Today's news included word of Anne Rice's rejection of organized Christianity (particularly the Catholic Church), saying among other things:
I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity.....
I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism....
“Conservative..... Liberal..... Democrat..... Republican....” are labels which are cast frequently and often with passion. Different issues jockey for premier status –– the economy.... the war.... the environment.... the definition of marriage.... the protection of innocent human life (and particularly abortion). Almost everyone accepts the arena of politics as the proper context for discussion and any possible solution, and so it is no surprise that political labels are embraced and castigated with passion.
It is also no surprise that most people seem to accept the assumed inherent conflict between “liberal” and “conservative” positions. The charge is made that people who are inflexibly opposed to all abortion are not concerned for the poor and oppressed. Popular opinion holds that people who want to give the poor a chance to escape poverty and people who want to give women the option to choose something other than being “barefoot and pregnant” understand that legal (and so-called “safe”) abortion must be available to women for whom an “unwanted” child is a grave injustice.
It is little wonder, then, that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are often criticized by both political liberals and conservatives, because the bishops support universal health care (typically a “liberal” political platform) and yet will not budge on their insistence on absolute protection of innocent life, particularly abortion (a “conservative” political position). Are these bishops schizophrenic? How are we to understand this wide embrace of what is generally understood as mutually exclusive issues?
First, it is important to remember the paramount responsibility of the USCCB. As Catholic bishops have the Apostolic office in the Church to protect, defend and extend the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), those bishops who serve the Church in the United States have as their primary obligation the faithful expression of Christian doctrine and practice. For Christians, issues are not merely “political;” issues which affect human good and morality are first of all responses we make to God, and the role of the USCCB is to guide the Catholic faithful in the United States to an awareness of what is ultimately good and right.
Consider the issue of abortion. It has been politicized to the extent that many are tired of it. Even many Christians who say they are “personally opposed” seem ready also to say “live and let live” and not try “to put my morality on someone else.” Especially since the “right” to legal abortion has been the law of the land for so long, it is argued that it is time for those opposed to withdraw and be quiet. But this idea that abortion has been legal for “so long” that it’s now a settled issue has a poor perspective on longevity. An honest look at history shows that the Church has decried the evil of abortion since its earliest days under the Roman Empire. Looking at more recent history, other ecclesial communities under the Christian umbrella had one voice with Catholic Faith about abortion until a slow but steady erosion began in the mid-Twentieth Century. There is a myopic way of seeing that allows the Spirit of the Age to cloud moral vision so that God’s people accommodate to attitudes and practices that grieve the Holy Spirit and quench the life of God. We should think beyond the immediacy of politics and popular opinion (on either side) and cultivate thankfulness that our Lord has given his Church the Apostolic Office to preserve and protect the truths that lead us to eternal salvation. The USCCB is right to allow no compromise on their position on abortion. The bishops’ concern is not what is popular or pragmatic, but what speaks the truth of God’s life into our world.
It is for that reason that the USCCB is supportive of a universal health care policy for the people of our country. I say it that way quite intentionally: “for the people of our country.” Again, this is not just a political issue. It is not about governmental policy (although that cannot be avoided on a practical level). It is about providing people with what is good.
Catholic social teaching –– which is Christian social teaching (which should go without saying) –– is rooted in love. God is love, says Scripture. Humanity was created in love in order to be a physical expression of God’s love in the created order. We are created to love God and to love one another, as Jesus expressed in his teaching on the greatest commandment.
Two key themes of social justice (out of seven) identified by the USCCB are the “life and dignity of the human person” and “solidarity.” Human life is sacred, and one way to model that is to care for each person at each stage of life from conception to natural death. Because we are one humanity, we each belong to the whole and every part of the whole deserves equitable opportunity. Out of this comes a principle of the common good in which each person should be allowed to reach his full human potential.
Because of sin there is a human tendency to care most (or only!) for one’s self and those with whom one is familiar –– family, social class, nation, faith, race, etc. It is the love of God as expressed in Christ that shows the full implications of solidarity. It is because we are “one” in the image of God that Christian Faith should be concerned with the welfare of each person who makes up “all” of us. It is for this reason that the USCCB is supportive of universal health care. This is a point of Christian love and witness.
Yet it should be obvious that “health care” does not mean killing children while in the womb. So, while the bishops are right to be in general support of the overall direction of the national health care law, they remain unable to give it the support expected from those espousing Catholic social teaching precisely because the law gives at least latent option for abortion, which Catholic social teaching cannot endorse and at the same time remain true to the tenets of Catholic Faith.
Thus the bishops oppose the bill because it appropriates billions of dollars in funding without prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion. Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Maryland announced on their web sites that plans utilizing “high-risk insurance pools” would include abortion. With any loophole, for which the bishops rightly give diligent analysis, there can be no USCCB support for the law, no matter how “generally” good it appears to be. The bishops are calling for “a legislative fix to close such loopholes once and for all.” Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB says, “Whether these or other billions of dollars in taxpayers’ funds are used to help kill unborn children is not a matter we should leave to shifting politics or to chance” (quotes from Zenit).
One of the benefits of being Catholic, and I say this having chosen to come into the Church after years of committed Christian life in an ecclesial community, is being a part of the Church that Jesus promised would be faithful to the end. This promise of faithfulness extends from Peter and the Apostles to those who succeed them. While the USCCB cannot avoid interface with “political” issues, we in the Church need to remember that this is, ultimately, not politics. Being faithful to Jesus and his kingdom is not a matter of “liberal” or “conservative.” Those who extend the life of the kingdom by witnessing to God’s truth will be misunderstood just as Jesus was. This is the high calling of our bishops. This is the witness they are to bear. This is the witness to which they call the Church and all her members. This is also the witness they bear to society at large and to the State, in the hope that Gospel seed will be sown so that the true life of Jesus can be extended throughout the world.