Some 300 or so ranking Roman Catholic prelates left Baltimore last year with the conservatives among them determined to return with a stern document condemning Catholic politicians, specifically President Joe Biden, who veer from church teaching on abortion and possibly denying them the Eucharist.
They’re back in Baltimore, the church’s Primal Sea in America, for their annual three-day meeting to debate conflicting positions on a working document that falls far short of reprimand for wayward politicians and with a gentle scolding and a directional signal from Pope Francis himself to, simply put, back off.
The competing positions of the red-robed clerics go directly to the canonical issue of authority and to the deliberately constructed pluralism in America under the rubric of separation of church and state: Can the nation’s Roman Catholic elected officials, specifically the president, serve two masters — fealty to the constitution and faithfulness to the church.
In a sense, they are bound to both — by oath to the Constitution and by faith to the church. That is the twisted dilemma the bishops and cardinals find difficult to resolve.
After all, Biden is a practicing Catholic, and very public about his faith. But he is also, by elected franchise and sworn oath, the leader of 330 million diverse people of all creeds, races, nationalities, sizes, shapes, colors and other distinguishing characteristics, among them the nation’s 51 million Roman Catholics.
The matter was left on the table last November after days of acrimonious debate over whether Biden, and even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and on down the pecking order, should be denied communion because of their support for a woman’s right to abortion.
It’s a safe wager, and worth going out on a limb, to say that very few among the support group are cheerleaders for abortion per se simply because they endorse the “right” to the procedure, making them “pro-choice” in their belief. And that’s the stop light where approval ends, though conservative sophistry contends the hair-splitter difference is a cop-out.
Apostacy on the issue, the church teaches, can get a soul condemned to a serious burn in Satan’s eternal bar-b-que pit.
And yet the perennial wonder is (1) why the right to abortion is an issue at all; and (2) why government is involved in a very personal matter that should exist only between a woman and her doctor.
Abortion was never an issue, and rarely, if ever, discussed in Roman Catholic circles until the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. And even more at issue was how the Supreme Court arrived at the decision (that tortuous explanation is better left to legal experts.)
For the Roman Catholic Church, the issue was (and is) life itself. And at the time, the church was forced to reconcile conflicting positions – opposition to abortion and support of capital punishment, as both, according to church teaching, involved the concept of life. The church embarked on a crusade to repeal the death penalty wherever possible to align the two issues according to its basic teaching on life.
The Catholic Church, and many other religions, teaches that life begins at the moment of conception. And in the extreme, any interference with that moment is the taking of an innocent life, or, well, let’s just say it, murder. Medically, that is a matter of dispute, which contributes to the disagreement on the issue.
Example: Texas has adopted the most restrictive and cynical anti-abortion law in the nation, creating, in effect, a vigilante system of voyeurs, and has driven desperate women out of the state for the procedure. Yet the state has executed 573 people since 1982, 279 of them during Rick Perry’s governorship (2001-14), more than any other governor in U.S. history. The most recent execution in Texas was on Sept. 28. There are currently 198 people on death row in Texas, including six women. The current governor of Texas, Greg Abbott (R), is a practicing Catholic. The bishops say not a word about Abbott and the death penalty.
And now the issue of abortion is before the courts again, as appeals of the Texas law and a newly restrictive Mississippi law directly challenge the Roe vs. Wade decision which pro-choice supporters fear could be the law’s undoing. The Maryland General Assembly has established protections for Maryland’s abortion law against any action the Supreme Court might take to either weaken or repeal Roe vs. Wade.
In another kind of means-test of law vs. faith, six of the nine Supreme Court justices are practicing Catholics, and five of the six are identified as conservatives although Chief Justice John Roberts occasionally provides a swing vote.
Abortion rights’ backers admonish that tampering with, or repealing, existing law will merely facilitate the next step — at-home, self-administered abortion pills available at local pharmacies or by mail order prescriptions.
The bishops arrive with what is reported to be an ambiguous document, an instruction on the sacrament of communion — the most sacred and private rite of the Church — instead of the bold condemnation of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights such as Biden.
The opposites on the issue are represented by singular voices such as Cardinal Wilton Gregory, of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Archbishop Francisco Cordileone, of San Francisco. Gregory has insisted publicly that Biden will continue to receive communion in the Washington Archdiocese, seat of the White House, while Cordileone has urged the dogmatic hardline denial of the sacrament to those politicians who ignore church teaching.
Biden regularly attends mass and receives communion at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, in Georgetown, not far from the White House.
Now, as then, those are likely to be the leading voices, more backstage than in public, on the main issue that bedevils the prelates. Last November, Biden had just been elected, though still under a baseless challenge and recount, when the debate burst on the public.
This year, Biden is actually president, and a very visible Catholic. John F. Kenney was the nation’s first Catholic president, who once faced down an assembly of protestant ministers about the meaning of his faith and what would be its limits on his presidency.
What’s more, Biden is fresh off a visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican after which the president claimed the Pope told him he was a “good Catholic.” The Vatican declined comment, though the warm and friendly meeting between the two leaders, and the exchange of gifts, conveyed a meaningful message to American clerics.
Pope Francis also has, on a couple of occasions, reminded prelates who believe he is overly liberal that they should be “pastors and not politicians,” enough of a public but gentle nudge that he’s boss and that they should calm down and, in Church talk, strive for unity and not division. (Only God and the participants know what other prompts might have been conveyed.) The Pope, too, faces dissension within the church’s ranks, although he has the backing of a higher authority.
Under the church’s rules of engagement, the prelates can, individually, prevent the president, or any other Catholic, from participating in the sacrament, a kind of silent ostracism that likely would be followed by noisy publicity.
The division over church doctrine comes at a time when the Catholic hierarchy has major problems of its own, with sex abuse cases involving pedophile priests and other predations. Many occurrences were overlooked or covered up. And a couple of cardinals have been stripped of their red buttons.
Many recent polls show that a majority of Catholics ignore church teaching and believe that abortion, to one degree or another, should be a matter of individual choice and available to those who want it.
The same polls show that church attendance has declined significantly as have the number of people who identify generally with religious beliefs. The prelates’ action, and continued public debate, could further cleave the division between the church’s hierarchy and the faithful.
Together, the growing distance of the flock from its baptismal moorings erodes the authority of the Catholic hierarchy and compounds their problem of setting the tone and the direction of the actual practice of the strict dictates of the faith — which also includes hope and charity.