The Catholic hierarchy is no doubt disappointed that the Blunt-Nelson amendment – designed to provide accommodation for those who, for reasons of conscience, find paying for contraceptive devices and abortifacients unpalatable – failed to pass in the Senate today, and I can easily understand why. Eighteen years ago, as John McCormack pointed out on Tuesday in an article posted on the website of The Weekly Standard, the precise language of that amendment was, as a matter of course, included in the healthcare proposal that came to be called Hillarycare. But, of course, that was then, and this is now. In 1994, the Democrats in the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives were eager to avoid offending the Roman Catholic Church and its faithful adherents, and now, with exceedingly rare exceptions, they are intent on humiliating that church and its adherents.
The bishops, priests, and nuns of the American Catholic Church may be dismayed, but they should not be in any way surprised. The situation that they now find themselves in is one of their own making. Thirty-eight years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision inRoe v. Wade, the country was resolutely hostile to abortion on demand. At that time, many Democratic politicians, not all of them Catholic, announced their opposition to abortion. For a time, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in their number. Had the Church pressed the question resolutely at the time, the 5-4 court decision would quickly have been reversed. As Mr. Dooley was wont to say, the Supreme Court follows the election returns.
But, of course, under the leadership of Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, who became President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in 1974, the hierarchy chose to soft-pedal the issue, treating abortion as one among a number of issues, such as the death penalty and the public provision of healthcare, that Catholics should take into consideration when voting in local, state, and national elections. Nowhere did the bishops expressly say that outlawing abortion was no more important than providing healthcare and eliminating the death penalty, but by treating these issues all as part of a “seamless web,” Bernardin and his supporters implied as much.
Moreover, thanks to the efforts of Bernardin and those of his adherents whom he installed as his successors atop the NCCB in later years, Catholic politicians came to realize that they could with impunity publically repudiate the teaching of the Church to which they professed to belong and propagate the notion that pregnant women had a right to kill their children as yet unborn. Mario Cuomo was the pioneer. He tested the waters, encountered criticism, and came away politically unscathed. Before long, virtually every Catholic who held elective office as a member of the Democratic Party occupied the ground that he had cleared. No one was excommunicated for taking this stand. Next to no one was publically reprimanded, and the faithful were never once told that they could not in good conscience vote for pro-abortion candidates. In the meantime, thanks to the silence of a host of clergymen who gave only lip service (if even that) to the notion that abortion is murder, more than forty million unborn Americans were deprived of their lives. It would not be too much to say that those who remained silent in the face of this have blood on their hands.
The Blunt-Nelson amendment failed to pass the Senate today for one reason and one reason only. The supporters of abortion-on-demand are serious about the matter. They will do what it takes to punish at the polls any Democrat who crosses them. The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States have spent almost four decades intimating with a wink and a nod that they are not really serious about this question. In the process, they have made themselves politically irrelevant.
For the first time in memory, however, the leadership of the American Church has fallen into the hands of a man who appears to have a backbone. We will soon learn what Timothy Dolan, Cardinal-Archbishop of New York, and his episcopal colleagues across the country are made of.
It is not easy to recoup moral authority that one has spent four decades in squandering. It will take a supreme effort on their part. It will take courage. It will take determination and grit. And it will take humility – for it cannot be done if the bishops do not first admit to themselves and to the rest of us that they have been party for a very long time to a pact with the devil. Renewal begins with repentance. If the Church Flatulent does not now become again the Church Militant, in the United States, it will be regarded from now on as the Church Irrelevant.