Catholic pro-abortion or, as some call themselves, “pro-choice” politicians are meeting growing criticism from fellow Catholics.  So are Catholic politicians who claim that while personally opposed to abortion, they must support pro-abortion measures “for the common good.”

Each category is under fire in the United States and elsewhere.

The one-million-member Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, is under pressure to expel from its councils such politicians as Ted Kennedy (Mass.).  Governor Mario Cuomo (New York), Neil Hartigan (Attorney-General, Illinois) and Ed Roybal (Los Angeles Congressman).  Each has an extensive pro-abortion voting record while claiming he is “personally opposed” to abortion.  Even more pressure is exerted against Catholic politicians who support the idea that abortion is a woman’s right.  This view is so flagrantly at odds with what the Church teaches as basic Christian moral thinking that many believe the church must act if she wants to avoid any further erosion of her teaching.  This point was made most recently by New York Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan at the U.S. Bishops’ meeting in Baltimore in November 1989.

U.S. bishops have been responding to both groups of Catholic politicians.

On December 10, 1989, for example, the two bishops of Montana, in response to four Catholics, three Democrats and one Republican who addressed a pro-abortion rally, declared it was “inconsistent” for public officials to say they personally oppose abortion “while supporting the right of women to choose abortion.”

This double standard of morality would be disastrous if it were followed to its logical conclusion,” said Bishops Eldon Curtiss of Helena and Anthony Milone of Great Falls-Billings.  It’s like “someone saying that I am personally opposed to grand larceny and drug trafficking and murder and rape, but I support the right of our citizens to engage in these activities if they so choose.”

The two bishops also repeated that abortion is “not just a Catholic issue” but a public issue affecting “the way we look at human life as a people.”  (CNS-BC Catholic, Dec. 24, 1989).

A similar statement came from the heads of eight Ohio dioceses on December 15 in response to an announcement of Ohio Attorney-General Anthony Celebrezze that he now supports public funding of abortion for poor women.  Celebrezze is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor.

He had said in a statement that he couldn’t “impose” one set of religious beliefs over another and that everyone should follow his own conscience and religion.

Answered the Ohio bishops, “to claim . . . religious and moral principles should not influence public life is to abandon the authentic common good to the shifting winds of public opinion or to pursue consensus at any price.”  (Origins, December 1989; WCR, December 25, 1989.)

Geraldine Ferraro

The issue really flared up in public for the first time six years ago during the presidential elections of 1984 when Democrat Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice-president.  She was a Catholic with a pro-abortion voting record.  The controversy between Ferraro and Governor Mario Cuomo on one side and New York Cardinal John O’Connor on the other led 97 Catholics, among whom were 26 nuns and priests, to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, siding with Ferraro and Cuomo and declaring the issue to be a matter of private conscience only.  This led to an intervention of the Vatican’s Congregation of Religious, which demanded a retraction from the priests and nuns.  After several years of evasion on the part of the signers, the matter was settled, with two nuns deciding to leave their religious order rather than join the others in a retraction.

Nothing was or could be done about the others.

The “Catholic politician-against-the-Church” controversy is not new, though today it is becoming more intense.

Pastoral reasons

Pastoral care requires that bishops proceed slowly, first attempting to educate as many as possible before moving to more drastic action in cases where there is a clear public defiance of important Church teaching.  Even then the first goal is to bring the offender around to see the error of his ways.

One way of achieving this goal is to excommunicate a person, denying him or her the right to receive Holy Communion and, in the case of a priest, also the exercise of his priestly functions.

It should be noted that by Church law those who participate in an abortion are excommunicated automatically.  No announcement is necessary.

This procedure, then, differs from an excommunication which is publicly imposed by a bishop to counteract public, willful (usually prolonged), false teaching on serious matters.

Such drastic action did take place in the United States in 1962 when the Archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph Francis Rummel, after several decades of promoting racial integration in hi diocese, excommunicated Leander H. Perez, Sr. and two others for deliberately and willfully provoking opposition to school desegregation.  Perez, a Catholic of course, was a powerful Louisiana politician.

A woman’s right

Today the people who are coming under direct fire are those who claim by word and deed that one can be a good Catholic, yet acknowledge abortion as a woman’s right.

In response to this attitude, which though it directly contradicts the standard teaching of the church had never been given a formal reply, the American Bishops passed a resolution at their recent November 7 convention in Baltimore, stating:  “No Catholic can responsibly take a `pro-choice’ stand when the `choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life.”

Some pro-liters feel that this resolution is about ten years too late.  Obviously, the Bishops accepted it last November because of an awareness that a growing number of Catholics in public life are searching for accommodation with the pro-abortionists.  The previous Episcopal silence may have had something to do with that.

As reported in the January 1990 Interim (page one), Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego, California, followed up this new forceful stand on November 15 by publicly denying assembly woman Lucy Killea the reception of Holy Communion.  He did it publicly because Killea’s opinions were public.  She was contesting a by-election.  As the Bishop put it:  “I regret to inform you that by your media advertisements and statements advocating the `pro-choice’ position in the public forum, you are placing yourself in complete contradiction to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”

On December 15 last, the Episcopal Commission on the Family in Peru warned members of “Catholics for Free Choice” (CFFC), a Washington-based organization, of possible excommunication.  CFFC members have been making the rounds in Latin America using the media to put forth their ideology, as they have done in Canada where they have held lectures and appeared on television in support of Morgentaler.

The Peruvian Commission pointed out that this American organization “does not belong to any official branch of the Catholic hierarchy.  Their usage of the name `Catholic’ is a deceitful strategy, since they reject and even mock the teachings of the Catholic Church and the gospels.”

The Epicopal Conference of Uruguay has issued a similar statement recalling, among other things, Canon Law 1398 which states that “those who successfully abort a living human being incur an automatic excommunication.”  (News release, HLI, December 15, 1989).


`Catholics for free choice’ has existed for almost ten years.  They are a small but vocal group, financed by Planned Parenthood and large anti-population foundations.

The natural reaction of American Church leaders has been to simply ignore them, trusting that their propaganda would have little effect among Catholics.  This trust may have been misplaced, caused perhaps by under-estimating the power of the secular media and over-estimating the average Catholic’s knowledge of the faith.

Of some interest from a larger perspective is the fact that CFFC is exploiting the current rage to interpret freedom of conscience as freedom to do whatever comes into one’s head.

A brochure entitled “You are not alone,” reads as follows:

“The Catholic Church officially teaches that the conscience of an individual is supreme.  If you carefully examine your conscience and then decide that an abortion is the most moral act you can do at this time, you’re not committing a sin.  Therefore, you’re not excommunicated.  Nor need you tell it in confession since, in your case, abortion is not a sin.”  (Mary Meehan, NC Register, November 17, 1989)

The same tactic has been adopted recently by Catholic homosexuals.  (See article “Dignity rejects Church teaching” elsewhere in this issue).  In fact, it is the foundation for much of the current dissent in the Church, especially by those who have been described as `cafeteria-style’ Catholics who pick and choose out of doctrine whatever they like, forgetting the rest.


This explains why opposition to the bishops’ more forceful approach has not been lacking.  The independent dissenting weekly National Catholic Reporter devoted no fewer than three columns in its December 5 issue to denounce the Maher decision.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo indulged in sarcasm, asking rhetorically whether “he (Maher) will not deny Communion to everybody in his diocese who is for the death penalty.”  Cuomo’s equating of abortion with capital punishment is false reasoning.  Abortion is intrinsically evil.  Capital punishment is a prudential decision suited to certain circumstances.

Senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan, together with Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame University, scoffed at the decision on Dan Rather’s December 5 CBS newscast.

The New York Times, America’s leading pro-abortion newspaper, took up the cudgels immediately and in an editorial accused the San Diego bishop of “Threatening the truce of tolerance by which Americans maintain civility and enlarge religious liberty.”  “Above all,” it went on to say, “To force religious discipline on public officials risks destroying the fragile accommodations that Americans of all faiths and no faith have built with the bricks of the Constitution and the mortar of tolerance.”

Syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran couldn’t help but note “the metronomic reiteration of the terms `forced’ and `imposed,’ as if Bishop Maher were holding a gun to Mrs. Killea’s head.  “All he told her, Sobran observed, was that you can’t have it both ways:  “You can be a Catholic or you can be an abortion advocate, but not both.”

The editorial, he noted, “is based on the assumption that abortion is simply not a serious moral issue.  What, exactly, is Bishop Maher supposed to be raising his religious authority for?”  (Washington Watch, Wanderer, December 7, 1989)

Sobran also observed how the New York Times’ double standard had been neatly unmasked by Washington Post columnist Mark Shields, who recalled that in 1962 the Times had praised Arch-bishop Rummel for excommunicating Leander Perez and others.  Lutheran pastor John Neuhaus in the December 31st issue of National Review, after surveying a series of its editorials, concluded that The Times “can readily accommodate anti-Catholic bigotry.”  Noting that the N.Y.T. constantly cites as model Catholics John Kennedy and Mario Cuomo, Neuhaus summarized:  “In the view of The Times, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.”


The American debate will have an impact on the Canadian scene where a similar situation of Catholic political subterfuge on abortion prevails.