Message from the President

The Bishops’ Fig Leaf


Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice


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 The US Conference of Catholic Bishops was severely embarrassed at the end of the recent debate over healthcare reform. After seeming to be front and center as the negotiations closed, the bishops were outmaneuvered by a coalition of religious sisters who had the temerity to decide that flawed healthcare reform was better than no healthcare reform at all. Thus it was that Sister Carol Keehan and not Cardinal Francis George received a presidential bill-signing pen. That must have hurt.However, rather than acknowledging their failures and the problems associated with seeing everything through the prism of abortion, the US bishops this week returned to the fray, issuing a statement about the recent case involving Sr. Margaret McBride. In that case, the local bishop, Thomas Olmsted, declared that Sr. McBride, who is a hospital administrator and a member of the ethics committee, was excommunicated because of her alleged action in approving an abortion for a pregnant woman whose life was threatened by her pregnancy.

As a result of that case, the bishops felt required to issue yet another statement on abortion, seeking to once more clarify their position. The Distinction between Direct Abortion and Legitimate Medical Procedures is the result.

Obviously, this is not the first time that the Catholic hierarchy has involved itself in a public policy debate. In fact, the hierarchy has a long history of involving itself in such debates. On many occasions, the bishops do good work and provide support for the social justice issues that most Catholics hold dear. On other occasions, the bishops miss the mark, sometimes by a long way.

While I do believe that the bishops can and should take positions on public policy, I also believe that they need to be held accountable when they do so. In fact, we can point to three criteria which are important when considering whether the legitimacy of any position the bishops take.

  • Is it based on fact?
  • Are the bishops claiming to represent themselves or all Catholics?
  • Does their position reflect the pluralism that exists in American society?

On all three levels, the bishops’ position on abortion falls down. I could go through the most recent statement exhaustively, but let’s take two examples, one at the beginning and one at the end. In the headline the bishops make their first error; “The Distinction between Direct Abortion and Legitimate Medical Procedures.” Only to the bishops is an abortion not a “legitimate” medical procedure. They may disagree with abortion; they may wish to make it illegal, but it is a legitimate medical procedure. It doesn’t get much better after that. The statement is riddled with unfounded assertions, misstatements and half-truths. I can point, for just one other example, to the opening sentence of the final paragraph: “Nothing, therefore, can justify a direct abortion.” Nothing? Really? Do the bishops expect anybody to take them seriously?

On the second criterion, I find that the bishops’ statement also falls short. The church hierarchy’s opposition to contraception, abortion and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS is well known, as is its opposition to IVF treatments for the infertile and embryonic stem-cell research. However, while even the bishops don’t always speak with one voice on these issues, it is patently clear that they do not represent the views and actions of all Catholics. The world over, Catholics think and act independently, practicing what is best for their families and themselves. If this was intended to be a statement on behalf of the bishops, fine. But that does not appear to be the case at all.

Finally, the statement appears to be a directive to all Americans, Catholic or not. This is simply unacceptable. The bishops may wish that everybody did their bidding, but they have no right to expect it. Indeed, according to the Vatican’s own teachings, even in a predominantly Catholic country laws governing access to abortion need not adhere to the official Catholic position. The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom reinforced the call for Catholics to respect the positions of people of other faiths. This is particularly significant given that the Catholic church’s position on reproductive matters, including abortion, is more conservative than that of other major faith groups and the bishops’ position on abortion is shared by only a tiny minority of Catholics: eleven percent, according to their own polling.

It is incumbent on all Catholics to inform themselves of the facts in any given case before they cast judgment. Interestingly, during the Catholic healthcare debate, the bishops themselves were only too willing to reject the views of medical personnel who supported healthcare reform and disagreed with what the bishops had to say. To our knowledge, none of the US bishops has a medical degree. But they were only too willing to opine on medical facts in their desire to reject healthcare reform that did not meet their own strict criteria.

I have no problem in the bishops dictating to members of our church what we should believe about our faith and religious traditions. But when it comes to matters that have nothing to do with religious belief but rather relate to public policy, then I do have a problem.

The bishops appear to have forgotten that individual conscience in matters of moral decision making is at the core of the Catholic tradition—and the public policy views of Catholics in the United States reflect this tradition. Catholics, like people of other faiths, believe that abortion should be legal and support its availability. Like the majority of Catholics nationwide, I support policies that help ensure affordable contraception, safe and legal abortions, comprehensive sexuality education and affordable healthcare for all people in this country.

Protection of religious freedom is mandatory and guaranteed in our pluralistic society. Thankfully, there are Catholics in public life who want to inform their actions by their faith, their conscience and the voices of their constituents. They want to protect the freedoms of all Americans, from every faith group and no faith group. They know that by letting conscience and voters guide them—and not bending to the dictates of the Catholic bishops—they will best serve all Americans.

Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien:
Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics

Catholics for Choice