The Bishops, Catholics, and Abortion

Fr. William Messenger

(These reflections were written in September of 1984. They are published here because the issue and the challenge remain)

During the last couple of months, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have once again given voice to the issue of abortion. What distinguishes these recent statements from past pronouncements is that the bishops are not only trying to influence public policy, but admit it or not, some of them are trying to directly affect the outcome of the elections. In fact, the only reason that recent comments by the bishops are newsworthy at all is because Geraldine Ferraro is a Catholic who does not favor a constitutional amendment against abortion. The problem, however, is not Geraldine Ferraro's. It is the bishops'. Since the bishops see themselves as teachers in the Church, it is appropriate that someone who works with them in that role offer another point of view.

I am a Catholic priest serving in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. For several years I have been concerned about the human life campaign launched by the bishops. As a Catholic, and even more as a priest, I accept my Church's position on abortion. I am opposed to it. And while I believe we are fundamentally correct, I see our position on abortion as rooted deeply in our religious tradition. I realize that the bishops claim abortion to be a pure moral issue. However, they say that only because our religious tradition sees it that way. This means that at its root, abortion is a religious issue and therefore, it is possible for people of other traditions to disagree with us. There is an arrogance often displayed in the pro-life movement that assumes only the pro-life position can be right. Yet there are other Christian traditions as deeply committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Catholics are, who do not see the abortion issue the same way. How can we impose our tradition on them?

And therein lies the problem. When the bishops endorsed a constitutional amendment against abortion, I opposed their position on the grounds of Christian witness. It seemed then, and seems even more so now, that the bishops have lost sight of what it means to be a witness. As I read through the scriptures, I see a clear call to bear witness to the Lord Jesus by what we say and do--a call to live our lives in such a way that others see goodness in our actions and give praise to our heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:16). But there is no call to demand others to live or believe as we. That is the beauty of the Gospel--it does not rely on human or political power. It has a power all its own. For some it will be convincing, for many more it will not. But for those of us who see the Gospel as truth and salvation, it doesn't matter. The effectiveness of the Gospel is God's problem. Our concern is to be true to what we believe--to let the Gospel guide our lives.

I believe deeply that forcing others to live by our values, even if they are correct values, does not further the building of God's kingdom. We help build the kingdom by living what we believe, by showing people another way, by touching the heart of society through our care and concern, and by creating a climate where people can be touched by the Spirit of the Lord. We do not build the kingdom by law or force. Even at that, the greatest danger does not lie in the force of law.

What happens when the bishops tell people they cannot support a particular candidate because of his or her position on one issue, especially if it is religiously based? By default, the other candidate becomes not only the "right" choice, but the champion of religion. We are dealing with more than just "strange bedfellows" here. What happens when the other candidate who supports the Catholic position on abortion, does not support the Catholic position on caring for children once they are born, or when they take ill, or seek to be educated, or grow old? This other candidate may end up being "religiously right", while at the same time being neither "right" nor "religious". The full picture of the Church's teaching on social justice becomes obscured by the single issue of abortion, and that does not secure justice or advance the kingdom. In fact, it seems to restrict the movement of the Spirit by attempting to force the Spirit to work within the narrow confines of a particular law.

There is no problem with the U.S. bishops or any other religious group seeking to influence public policy. This is part of their religious call to preach the Word and build the kingdom. It can be done through teaching, through the witness of their own lives, through testimony before congressional hearings, even through criticism of particular policies. But it cannot be done by endorsing a particular candidate, or pretending that a particular legislative solution is binding on the Catholic conscience. Nor should there be any display of intellectual or religious arrogance. It is, after all, a betrayal of both religion and politics to center the electoral process around a single issue. The U.S. Bishops have a greater chance of achieving their goal and fulfilling their call if they rediscover what it means to
witness to Gospel values. I envision the following scenario: The Church preaches truth, the Spirit changes the hearts of men and women, and they in turn build a society of love and peace. Isn't that what Christian life is all about?

(Fr. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)