Will Roman Catholic bishops and clergy call the faithful to vote for Trump — the way abortion has trumped all other issues since Roe v. Wade?
“Any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion…ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation.”
-Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan
“…real Catholics” should determine whether candidates are in tune with church teaching on abortion and “vote accordingly.”
-Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput
When John Kerry, a faithful Roman Catholic and former altar boy, ran for President of the United States of America he was barred from accepting Communion by Bishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis. Bishops around the country, as in Boston, New Orleans, and Portland deemed it inappropriate for candidates who support abortion and gay rights to partake in the central ritual of their church to receive communion. In many dioceses and in parish churches throughout the United States clergy declared it a sin to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate and called for votes for George W. Bush (a Protestant).
In short order, President Bush declared a policy of pre-emptive war, something that the church hierarchy had, time and again, declared immoral. It was not long before the President led the United States into a war that failed to meet the long-standing Christian standard of a “just war.” The national Council of Catholic Bishops had also clearly expressed its firm opposition to torture, capital punishment, and the devastating results of the widening gap between rich and poor. In George W. Bush church leaders discovered that they had helped elect a President who violated each of these, and many other, Catholic standards for moral governance. But they did get a President who opposed abortion.
This has been a long-standing pattern, not only in presidential elections, but also for all offices. Abortion has been an issue that trumps all others, at least for many leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.
Of course, there are several other issues regarding sexual morality and equality for women where there is sharp and important disagreement between Roman Catholics (usually together with right wing fundamentalists) and other Christians. But abortion is the one where compromise seems implacable.
It is difficult to imagine any bishop or priest calling for a vote against a candidate who refuses to favor ways for a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth. How unlikely is it that Roman Catholics will be told to vote against those who favor the death penalty? Pope Francis recently said that the position taken by Donald Trump on immigration was “un-Christian.” But the words were barely out of his mouth before he was challenged to compare that opinion with the agreement he and the candidate share regarding abortion.
In the coming election, will bishops and priests admonish the faithful against voting for Trump because of the range and radical nature of the many issues on which the church disagrees with him?
What if Trump, or another candidate who wants to build the same walls to hold out immigrants while forbidding Muslims to enter the country, is the only anti-abortion choice? That may well be the case. The appointment of the next President to the Supreme Court is likely either to overturn Roe v. Wade or to establish it more securely as the law of the land. What is the Roman Catholic to do who believes that abortion is evil but also believes in the other moral positions taken by the church? What will the Pope himself feel about having to choose between the central importance of abortion over against so many other instances in which Christian morality will be violated? If he expresses himself one way or the other – if he defines the priorities between issues of social morality; if he expresses some nuance that defines abortion as some kind of lesser sin than killing a baby – it will be a most interesting moment in American politics.
Here is one of the major problems up to now: the doctrinal conclusion that human life begins at the very moment of conception led to the often declared charge that abortion is murder, or even infant genocide. Murder and genocide are absolute terms: absolute in terms of evil, absolute in terms of definition, and absolute in terms of inflexibility. They give no room for alternatives, compromise, or choice. Even if the majority of the body politic disagrees with such a conclusion, even if most people cannot imagine that their view is murderous, differences of opinion cannot be permitted; prevention must become the law. It should be obvious that this whole line of reasoning goes over the top; its basic premises take it to a position that is too extreme and exaggerated to be plausible. This goes a long way toward explaining why the single issue of abortion has trumped all others for those who sincerely accept the doctrine at face value.
Recently Donald Trump stumbled and had to reverse himself when he was confronted with the logic that leads to the accusation of murder. Put on the spot he could not think his way out of it: if abortion is murder it has to be criminalized and the one causing it – the woman – has to be punished. Simultaneously, the interviewer himself exposed more of the contradictory conclusions that are inherent in the church’s belief and political action. When Trump questioned Chris Matthews about his personal loyalty to the church’s position, it was reduced to a “moral” teaching. What that exposed is a false gulf between personal morality and communal morality, between religious and legal morality. Even so, in separating the church’s teaching on abortion from law it laid bare the problem with the church’s attempt to impose its doctrine as a matter of law, largely through siding with anti-abortion candidates. The bishops and clergy who trump all else in an attempt to eliminate the right to choose, legally, are following doctrinal premises to their logical conclusions.
That this conclusion is based on premises that fail the tests of logic and plausibility is exposed in that the pro-life movement finds it necessary to avoid imposition of criminal sanctions on women who choose to have an abortion. A deeper logic takes over when society is forced to contemplate the criminality of such women; a more believable logic emerges with premises that actually suit the realities. However, to avoid the logic that follows the stated premises properly the “pro-life” movement resorts to another illogical – insulting – conclusion: while women should not be allowed to make such life and death decisions for themselves, when they make the wrong decision and perform what is deemed to be as awful as murder it is only because they can’t help themselves. Women “generously” are reduced to being victims – of their own nature, one must suppose.
Much is getting exposed during the campaign of 2016, a culmination of what has been unfolding over several campaigns during the post Roe v. Wade generation. The “trumping” power of the abortion issue in elective politics has been building to the level of a crisis because it reveals significant flaws within a doctrine of the church that seeks to stand for life.
If Donald Trump becomes the only “pro-life” candidate for President the crisis in doctrine may be at a breaking point. What will happen? How is the church going to respond?