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Early in November 1995, the administrative board of the United States Catholic Conference issued the latest version of its quadrennial statement on politics and religion, this one entitled: “Political Responsibility: Proclaiming the Gospel of Life, Protecting the Least among Us, and Pursuing the Common Good.”

The statement has a number of very fine passages. For example: “The challenge for our church is to be principled without being ideological, to be political without being partisan, to be civil without being soft, to be involved without being used.” Excellent! Here is a definition of the relationship between religion and politics that all faiths could make their own.

And again: “Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Republican or Democrat.” Exactly right! This is a church that claims to see moral truth steadily and see it whole; and since the moral vision of political parties is always imperfect, the Church’s moral vision will never “easily fit” that of a political party.

But the USCC statement contains another passage that is little short of disastrous:

We stand with the unborn and the undocumented when many politicians seem to be abandoning them. We defend children in the womb and on welfare. We oppose the violence of abortion and the vengeance of capital punishment.

Unfortunately it is this passage that will be most widely quoted. This is the passage for which the statement will be famous (or infamous). People who know only one thing about the document will know this.

But what’s wrong with this statement? Is there anything in it to which Catholics knowledgeable about the moral and social teaching of their Church could object? No”at least not if one “unpacks” the passage and looks, one by one, at its four distinct assertions, which are:

    1. We oppose abortion.

    2. We oppose injuring illegal aliens.

    3. We oppose hurting children on welfare.

    4. We oppose capital punishment.

Back in the days when Aristotelianism was still respectable in Catholic quarters, Catholic writers had the habit (one they rather overdid) of distinguishing between the “matter” and the “form” of a thing. Well, if I may be forgiven a momentary relapse into Aristotelianism, these four assertions are the matter of the passage; but the passage also has a form , namely a series of three epigrams, each of which expresses a parallelism: the first between aborted children and illegal aliens, the second between aborted children and children on welfare, the third between aborted children and convicted murderers. It is both matter and form that give meaning to the passage; and as Aristotle would add, form is always the more important of the two.

In other words, the passage suggests that we should condemn all four evils with a fine and impartial evenhandedness. One-and-one-half million abortions a year is dreadful, yes; but it is no more dreadful than the execution of a few dozen murderers per year; which in turn is not more dreadful that refusing to increase payments when an unmarried woman on welfare has yet another baby; which in turn is no more dreadful than expelling illegal immigrants from the country.

Further, you don’t have to be a brilliant political analyst to realize that the passage is, at least in effect if not intention, pro-liberal and anti-conservative”despite the document’s avowal that it takes no sides between left and right. A standard-brand liberal would say, “These guys hit safely on three out of four: welfare, illegal immigrants, and the death penalty. They strike out only on abortion. They’re batting .750, which is far better than Ted Williams in his prime.” And a standard-brand conservative would say, “They’re hitting only one for four. They get abortion right but everything else wrong. A very poor batting average of .250.” The USCC document must have caused much rejoicing at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The scandal is compounded by the fact that the USCC position supporting welfare benefits for further out-of-wedlock children is at best a questionable inference from the Catholic teaching that the community has a responsibility to care for the poor, especially poor children. Other well-meaning Catholics, who would also like to abide by that charitable teaching, believe that if you subsidize out-of-wedlock births you get more of them; hence they hold that a cap on benefits will in the long run be good for the poor. The USCC counters that a cap will create an incentive for more abortions; the other side rejoins that a cap will reduce the rate of unmarried conceptions and thus lower the abortion rate. Who’s right? I don’t know. But I do know there is something very strange in suggesting a moral equivalence between abortion and a debatable welfare innovation that may or may not hurt the poor.

As for illegal immigrants, what Catholic teaching requires that we demonstrate a high level of solicitude toward people who have broken American law by entering the country and continue to break it by staying here? Of course these lawbreakers are often needy people and their children; but equally needy are the law-abiding people who stayed at home, thereby showing respect for American law. True, we are a nation of immigrants; my own father, for instance, and all four of my grandparents came to the United States as immigrants. But they entered lawfully, as have most immigrants in American history. Being kind to the needy is part of Catholic social teaching; but so is showing respect for the rule of law. At all events, it is odd to suggest a moral equivalence between abortion and the enforcement of laws against illegal immigration.

I realize that the average American bishop, if confronted with the above interpretation of the famous passage, would respond, “You have caricatured our intentions. You have to read the passage in the context of the entire document, and you have to read the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae . Then you’ll see that we consider abortion to be by far the worst of these evils, especially when abortion takes place not rarely but in phenomenal numbers. And of course we always make a distinction between moral doctrine, on the one hand, and strategies to implement that doctrine, on the other. The former we teach with authority, the latter we simply offer as suggestions. You are accusing us of saying things we could not possibly say, given our Catholic moral theology.”

I agree that the bishops couldn’t possibly have meant what they said in the famous passage”or rather, what the fifty members of the USCC board, not all of them bishops, said on their behalf. Nonetheless, it was said. The passage speaks for itself. We may be told that the bishops would not dream of treating abortion and the other issues as morally equivalent, and that they have no intention of telling Catholics that liberals are better than conservatives. But that’s how others will read the passage”and they will be correct in doing so, for that’s what it clearly implies.

Maybe the moral of the story is this: Beware epigrammatic parallelism, for it can easily distort your meaning. But I suspect the story is one with a second moral as well: If you are a busy bishop serving on a committee, beware who writes the drafts of the documents you will be expected to sign. I have no knowledge of what goes on at USCC headquarters, but based on internal evidence I’m willing to bet that the famous passage was written either by some bishops who were too busy to appreciate how literary form can determine meaning or by some liberal church bureaucrats who understood perfectly well how form determines meaning.

It may be worth adding that I write this as one who is essentially sympathetic to the intentions of the bishops”as opposed to some of their verbal formulas. I very much like the idea of the “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life””even though Catholics on the left, some of them working within church bureaucracies, have exploited this idea to justify their own softness on abortion. After having been appalled by the moral egoism promoted by the cultural left during the last quarter century, I’d hate to see the right produce a quarter century of economic egoism masked by moralistic self-righteousness and xenophobia. In short, I want balance: rights and responsibilities, individuality and community, freedom and moral law, economic creativity and social justice, Americanism and internationalism. As for abortion, it should not be the single issue, but it should at least be primus inter pares , for if we cannot get abortion right it is unlikely we will be able to get anything right. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are champions of this balanced view. But the Catholic bishops are .

Or at least they would be”if only they could say what they mean instead of allowing draftsmen at USCC headquarters to put misleading words into their mouths.

David R. Carlin , a former Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate, is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island.