The pressure on Sen. John Kerry and other Catholic politicians from fellow Catholics on the political and ecclesiastical right is not a new phenomenon. Ever since the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, abortion has become a highly sensitive political as well as moral issue within the Catholic Church.
Catholic politicians have found themselves under a special kind of fire since the mid-70s. In the mind of their Catholic critics, Roe v. Wade was an illegitimate decision, and Catholic legislators and executives are still bound by the moral principle that abortion is tantamount to murder and, as such, always to be prevented at whatever cost.
However, once the Supreme Court had determined abortion to be a constitutionally guaranteed right, Catholic legislators were faced with the dilemma of either upholding their oath of office to enforce the law or of subordinating the laws of the land to the teachings of their church.
The issue arose almost immediately following Roe v. Wade in the confirmation hearings that were to decide whether Joseph A. Califano Jr., a Catholic, would become secretary of health, education and welfare in the new Carter administration. Califano writes about those hearings — and more — in his new book, Inside: A Public and Private Life.
Just before his confirmation hearings opened, Califano consulted his Jesuit pastor, who told him that in our democratic and pluralistic society he was free to express his own views on abortion, but if another view prevailed, he could in good conscience enforce the law.
His pastor recommended that he seek a second opinion from one of the Catholic Church’s leading moral theologians, Father Richard McCormick, S.J. Califano reports that Father McCormick offered the same advice as the pastor had.
Once in office, Califano adhered to a minimalist approach to the funding of abortions. However, because the law permitted the funding of abortions in the case of rape and incest if they were “promptly reported,” he issued regulations giving women 60 days to make such reports.
“The Catholic hierarchy erupted,” Califano writes in his book.
He also issued new rules to restrict federal funding for sterilizations and to make sure none were performed without informed consent. There were to be various exceptions to the rule, but within the parameters the secretary laid down.
Once more, the bishops voiced their displeasure.
With many of the bishops questioning his decision, Califano’s pastor suggested that he sit down with the then-archbishop of Washington, Cardinal William Baum, to help Cardinal Baum and the other bishops better understand his position.
A dinner was arranged with the cardinal, the pastor and Father McCormick. Cardinal Baum seized the occasion to chastise Califano for not restricting abortion even further in cases of rape and incest, for not banning all forms of federal funding of sterilizations and for opposing tax credits for tuition paid to Catholic schools.
Califano writes that, carried to its logical conclusion, Cardinal Baum’s argument was that “Catholics must adhere to the positions of the church or resign from public office.”
“I pointed out,” he writes, “that such a position would disqualify all Catholics from the HEW post and thousands of other positions in local, state, and federal government. My arguments about serving in a pluralistic democracy fell on deaf ears.”
Some of those hierarchical ears seem deaf even today to the realities of a pluralistic society and to the complexities of applying moral principles in the political order.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.