Public Comment

Theological McCarthyism

By Clint Reilly
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:03:00 PM

Can we criticize the Catholic Church without having our faith and loyalty called into question? 

It seems that the answer is no. A climate of theological McCarthyism has infected the institutional church, particularly around the issue of abortion. 

Selective public condemnations by a handful of conservative bishops are a Sword of Damocles over Catholic leaders who have experienced drive-by denunciations from the pulpit. 

It is unfair that a Catholic presidential nominee—or a Catholic United States senator or member of Congress—who personally opposes abortion but has genuine convictions that a blanket anti-abortion law would not work in a pluralistic society—can be randomly refused communion by any bishop who so decides. 

A boldface example of the intolerance for alternative views in the public square that is emerging in the Catholic Church is the push to ban President Barack Obama from speaking at Notre Dame University because of his pro-choice position on abortion. 

Great! Let’s not invite America’s first black president—elected with the enthusiastic support of the nation’s youth—to talk about the state of the world at our leading Catholic university. 

John Quinn, the retired Archbishop of San Francisco, recently published a courageous article in the March 30 issue of America magazine severely questioning the wisdom of banning President Obama from speaking at Notre Dame: 

“The demand from many Catholic bishops and lay leaders that the University of Notre Dame rescind its invitation to President Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address is surely a critical moment in the relationship between the Catholic Church in the United States and the wider American society,” he writes. 

He plainly implies that banning a U.S. President would actually set back the pro-life agenda: “If the president is forced to withdraw, will that bring about fewer abortions in America? Will it enhance the mission of the church? Will it be used to link the church with racist and extremist elements? Will this action be seen as proof that the bishops of the United States do not seek dialogue on major policy questions?” 

Archbishop Quinn has it right. As a former Democratic political consultant, I have watched closely as Republican strategists like Karl Rove cynically manipulate the issue of abortion in campaign after campaign. 

President Bush’s public courtship of Pope Benedict XVI in two orchestrated meetings in Washington and Rome was never without the subtext of Bush’s pro-life stance on abortion. Contrast these camera-ready official encounters to the Pope’s 15-minute meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Vatican. After a short cup of coffee, Pope Benedict released a statement with an implied criticism of Pelosi’s position on abortion. It is too easy to mistakenly infer that Pope Benedict blesses Bush’s entire Republican political agenda while rejecting the totality of Speaker Pelosi’s Democratic platform. 

Second, pro-life politics have become the cultural dividing line in Republican campaigns to determine who is more authentically conservative. Look no further than the choice of pro-lifer Sarah Palin over more qualified pro-choice Republicans as the party’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee. 

Third, Republicans have blatantly used abortion to court Catholic Democratic votes across the nation in the last two presidential elections, relishing the attacks by conservative Catholic bishops on Democrats. 

But one thing is clear. Through all the television spots, brochures, speeches, photo ops and posturing by both candidates and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, there has been virtually no impact in making laws that have reduced abortion in the United States. 

I believe that Catholic legislators who personally oppose abortion but acknowledge the right of others to disagree ought to be respected. Let the Church challenge them to support voluntary education campaigns that discourage abortion or to write laws that eliminate the most outrageous practices of abortion-on-demand. 

The Church should redirect its massive powers of persuasion—now exclusively aimed at a failed and deeply divisive 30-year public sector campaign—toward public education and persuading pregnant women and their families, not targeting Catholic politicians.