strong supporter of Catholic schools and school vouchers. He was prolife early in his political career, but flip-flopped during his first mayoral race. He also is an advocate of the death penalty. So is New York governor George Pataki, also Catholic, Republican, and prochoice on abortion.

Should politicians “who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” be denied a place in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade? It is, after all, a premier political “platform” for officials such as Pataki, Giuliani, and the present New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a prochoice Republican (even though many politicians avoid the parade because gays and lesbians are barred from marching as a group). And, as parade organizers have argued in court, it is a religious event.

The bishops’ statement could pose similar problems in communities across the country. Should prochoice politicians be allowed to speak at graduations, parades, and other civic events? If the statement is invoked unevenly, some critics might accuse Catholic leaders of going after Democrats and not prochoice Republicans. The San Diego Union-Tribune raised this issue in a front-page article in June, noting that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a prochoice Republican who is a Catholic, has not received the same sort of criticism as prochoice Democrats who are Catholics, such as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and former governor Gray Davis. The bishops may be painting themselves into a corner.

I asked William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, about that. Donohue, who has recently been assailing John Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign, often appeared publicly with Giuliani while he was mayor, most notably to charge that art exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was anti-Catholic. At the time, Giuliani was planning to run for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Donohue thinks the bishops have gone too far. “They feel impelled to come across with a zero tolerance-type policy on everything. There’s no nuance. There’s got to be some flexibility.” He says it was appropriate for Giuliani to speak at a Catholic college on urban issues. “He’s an expert in urban affairs. Why wouldn’t you have him in? There are people who are incidentally prochoice, and for others, it’s what they do for a living.”

And Senator Clinton? Donohue says the prochoice New York Democrat “would be more in the line of Giuliani,” that is, a suitable speaker for a Catholic college, if she speaks in her area of expertise. But it would be a different story for a politician who was a point person for prochoice legislation, he says, adding, “I can’t give the kind of black-and-white [answer] that people want.”

These situations call for “prudence,” observes Donohue. Or, as Koch put it: “This one puts you to the test. That’s why occasionally it’s good to be invincibly ignorant.”

Published in the 2004-07-16 issue: 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

Also by this author
A bishop's flexibility

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Collections