Before Thanksgiving, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops ruled that “no Catholic can responsibly take a ‘pro-choice’ stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life.” Bolder--if not wiser--than his colleagues, Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego acted promptly on that ruling. Assemblywoman Lucy Killea’s “media advertisements and statements advocating the ‘pro-choice’ abortion position,” he stated, put this practicing Catholic from his diocese “in complete contradiction to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.” Then he banned Killea, who is running for the state Senate against anti-abortion Republican Carol Bentley, from the sacrament of Communion until she recants.
No faithful Catholic would take such action lightly, which brings us back to Thanksgiving.
The holiday rests on Protestant Pilgrims who dissented from the Church of England’s authority and followed their consciences to New England, landing at Plymouth Rock. From these Pilgrims flowed a belief that Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of democracy in America, would later identify as our “general distaste for accepting any man’s word as proof of anything.”
But Pilgrim dissenters were not the only ones who landed here, a point to which the current political tempest in San Diego testifies. Nearly a century before the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer in the service of Catholic Spain, sailed into San Diego Bay. He did not stay, but other Roman Catholics did--including the Franciscan Junipero Serra, who founded the first of California’s many missions in San Diego in 1769.
The Catholic tradition has been less reluctant to accept a man’s word as proof, especially when that word is thought to come through a centuries-old, unbroken authority that could be traced back to St. Peter. In that tradition, the National Council of Catholic Bishops regards the Catholic Church’s teachings as true and intends that they should be received as authoritative, particularly by members of that body.
Nevertheless, San Diego’s voters will likely prevail against Bishop Maher’s vision of the church and send Lucy Killea to the state Senate, a victory that would give pro-choice advocates a 21-19 edge in that house of California’s Legislature. Reasons for that forecast reside in our past.
From Plymouth Rock to San Diego Bay, American origins produced an understanding about religious civility. No religion, hierarchical or otherwise, would be established by the state or be permitted exclusive rights. Thanksgiving affirms that civility. We understand, however dimly, that the holiday involves the intertwining of political and religious liberty.
Religious traditions based on hierarchy and authority did find their place in the United States. But Tocqueville got it right. Most Americans--often in political matters and particularly in religious ones--do not accept “any man’s word as proof of anything.” Undoubtedly some voters will be influenced by Bishop Maher and decide that Killea is not fit to serve. Politically, however, Maher’s forthrightness will backfire--if not by aiding Killea on Tuesday, then by alienating further the millions of American Catholics who are already discomfited by their church’s stance on a wide range of sexually related issues.
But one should pause before agreeing completely with critics who take Maher simply to be heavy-handed, more imprudent than adroit. As a bishop, Maher is responsible for his church’s integrity no less than elected political leaders are responsible for the integrity of their government. In good conscience, he can no more allow members of his church to reject its teaching with impunity--especially when the actions of a particularly visible member have the effect of contradicting that teaching publicly--than elected political leaders can blithely allow lawbreakers in their jurisdiction to proceed unhindered.
Some teachings of Maher’s church, like some laws at times, may be unjust and rightly subject to change. But neither Maher’s conscience nor the traditional religious authority that informs his position on abortion finds that to be the case now. The bishop’s action against Lucy Killea has its logic and authenticity.
This week between Thanksgiving and San Diego’s special election, as we keep struggling with the immense issues that abortion raises, we should give thanks for our religious and political diversity, including the commitment and civility on which it depends. Let it encompass the likes of Carol Bentley, Lucy Killea and, at least a bit, those of Bishop Maher as well. Their collision could produce better religious teaching and sounder public policy.