Learning From Our Mistakes

By Rev. Roger J. Landry

Last week, our editorial argued that one of the most important lessons pastors of the Church in the United States need to draw from the history of interactions with Senator Ted Kennedy on the sanctity of human life is that a strategy of conscience education alone with “personally opposed,” but  publicly “pro-choice” Catholic politicians hasn’t worked. The attempt to engage, teach and help persuade such politicians to conversion didn’t succeed with Senator Kennedy, and it hasn’t succeeded yet with other “pro-choice” Catholic legislators.

To say that it hasn’t succeeded, however, is really not strong enough. It’s possible, after all, to fail a test with a grade of 59; in such a case, a student would be able to take some solace in the fact that, while there are some areas in need of improvement, he was close to minimal success. If a student fails a test with close to a zero, on the other hand, he obviously needs to make some radical changes if he ever hopes to succeed. And that is closer to the candid assessment that leaders of the Church need to make relative to the education-alone strategy during the past few decades.

Let us take an honest look at the numbers. When we survey the long list of “pro-choice” Catholic politicians from both parties—Kennedy, Kerry, Giuliani, Schwarzenegger, Daschle, Dodd, Durban, Leahy, Mikulski, Pelosi, Delahunt, Capuano, Markey, McGovern, Meehan, Granholm, Sebelius, Pataki, Richardson, Cellucci, Cuomo and Biden, to name just a handful—is it possible to say that the strategy has worked with any of them? Over the last three and a half decades, can we point to even one success story?

Another way to assess the results of the education-alone strategy is to measure the direction in which “pro-choice” Catholic politicians have moved over the years. Even if they haven’t experienced a total conversion, have they moved closer toward limiting abortions or toward making abortions easier to access? The facts show that the vast majority of “personally opposed,” but publicly “pro-choice” Catholic legislators have become far less personally opposed and far more publicly in favor over the duration of the strategy.

In the initial years after Roe versus Wade, publicly “pro-choice” Catholic legislators generally whispered their support for abortion. They displayed a palpable sense of shame, letting their abortion position out just enough so that it wouldn’t cost them the votes of abortion supporters. That discomfort began to dissipate after Governor Mario Cuomo’s 1984 “pro-choice” defense at Notre Dame.

We’ve now come to a situation in which “pro-choice” Catholic legislators vigorously curry the favor of Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Emily’s List; scores of Catholics in Congress have the chutzpah to cosponsor the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate almost every abortion restriction ever passed at the federal or state level; and 16 out of 25 Catholic senators vote against conscience protections to prevent their fellow Catholics in the medical field from being forced to participate in abortions and sterilizations.

After looking at these facts, it seems clear that the education-alone strategy has even failed to deter many Catholics in Congress from becoming some of the most radical supporters, defenders and would-be public funders of abortion on Capitol Hill.

Why has the education-alone strategy been such a colossal failure? There are several reasons, but one of the most important, and least noted, is that it shares many of the same flawed approaches as the “personally opposed,” but publicly “pro-choice” position it seeks to remedy.

Today there are many “personally opposed,” but publicly “pro-choice” Catholic legislators for whom this phrase seems to be just an empty slogan, because they give almost no evidence that they even have any personal opposition to abortion. At least initially, however, there were some who sincerely held that irreconcilable position. These public figures had a deep personal repugnance for abortion but, for various reasons, were uncomfortable voting in favor of any laws that would prevent others from doing what they they maintain they would never personally do. Many hoped that women would not choose to abort their unborn sons or daughters. Some even spoke out on why they thought abortion was wrong and supported educational endeavors to help women in difficult pregnancies learn about fetal development.

No matter how much some politicians stressed education in the early days, however, it was trumped by the educational value and power of the law. The law taught forcefully that there was nothing wrong with abortion as long as a mother, and a mother alone, deemed it desirable for her physical or mental health. Even though the politicians held offices in which they could work to change what the law itself teaches about the morality of abortion, they did not exercise them, and even though they professionally were accustomed, in every piece of legislation, to imposing some notion of the good on those who disagree with them, with regard to the issue of abortion, they left everything to the judgment, ill-informed or not, of the conscience of the mother.

The essence of their position has been that, no matter how wrong they know abortion to be, the mother should have the right to do that wrong—a lethal, permanent wrong to her unborn child. They give the ill-informed conscience of the potential wrongdoer greater weight than the truth about abortion, the life of the unborn child, and the soul and psyche of the soon-to-be-forever-wounded mother combined.

When we examine the education-alone approach of pastors with respect to “pro-choice” politicians, we see that it too has basically become a “personally opposed,” but publicly “pro-choice” position as well. There’s obviously a clear personal repugnance on the part of pastors to the “pro-choice” Catholic politicians’ separation between faith and moral action, schizophrenia between private and public personality, and lip service to the Church’s teachings. Many pastors have sought to exercise their teaching office, stating forthrightly what abortion is and what the responsibilities of all legislators are with respect to it. All of their teaching, however, has been trumped by the weightier educational value of the de facto “law” that has left everything to the conscience, however ill-informed, of the “pro-choice” Catholic politicians.

These men and women have learned over time that, regardless of what canon law says, they are at liberty to ignore the Church’s teachings on life. Even though the U.S. bishops have taught with one voice that “pro-choice” Catholic legislators should not present themselves to receive Holy Communion, if they pay no heed to that teaching and present themselves anyway, they have observed that, in practice, they will almost never be denied. With Senator Kennedy’s funeral, they have now grasped that even a 100-percent pro-abortion voting record will not only not prevent them from having a Catholic funeral, but will not even stop them from receiving possibly one of the most publicly panegyrical Catholic funerals in U.S. history.

The upshot—these smart men and women have concluded—is that the Church’s practice is essentially “pro-choice” with respect to “pro-choice” Catholic politicians. The politicians’ own determination in conscience, erroneous or not, is given greater weight than, combined, the truth proclaimed by the Church, the duty to protect the politicians’ souls from a potentially mortal wound, and the responsibility to do all that is possible, according to one’s office, to try to stop the killing.

The education-alone approach has failed for the same reason that the “personally opposed,” but publicly “pro-choice” position has led to massive abortion on demand: The nature of sin is that the easier it is to commit and the fewer the consequences for doing it, the more sin we’ll have.

Jesus spoke of a different way in the Gospel (Mt 18:15–18). It involves not merely general educational statements that we hope offenders will apply to themselves in conscience, but the type of one-on-one instruction traditionally called fraternal correction. If that fails, and fails repeatedly, Jesus enjoined us to regard the offender as someone who no longer belongs to the community, who is no longer a member in good standing.

This may seem harsh, but we should remember that Jesus always seeks nothing but the best for his Church and for individual sinners, even obstinate sinners. Implied in Jesus’ strategy is that education involves not just information, but also formation, and that you can’t form disciples without discipline. This is a lesson that, after four decades of the undeniable failure of another approach, we need to consider anew.

Father Roger J. Landry is pastor of Saint Anthony of Padua parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and executive editor of the Anchorthe weekly newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Fall River, from which this commentary is reprinted with permission. His articles and homilies are archived at http://catholicpreaching.com