Monday, November 17, 2008

Some Thoughts on the USCCB Fall Meeting

The following are some thoughts regarding the Fall Meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). They are specifically concerned with Francis CARD. George's statement on the election of Barack Obama, and CARD. George's speech to the plenary assembly, largely concerned with the same issue. My approach is thematic (I shall move between the texts, treating them organically).

The first thing that catches my attention is the care that the Cardinal takes to strike the proper tone, even as he directs the attention of his audience to the substance of their business. He quotes the Holy Father, and more broadly cites Pope Benedict's treatment of Ps. 118, the 89th verse of which reads In aeternum, Domine, verbum tuum constitutum est in caelo / in generationem et generationem / veritas tua firmasti terram, et permanet.

This reminds his listeners that they are about divine things, and need to be guided by God in their doings, for it is He, who has entrusted them with their tasks (indeed, they have tasks, and not hobbies, preceisely because God has given them to perform). It reminds them of the consequence, the pitch and moment, of the transactions they are about to undertake. It tells them that he is seriously about serious business, as are they. At the same time, it is an expression of hope: whatever difficulties, whatever challenges, whatever powers, earthly or preternatural, are or might be arrayed against them, the Word of God is fixed and sustains all things in Heaven and on Earth.

Cardinal George then places the work of the bishops in temporal context. The bishops are gathered in the interim between a presidential election and the inauguration:
Symbolically, this is a moment that touches more than our history when a country that once enshrined race slavery in its very constitutional order should come to elect an African American to the presidency. In this, I truly believe, we must all rejoice. We must also hope that President [sic] Obama succeed in his task, for the good of all. The odds against success are formidable. We are internally divided and, in a global order, we will be less the masters of our economic and political fate. Nevertheless, we can rejoice today with those who, following heroic figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were part of a movement to bring our country’s civil rights, our legal order, into better accord with universal human rights, God’s order. Among so many people of good will, dutiful priests and loving religious women, bishops and lay people of the Catholic Church who took our social doctrine to heart then can feel vindicated now. Their successors remain, especially among those who quietly give their lives to teaching and forming good and joyful children in Catholic schools in African American and other minority communities.
Cardinal George first recognizes the significance of Obama's election, for the United States and for the larger human community. He notes the need for prayer, especially in light of the obstacles facing the nation: internal division; global economic crisis; international political uncertainty in part created by and sustained by 'globalization'.

What follows deserves close attention. The Cardinal's invocation of Martin Luther King and the heritage of the movement he championed correctly identifies the spirit of that movement; it even alludes to Dr. King's own interpretation of his mission in and for America. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes:
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Jim Crow was not unjust because of some formal or procedural irregularity in the way it was implemented; it was unjust because it was a positive enshrinement in law of an incorrect understanding of the human person and therefore of the constitution of society (N.B. I mean "constitution" here, not in the positive legal sense of "fundamental law" but in the basic sense of the word that is more closely linked to the Latin constituor from which the English is derived). Plessy v. Ferguson was, as a matter of fact, bad Constitutional law. The Supreme Court was able to make bad law in 1897 because of the lingering social disorder that, in its heyday, produced the 1857 Dred Scott decision, about which Cardinal Goerge had the following to say:
If the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that African Americans were other people’s property and somehow less than persons were still settled constitutional law, Mr. Obama would not be president of the United States. Today, as was the case a hundred and fifty years ago, common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good.
It is important to note here that Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford was arguably a correct interpretation of the Constitution of the United States as it was in 1857. Dred led many opponents of slavery to realize that there was no way to achieve national conciliation under the Constitution, and it led many proponents of slavery to realize that their way of life depended on the continuous expansion of the institution at its base. It was, in short, a catalyst of civil war.

The implications for the present crisis in our national conscience are palpable: abortion is evil, as slavery is evil, and attempts to force national unity by treating Roe simply as settled law must fail. Roe is not really sustainable on its merits (as Plessy was not), and continued reinforcement of it will lead to a situation practically the same as that, which obtained in 1857. Take another historical parallel: there was a worldwide financial crisis in 1857, the effects of which were still being strongly felt in the 1860 election. Take this with Americans' verifiable historical tendency to conduct rigorous moral introspection and inventory when they are faced with serious economic adversity, and the timeliness of Cardinal George's remarks becomes soberingly, even frighteningly unquestionable.

In sum, the Cardinal President of the USCCB is saying that the President-elect's pro-abortion stance seriously curtails and quite possibly impeaches his standing to claim the magnificent heritage of America's civil rights movement, and threatens to exacerbate the division present today in American society to such a point, that only violent arbitration might make remedy possible.

Cardinal George is also at pains to make it clear that we are not yet arrived at such a point: we have already seen how he has praised the President-elect's historic achievement, and promised to work with the new administration in all areas where common endeavor is possible. This is extremely important: Catholics have a duty to be engaged in the political process, now more than ever - the Church is not merely on the planet, it is in the world; they have a right to be engaged in the political process precisely as Catholics - on their their way to the public square, Catholics need not, indeed they must not hang their faith on the coat rack by their houses' front doors:
On this issue, the legal protection of the unborn, the bishops are of one mind with Catholics and others of good will. They are also pastors who have listened to women whose lives have been diminished because they believed they had no choice but to abort a baby. Abortion is a medical procedure that kills, and the psychological and spiritual consequences are written in the sorrow and depression of many women and men. The bishops are single-minded because they are, first of all, single-hearted.
The recent election was principally decided out of concern for the economy, for the loss of jobs and homes and financial security for families, here and around the world. If the election is misinterpreted ideologically as a referendum on abortion, the unity desired by President-elect Obama and all Americans at this moment of crisis will be impossible to achieve. Abortion kills not only unborn children; it destroys constitutional order and the common good, which is assured only when the life of every human being is legally protected. Aggressively pro-abortion policies, legislation and executive orders will permanently alienate tens of millions of Americans, and would be seen by many as an attack on the free exercise of their religion.
Cardinal George's statements are erudite, balanced, pastorally sensitive and nuanced, while at the same time clear, powerful and uncompromising on the fundamental issues of morality, which have always been at the heart of the American mind, and have always informed our quest for freedom: a quest that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, "From the dawn of the republic...has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator."

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