The U.S. Catholic bishops issued a statement, “Catholics in Political Life,” in the teeth of a controversy during the 2004 presidential campaign over whether the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, should be barred from receiving holy Communion because of his pro-choice voting record on abortion-related issues.
The statement expressed concern about the risk that “sacramental practice can be misused for political ends.”
“Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness,” the statement pointed out, “we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”
In the end, the statement walked a fine line. It avoided both condemning a handful of fellow bishops who had come close to politicizing the Eucharist and giving pro-choice Catholic politicians a pass on the abortion issue. It also insisted that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
This has been taken to mean no honorary degrees from Catholic universities and colleges and no speaking engagements at Catholic parishes and academic institutions.
In fact, there have been a number of instances in recent years in which public figures, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have been barred from receiving such honors and being given such platforms. The problem has been that Catholic officials have been highly selective in applying the standard of “defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
Those “fundamental moral principles” have been almost exclusively limited to teachings concerned with human sexuality and reproduction — in other words, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, embryonic stem-cell research and the like.
Potential honorees and speakers who have, for example, supported the pre-emptive war in Iraq, opposed immigration reform that would reach out in some effective way to the 12 million or more undocumented aliens in the United States, made light of the problem of global warming and other environmental concerns, or favored capital punishment are not subject to this kind of prior censorship.
The most recent case involved the barring of a speaker in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Dr. Steven Miles, a member of the faculty at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics and described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “a world-renowned scholar, author and anti-torture activist,” had been invited months earlier to speak about torture and its effects on society at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis.
The invitation, which was to include an appearance at an adult-education class at St. Joan’s, had been extended by the parish’s peace-and-justice ministry. However, four days before Miles was scheduled to speak, the archdiocese intervened and ordered that he be disinvited.
According to the report in the Star Tribune, a spokesman for the archdiocese said that Miles had been prohibited from speaking at St. Joan’s because he supports abortion rights, a position “contrary to the teachings” of the Catholic Church. Miles acknowledged that he is pro-choice, but insisted that he had no intention of touching on the abortion issue and, furthermore, that he had given an advance copy of his talk on torture to the archdiocese.
He noted that representatives of St. Joan’s Parish had not asked him about his position “on abortion, euthanasia (he opposes it), divorce, papal infallibility or the Nicene Creed. The issue,” he said, “is whether I have something relevant to say to Catholics on torture.”
“Torture causes women to abort at a horrendous rate,” Miles pointed out in an interview with the Star Tribune, “and people who have been tortured are much more likely to commit suicide. The point is that an anti-torture campaign is a pro-life campaign.”
But as is too often the case, a whispering campaign developed against Miles after word of his forthcoming appearance at St. Joan’s appeared in the parish bulletin. Anti-abortion activists complained that Miles had testified, along with several other scientists, before a committee of the state legislature against the Minnesota Department of Health’s published claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. The claim was subsequently withdrawn.
Miles did speak to a Catholic audience, but in a different venue. The question is: Was he, like others before him, subject to a double standard?
For some Catholics, it seems, pro-life still refers only to abortion.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.