With the nomination of Governor Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of Health and Human Services — her Senate hearings are occurring this week — I’ve been getting a new round of email and letters demanding that Trinity cease and desist any expressions of pride in the achievements of our alumna, Class of 1970. I get similar correspondence regarding Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Class of 1962. The writers go on to demand, as well, that I issue some kind of public condemnation of these two alumnae and cease and desist any congratulatory statements.
Abortion law and policy, and the pro-choice stance of these two politicians, is the issue at the heart of these messages. The writers insist that because Trinity is a Catholic institution, we must distance ourselves from any appearance of support or affirmation of politicians who are pro-choice.
While a few of the writers express this opinion respectfully and with a reasonable tone, many of them offer this opinion with remarkably hostile rhetoric; the term “outrage” appears frequently; less frequently, but always notable, I read the phrase “baby killer” applied, variously, to Kathleen, Nancy, and me.
I have several clear responses to my correspondents.
First, Trinity is a teaching institution, and because we have chosen to be Catholic in our heritage and mission, we have an obligation to teach what the Catholic Church expects of us. Catholic teachings on the matter of abortion are clear: abortion is a grave moral evil. Because of this, the Church also teaches that the secular law should treat abortion as murder. However, since the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1972 that declared a constitutional right of privacy covering a woman’s decision to have an abortion, the law of the United States does not treat abortion as murder. Hence, Church leaders have insisted that the law must change. Moreover, the Church insists that Catholic public officials must not cooperate in enacting or enforcing laws and policies that facilitate abortions, and must work to change the law to treat abortion as murder.
That’s the Church’s teaching, and I have stated this teaching on many previous occasions on this blog and in my various speeches and public statements on this issue.
Second, as a university committed to freedom of thought and speech, neither Trinity nor I are in the business of condemning people for their political views and choices. We may disagree, but we do not condemn. Far from undermining our fidelity to Catholicism, respect for the First Amendment actually protects our ability to proclaim Catholic teaching as well. We proclaim the teaching, we do not condemn those who do not accept the teaching. We may well hope that the power of the moral teaching will eventually change hearts and minds; we could focus on finding ways to be even more persuasive in the rightness of the teaching. Coercion is not persuasion. To condemn, to threaten, to malign publicly is not effective teaching.
Third, as a university, we can certainly engage in a robust intellectual debate about the relationship of law and policy to moral issues, and we should. How do we reconcile the Church’s teachings on life issues — not only abortion policy, but also the issues of stem cell research, birth control, the matter of condoms and AIDS, and the panoply of other moral and legal issues related to sexual conduct and reproduction — with the obvious opposite choices made in the political and social spheres? How does a politician who is Catholic reconcile the profound conflict she faces between the moral teachings of her faith and the demands of her constituents? Rather than shouting and condemning, we should be engaging in this dialogue to work through the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face on these issues. Saying we have a dilemma does not mean we retreat from our faith; rather, it says we are quite human and struggling to find the solution.
Finally, the rhetoric must change. Catholics are in danger of being re-marginalized in American political life. Far from securing the desired change in law and policy, the tactics of vilification, condemnation and excommunication will only serve to distance politicians from any faith expression, and to make the general electorate even more wary of any candidate who is Catholic. We need to return this discussion to the high moral ground of teaching persuasively, not lobbing hate mail.
Trinity is, indeed, proud of the achievements of Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius. Our pride in their achievements in reaching some of the highest public offices in our nation’s history does not mean that we agree with all of their political positions. We obviously disagree on the matter of abortion policy where we affirm the Church’s teachings. But there are many other policy positions where their political decisions and Church teachings align quite well.
We will never have 100% reconciliation between political matters and Church teaching. The whole point of a strong moral education should be that, no matter whether the law treats an act as legal or illegal, a person should not choose to do what is immoral. Having a choice does not mean that the choice is good or moral. Rather than engaging in debilitating internecine Catholic wars that will ultimately have little impact on the general public’s view of Catholicism, other than to confirm the disordered views of the anti-Catholic element, we should be spending a lot more time teaching about how to make correct moral choices.