Rudy?s rude awakening
Tablet USA - Independence Day 2007Michael McGough
- 30 June 2007
The question of whether Catholic politicians who support legalised abortion should be allowed to take Communion is threatening to become a major issue in the 2008 presidential election, writes Michael McGough
The question posed to Rudy Giuliani at a Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire was predictable: what was his reaction to a caustic complaint by the Catholic bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, that the former New York mayor's position on abortion - it's morally wrong but should remain legal - was reminiscent of Pontius Pilate? What wasn't predictable was the flash of lightning that struck as Giuliani began to answer, disrupting the audio and creating what a pro-life website called "an eerie instance of coincidence". Seventeen months before the 2008 presidential election, journalists were wondering if they would have to repeat the "wafer watch" of 2004, in which they kept track of which bishops would and would not be willing to offer the Eucharist to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a "pro-choice" Catholic.
The question to Giuliani was prompted by an unusually abrasive article in a Catholic newspaper by the Rev. Thomas J. Tobin entitled, "My RSVP to Rudy Giuliani". Tobin noted that he had received an invitation to a Giuliani fundraiser, one he would ignore because "I would never support a candidate who supports legalised abortion". It got worse for the former mayor. "Rudy's public proclamations on abortion are pathetic and confusing," Tobin wrote. "Even worse, they're hypocritical."
Tobin's attack on Giuliani may not have caused lightning to strike, but it produced thunderous criticism. The executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barry Lynn, sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service calling for an investigation by the taxman into whether Tobin's attack on Giuliani in a diocesan newspaper violated federal law that prohibits Churches and other tax-exempt institutions from using "organisational resources to intervene in elections". The more lasting effect of the bishop's denunciation, however, may have been to launch the "wafer watch" of 2008.
Moreover, in this election there are several pro-choice Catholic candidates who will approach the rail at their peril: Giuliani in the Republican Party and, among the Democrats, Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico's Governor, Bill Richardson. In fact, as in 2004, the drama may play out on two stages. One will feature criticism of "pro-choice" Catholic politicians by pugnacious prelates like Tobin and Raymond Burke of St Louis, who made it clear that John Kerry would not be welcome to take Communion in that archdiocese. The other will highlight differences among American bishops about whether pro-choice politicians are dishonouring their faith - and jeopardising their fitness to receive the Sacrament - by the way they vote on abortion.
Burke and Tobin are in one camp; the other one includes Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC (whom Tobin served as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh).
Wuerl has angered some anti-abortion Catholics by refusing to declare the Eucharist off-limits to pro-choice politicians like Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House. Ann Rodgers, the religion correspondent for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, described an encounter in a Washington chapel in which Wuerl described his approach. Asked how he would respond to Catholic politicians who support legalised abortion, Wuerl replied: "Teach. That is what Jesus did."
Perhaps so, but Catholic anti-abortion activists want their bishops to take a harder line. So might the Pope, given his comments during a flight to Brazil in May in which he seemed to justify not only the exclusion of "pro-choice" politicians from the Eucharist but their excommunication as well.
The problem for the American Church is that making a legislator's support for legal abortion the moral (let alone the canon-law) equivalent of "procuring" or assisting at an abortion rests uneasily with voters, Catholic or not, who believe that one acceptable approach to serving one's constituents is to give force to their views rather than one's own. (It's not the only view of a representative's duty. Some members of Congress subscribe to Edmund Burke's teaching that "your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.") The argument that representatives aren't necessarily enforcing their own views is similar to an argument made on behalf of Catholic judges who support legal abortion in their decisions. In both cases, the official is possibly doing something more than voting his conscience. This is a more coherent argument than the one Giuliani makes and Tobin mocks: that a politician can believe that abortion is immoral for the reasons the Church insists on and yet be unwilling to "impose" that view through legislation. That view may not be "weak-kneed" as Tobin suggested, but it is weak-headed.
Still, even cogent arguments against the public positions of pro-choice Catholic politicians are less effective when they are offered by bishops who can be criticised for forcing people like Giuliani and Pelosi to choose between their faith and their duty to the people who elected them. In 1960 American voters rejected the libel that electing "little John" (Kennedy) would place America under the sway of "Big John" (Pope John XXIII). But the price of Kennedy's election may have been his famous pronouncement that "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote". Those words still resonate and are perhaps the best insurance policy for "pro-choice" politicians like Giuliani.