A Reply to Fr. Michael Tegeder
By Christopher R. Altieri, Ph.L.
Copyright, 2009 - All RIghts Reserved
Fr. Michael Tegeder of Minneapolis-St. Paul., has written a piece for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, ostensibly regarding a tactical element of the US Catholic Bishops’ planned opposition to a bill for the regulation of abortion law in the United States, proposed for passage into law during the last Congress, and known as the Freedom of Choice Act, or FOCA. Fr. Tegeder’s remarks call for a reply.
There is so much wrong with the form, the matter and the presentation of Fr. Tegeder’s considerations, that the critic of them is embarrassed – he knows not where to begin. So this critic will begin at the beginning, and treat Fr. Tegeder’s remarks point-by-point.
Fr. Tegeder’s incipit contains language that, while perhaps not technically incorrect, certainly strikes a tone that is rather inconsonant with the Catholic understanding of priesthood. He says, “When I signed up 35 years ago to be a priest...,” language that, if not strictly incorrect, conveys nothing of the Catholic understanding of priesthood as vocation. This is not only imprecise as a matter of technical usage. It is misleading to the larger public, and as such is especially irresponsible from a journalist who is also a Catholic priest.
In the same opening paragraph, indeed in the same opening sentence, Fr. Tegeder claims that mass mailings play a central role in the Church’s ministry, and implies shock at learning this particular. “Little did I realize,” he says, “that postcards would become an essential tool of ministry in the Catholic Church."
He proceeds to instance two occasions, beginning “a few years ago, " in which the Catholic Church has engaged in mass mailing regarding specific political questions. By Fr. Tegeder’s own account, only twice in his three and one-half decades has the Church conducted such campaigns, beginning in the early years of the first decade of the 21st century, with a statewide initiative of the Church in Minnesota. This hardly qualifies mass mailing as an essential tool even of political advocacy, which is the object, for the advancement of which they were employed in the first place. To assign mass mailing so much as an ancillary role on the margins of ministry were utterly impossible, based on the evidence, unless Fr. Tegeder understands, or would have his readership believe, that Catholic ministry consists essentially in political advocacy.
Catholic ministry, however, consists utterly in winning souls for Heaven. Everything pertaining essentially to it is related directly to this one, great object. Other of the Church’s activities, e.g. participation in the political life of the larger community, have only an indirect, or mediate relation to the great object. Confusion on this central point has been largely responsible for disastrous damage to the body of Christ and to the body politic. Fr. Tegeder’s remarks, insofar as they arise from and extend this confusion, beg for denunciation.
If Fr. Tegeder’s confusion were confined solely to the formal misunderstanding of ministry, we could stop here. The matter that has occasioned his confused expressions, however, is of such pitch and moment, that we cannot omit further indictment of his writing.
The first instance of mass mailing is a postcard campaign undertaken in the early years of the present decade, advocating amendment of the Constitution of the United States, so that the instrument would define marriage as being between one man and one woman. The prudence of such an amendment is admittedly debatable, but the danger to civilized society that occasioned the action is unquestionable. Marriage is the basic natural institution, on which society as such is built. When governments arrogate to themselves the power to alter the structure of marriage by positive law, by fiat, they essentially arrogate to themselves ultimate power over nature. A government that is not naturally limited in the scope of its power is total and absolute – the presence or absence of divisions within the elements of its machinery, of internal checks and balances, to use the current political coin, were entirely irrelevant. There was a manifest tendency toward political absolutism, under the guise of “civil rights” as these pertain to marriage law; it shall ever be the duty of free peoples to combat such tendencies.
Fr. Tegeder says, “I did not see this [mailing measure] as necessary,” and announces, “it seemed a waste of time and money.” This may or may not be the case, but it is also beside the point. Fr. Tegeder betrays no understanding of the gravity of the political crisis that occasioned the measure, in the first place. When he goes on the say, “[The measure] also generated some unnecessary ill will,” his readers may be sure he has no such understanding, for though the mailing may have generated some ill will, the nature of the case makes it more likely that the measure acted as a lighting rod for the ill will there already was. In any case, Fr. Tegeder’s is precisely the kind of claim a responsible journalist would instance. Instances are not, however, forthcoming.
More to the point, sometimes, it is necessary to take a stand, and as the actions of dozens of states in the wake of Goodridge attest, such a time had come. Recent developments in California show that the time is not yet passed.
The recent election cycle, which ended with the victory of Barack Obama, has given the nation much cause for rejoicing, though our joy is tempered by some of the president-elect’s stated policy and legislative aims. Specifically, he has promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. The Catholic bishops have promised to oppose the FOCA, even as they endeavor to work with the new administration in areas of common concern and interest. Tegeder casts aspersions on the opportunity of the bishops’ planned opposition, citing the ongoing wars, economic uncertainties, and crises both ecological and social, saying, “This should be a time to focus on what unites us.” This is true. It is precisely the point. The bishops wrote in their November letter congratulating the president-elect:
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.
The bishops’ opposition to the FOCA is aimed precisely at keeping the nation’s focus on what unites us. It invites the president-elect to avoid pursuing a legislative agenda that would permanently alienate millions of Americans who would otherwise be happy to support him. When Fr. Tegeder says, “Yet at this very moment, the Catholic bishops have declared that they have this more pressing need,” we are forced to ask whether government has any more pressing need than the protection inviolate of all innocent life? Can a society that is indifferent to the plight of its weakest members be expected adequately to address challenges of such magnitude as those presently facing the American people?
Fr. Tegeder says, “FOCA is a phantom threat.” It has, according to one commentator he quotes, “as much chance of passage as the Detroit Lions have of winning the next Super Bowl.” It seems Fr. Tegeder has a low opinion of the president-elect’s coattails, on which he would, however, stake the government’s ability to address the other issues facing the nation.
To be sure, the face of FOCA is heinous. It would vacate all state-level legislation restricting abortion, and make it virtually impossible for states to enact abortion legislation of any kind. Thus, Fr. Tegeder’s claim to the effect that the FOCA is destined to fail because it would limit the power of Congress to regulate abortion is absurd. A Federal act is a creature of its enactor, so the enactor, Congress, could at any time destroy its creature, which exists entirely at its pleasure. As it stands, the FOCA, far from limiting Congressional power, would place all power to regulate abortion squarely with Congress. Fr. Tegeder’s claim is not simply false; it is so ridiculous as to be beyond cavil.
Section 4b (1) & (2) [go to Thomas.loc.gov and search the legislative database for s. 1173 ] of FOCA makes it virtually impossible for states to restrict abortion in any way, shape or form. In proposing to grant women effectively unlimited access to abortion, the legislators are motivated by a concern that “[I]ndividuals are free to make their most intimate decisions without governmental interference and discrimination. [@2.(1)]” This concern of the bill's proponents is a consequence of their belief that, “The United States was founded on core principles, such as liberty, personal privacy, and equality.” The bill, in short, is designed to protect the right of certain citizens to act according to conscience. In effect, the bill would guarantee this right to one class of citizens, namely women, by denying it to another, namely medical professionals. Pro-life doctors are no less conscientiously motivated in their refusal to perform abortions, than are women who seek abortions. To require a doctor to perform abortions as a condition of his practice of the medical profession at all (and this would be the effect, or a direct consequence, of the current language of the bill), is precisely to deny doctors the right, “to make their most intimate decisions without governmental interference and discrimination.” This is precisely the right, the exercise of which by a certain class of citizens the bill is designed to protect. So the FOCA is what Martin Luther King, jr. called in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “an inequality made legal.”
Without clear exemptions for those medical professionals conscientiously opposed to abortion, the FOCA will not only be unjust, as the plain language of the bill itself amply attests, it will be unjust in precisely the same way that Jim Crow was unjust.
Fr. Tegeder, this is why the Catholic bishops oppose the FOCA. More to this, they oppose it because, as Cardinal George says in the aforementioned letter he wrote for the bishops in November of 2008:
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.
In other words, 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.
In light of this, we see that the FOCA is not a “phantom threat.” It is a most serious menace to our whole way of life; if it is passed, it will make the very propositions to which our society is committed, and on which our whole mode of governance is based, contentious. That man is endowed by his creator with certain unalienable rights, first among them life, will become an unavoidable matter of legal contention.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
From the dawn of the republic, America’s quest for freedom 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. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations. (South Lawn Address, 16 April, 2008)
Let us be a part of the tradition, to the greatness of which our Holy Father has given such eloquent tribute.
Fr. Tegeder, revisit the bishops’ November letter, and ask yourself whether the plain language of it is really so “divisive” as you say, or whether the bishops have not already extended good will to the president-elect; then ask yourself whether opposition to the FOCA in some form is necessary, and if you find that it is, ask yourself whether a mass mailing campaign is really imprudent. Finally, take your own advice, and be gracious.