How should the Catholic Church respond to abortion extremism? Bishop Robert McElroy’s recent intervention in this debate is regrettably misleading and unhelpful.
He is concerned that his brother bishops will counsel the denial of communion to abortion-friendly leaders. He argues that such a move would be a grave mistake with “tremendously destructive consequences.” Declaring Joe Biden and other pro-abortion politicians unworthy of reception, he writes, fails to account for the “intense pressures and complexities” facing political leaders. McElroy insists that “the Eucharist must never be instrumentalized for a political end.”
He also argues that singling out pro-life issues for priority obscures the Church’s larger moral witness. McElroy refers to the sin of racism to suggest that a double standard is at work. How can his brother bishops counsel withholding the Eucharist from notoriously pro-abortion politicians while failing to do so when faced with the sin of racism?
I agree that the Church’s sacramental life must not be turned into a political weapon. But McElroy misrepresents today’s abortion debate and implies a false equivalence between the issues of racism, which involves a grave violation of civil rights and a denigration of human dignity, and abortion, which is the intentional killing of innocent life—an act described by the early Church Fathers as a form of homicide. Both sins are grievous, but they do not have the same weight.
We must preach, teach, and work against today’s abortion regime, but in doing so we also need to recognize political realities. Clausewitz called war “politics by other means,” and to some degree the reverse is true as well. In the conduct of war, one is only justified in initiating hostilities if one can foresee the probability of success. Something analogous holds for our political responsibilities.
I regret that most Catholic politicians in New York do not strive to restrict abortion (as have legislators in Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere). The witness of lawmakers proposing limits on abortion does, or at least can, help to change public opinion. But I recognize that, given the political climate of this state, such efforts have a low likelihood of success, at least for now. I also recognize that, given coalition politics, sweeping anti-abortion efforts in the New York legislature might limit the representatives' ability to achieve other good ends. Thus, while it would be inexcusable for a Catholic politician to vote in favor of still more lethal laws, in circumstances such as those that obtain in New York and elsewhere, it’s acceptable to work for whatever lesser, incremental restrictions and protections that might be possible. It is never acceptable to simply concede and abandon the issue.
But this is not Biden’s situation. He makes no attempt to curtail our abortion regime. He has not even reiterated Bill Clinton’s effort to square the circle: “safe, legal, rare.” The current climate in the Democratic party requires its leaders to endorse abortion and promise to increase funding for and access to abortion services. This Biden has done. And he has joined those who denounce any effort to restrict abortion as hostile to “women’s health.” In short, he is a fully paid-up member of the pro-abortion party, putting his shoulder to its cause in very public ways.
Catholic bishops are faced not with Democratic politicians who are silent on abortion or insufficiently ardent. Instead, they are faced with Catholic Democrats who affirm abortion, insist it is indispensable for women's empowerment, and defend the killing of the unborn as a positive good. And they present themselves to their priest, their parish, and the world as Catholics worthy of receiving the Eucharist.
The days of Mario Cuomo are long past. In recent decades, bishops have engaged Catholic politicians in the Democratic party in a sustained conversation about the moral urgency of the pro-life cause. But it has come to naught. Today, the Democratic party aggressively and unrepentantly promotes a pro-abortion agenda—and many Catholic political leaders regularly and eagerly lend their voice and use their power to advance that agenda.
The open, notorious, and persistent presence of vociferously pro-abortion political leaders drives a wedge between Church teaching and the Church’s sacramental life. Bishop McElroy is disingenuous to suggest that awareness of “intense pressures and complexities” erases the threat to the integrity of the Eucharist.
And McElroy's reference to racism is an exemplary red herring. Name one Catholic politician who runs on a platform of re-segregating schools or re-imposing laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage. There are none. Meanwhile, Catholics in political office routinely champion abortion as a very nearly sacred right.
Biden has said that Georgia's new voting law—which, ironically, is less restrictive than the laws in many “blue” states—is “Jim Crow on steroids.” Only a person thoroughly imbued with the partisan rhetoric of the left believes this claim. I hope Bishop McElroy is not among them.
Catholic bishops should tread carefully where political passions run hot. As anyone who has labored on behalf of the sanctity of life knows, our cause has been cynically coopted by Republicans who want our votes. The moral concerns of progressive Catholics (some misguided, but sincere) have been cynically manipulated by Democrats.
We need careful moral reasoning, as well as close attention to canon law. But shame on Bishop McElroy for throwing dust in the eyes of the faithful. The culture of death is well advanced. Brazen politicians do not merely disregard the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life but rather publicly proclaim its opposite, singing hosannas at the slaughter of the innocents. In the face of this egregious counter-witness, a bishop must guard the integrity of the Eucharist.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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