Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Render unto Caesar

Oh, that fragile wall of separation, so prone to dents and leaks.  Conventional wisdom has it that we are the
most religious Western democracy.  How
deep, widespread and enduring that religiosity is can be debated.  What’s clear is that some among those
seeking to maintain religion’s preeminence continue their assault on the
barriers erected by the Founders to separate church and state.  Nowhere was that more evident than in
the healthcare bill recently passed by the House.  Nowhere was the incursion more blatant.

Emblematic of that (as reported
by the AP’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis) was Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick’s call
made from Rome to Speaker Nancy Pelosi shortly before the final vote.  McCarrick, and staffers of the U.S.
Conference of Bishops who spent three subsequent hours lobbying the Speaker,
wanted to make sure that the bill specifically excluded the public funding of
abortions, with a provision that, in its sweeping application, exceeds the
restrictions embodied in the 1976 (Henry) Hyde Amendment.  Pelosi was told in no uncertain terms
that her Church was ready to withhold support of healthcare reform if its
demands were not met.

This is not the first time Catholic or other clergy have been involved
in matters of public concern.  Father Theodore Hesburgh, President Emeritus of Notre Dame,
along with other priests, ministers and rabbis were forceful advocates of civil
rights.  President Eisenhower
appointed him a charter member of The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a body
he later chaired.  Catholic clergy
and lay leaders, as noted in earlier posts, have advocated tirelessly for the
poor and indeed for universal healthcare. 
Without question, Hesburgh and others like him rooted that advocacy and
activism in their individual faiths. 
But their views on those issues were hardly exclusive to religious
teaching.  Rather they could be
characterized as universal and faith agnostic, with civil rights more specifically
Constitutional than Biblical.  Even
there, activism among clergy always risked wall infringement and indeed I left
the active rabbinate during that period feeling my political engagement might ultimately
cross that line.

Abortion is totally different than civil rights.  Opposition to the termination of a
pregnancy has no medical foundation. 
Indeed there are times when doctors perform abortions to save the
mother’s life – which is why the House bill provides a specific exception in
such instances.  That’s important
to understand in the context of a healthcare bill and in fact the exception
itself only underscores the point. 
Blanket opposition to abortion is rooted purely in specific (and not
universally held) religious dogma.  It is not something motivated
by their faith but demanded by it on
theological grounds, on dictum not social conscience.  Cardinal McCarrick was speaking for that Church doctrine and
in his official capacity when he called Pelosi.  In doing so, he was willfully breaching the wall of

The abortion issue is perhaps the most explosive on our political
landscape.  People have been killed
over it.  It is also an issue that
blinds and often overlooks (on both sides) how very traumatic the decision to
abort can be for any woman (or couple for that matter), religious or not.  Women make decisions to proceed with an
unplanned pregnancy every day without any regard to religious teachings.  Conversely, other women bring babies to
term mandated by deep religious conviction, a right all should and do have in
this democracy.  Citizens must
always be guaranteed the right to express their views and to live by them; that
includes clergy and laity, the religious and the secular.  For some people, abortion is a question
of choice for others it is not.  I
may see your action as the result of choice but fully understand that you do
not consider it so; your beliefs afford no such option.  I am bound respect that view and most
importantly would defend it absolutely and unconditionally.

The wall of separation was not erected to undermine religion, quite
the contrary.  The Founders wanted
us all to be free to exercise religion or not as we saw fit and to be fully
protected by government in doing so. 
A key component of that protection is not to impose the religious
doctrine of one over the other. 
When it comes to abortion, the Church’s intervention does exactly
that.  The Roe decision didn’t
impose abortion on anyone; it simply didn’t deny abortion to a woman who chooses
to have one.  Think of this
analogy.  When someone eats roast
pork for dinner, she is not infringing on the rights of a Jew whose dietary
laws forbid her doing so.  That may
seem a trivial example, but in fact it is precisely its seeming lack of
equivalency the makes the point. 
We don’t get emotional about cuisine choices, but (leaving aside safety
hazards) they too are an important part of our fundamental rights.  Would a legislated imposition of eating
only fish on Fridays (a onetime Church dictum) or forbidding consumption of
pork be fundamentally any different than restricting the right (or covering the cost) to reproductive
choice?  I think not.

Before the Roe decision, abortions were performed across America and,
if the current Court ever reverses it, be assured that will continue to be the case.  The well off can always find solutions
to special problems and highly
competent practitioners willing to act behind closed doors when properly compensated for their service.  The problem then, and if the House
bill’s restrictions hold, was and is what happens to the financially disadvantaged.  They are those often most in danger of
unwanted pregnancies and least likely to have the resources to address them, not to
mention support an unwanted child. 
Many such women died as the result of back alley abortions, just as the
uninsured are dying today for lack of medical attention.  From that perspective alone, it is
ironic that a healthcare bill aimed to covering all will lead straight back to
those dark and foreboding alleys. 
Welcome to Cardinal McCarrick’s twenty-first century and to that
dangerously compromised wall of separation.   

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