'Always Keep The Church On Your Side'

The dispute between King Henry VIII of England and the Roman Catholic Church is too well known to require repeating. The conflict has been depicted in stage, screen, and television, sometimes quite accurately but generally the demands of drama have overshadowed the events of history. When Richard Burton played Henry in "Anne of a Thousand Days" and was pressed by a courtier to take actions that would lead to a break with the Church of Rome, Burton replied, "One thing my father taught me, ‘Always keep the Church on your side'."

Whether Henry VII, who was one of the shrewdest men ever to rule England, gave his son this advice or the incident was created by Hollywood is unknown. But Henry VIII allowed passion and calculation to lead him into a break with Rome that might have been disastrous for his dynasty and his country. The Roman Church allied with the power of Spain and France exerted great pressure on England, then a small and relatively poor island with a navy but without a standing army. Though the Church tried, it was not able to topple Henry VIII. Despite the failure by the Church, England might have returned to Catholicism in the natural course of events. If Henry's daughter Mary I -- Bloody Mary in history -- had not developed cancer or had children, England would have returned to Catholicism, for the influence of the crown over religious matters was paramount in the 16th Century. 

The Democratic Party seems to have forgotten the injunction of Henry VII and turned a silent ally into an open enemy. This transformation is all the more remarkable as historically the Party's most reliable voters arrived in this country as penniless immigrants from the Catholic parts of Europe and from Latin America. They took up the banner of the Democratic Party, and many remained with the Party despite a social and ideological alienation that has grown acute in recent years. Not only were most of the members of the Church staunch supporters of the Democratic Party, the economic and social doctrines of the Church dovetailed neatly with the agenda of the Party. So strong is the link between the political parties of the Left and the social policies of the Catholic Church that Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga - the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras and a man felt by many to be a candidate for the Papacy - recently called for global solidarity with the poor, attacked capitalism as "savage", and called for a return to socialism.

Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga does not speak for all bishops, especially those in the United States, but the sentiments about capitalism among the hierarchy are similar. Despite these feelings, the junction of historical affinity and shared policy goals has been sundered. Millions of Catholics voted for Barack Obama, ignoring the warnings of the hierarchy. The degree of influence that the Church holds over its votaries has been debated, often fiercely, for decades. Many -- particularly on the extreme Left or Right -- believe the Church has to but speak and millions of Catholics respond without thinking. Perhaps some do, but more sophisticated observers know the influence of the Church is far more subtle. Roman Catholics listen, seriously, to the words of their priest and bishops, but the laity ponders a range of opinions before deciding on a candidate or an issue.  

During the 2008 presidential election, the influence of the institutional Church was displayed openly. The Church produced a brilliant, almost dazzling, advertisement that was intended to educate Catholics as to the important issues in this election. The Church proclaimed the message as educational and attempted evenhandedness by displaying the candidates of both major parties. Yet no attempt at evenhandedness could miss the message: any candidate who supports abortion can count on the opposition of the institutional Roman Catholic Church. And for the first time, Catholic bishops penned pronouncements and homilies condemning the actions of Catholic Democrats who support abortion. The split between the Church and the Democratic Party will become more pronounced if the new Obama Administration and the congressional leadership decide to push the Freedom of Choice Act through Congress and press for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. The former would codify the Roe v. Wade decision and allow abortion all through pregnancy; the latter would remove the federal prohibition on recognition of same sex marriage. 

Barack Obama and the Democratic Party believe they have compelling reasons for supporting legalized abortion. They rely on the Roe v. Wade decision to buttress the legal argument; and they rely on the political support of Planned Parenthood, various women's political organizations, segments of the mainline Protestant churches, labor unions, wealthy elites, the secular media and academia, and the Left, organized and unorganized. Most importantly, many Americans are indifferent to the issue or view it as either a personal decision or as one of many political issues upon which they base choices for public office.

These groups, aided by a legal and political system that gives great power to established practices, should furnish enough power to buttress the Democratic Party and Roman Catholic officeholders who are Democrats against the opposition of the institutional Roman Catholic Church -- and from evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews who have joined forces (perhaps uncomfortably) to fight an issue of common concern. Under normal circumstances, Democrats should be safe, but these are not normal times, and abortion is not a normal issue.

The Democratic Party faced a similar problem before. From the beginning of the Republic, the issue of slavery lay across the political landscape, not as a scar of dead tissue but as an open wound that separated region from region and family from family. At times the wound suppurated, as it did 1828 when Henry Clay drained it by engineering the Missouri Compromise. But compromises never resolved the issue. Most of the political class attempted to ignore the issue, but at the extremes of the issue, abolitionists and radical Southerners, gathered their strength for what both sides knew would be a final showdown.

In March, 1857, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision which declared that persons of African descent were not citizens of the United States and had no standing to sue under the Constitution; the decision proclaimed that slaves were property subject to all the rights that attach to chattel; more importantly, the decision raised the possibility that slavery might be introduced into states and territories where local custom and law prohibited it. Chief Justice Taney's hope that this decision would put an end to the conflict over slavery had the opposite effect. The decision fortified the determination of radicals in the South who were determined to expand slavery into the West and resume the slave trade; and the decision inflamed opinion in the North, particularly among those who had remained aloof from the quarrel.

Before Dred Scott, the majority in the North rejected the demands of the Abolitionists for immediate and uncompensated freedom for slaves. Most Northerners were willing to tolerate slavery as long as the Peculiar Institution was confined to the South. The Dred Scott decision brought home to the North the possibility, however remote, that one day their states might become home to large populations of slaves. The decision had the effect of bringing together two groups hitherto separated by politics, economics, education and culture: the free soil farmers of the Midwest and the radical abolitionists of New England. From this union, the Republican Party was formed.  

Democrats faced the issue of abolition with the same tactics as they face the issue of abortion: by attempting to finesse the issue, by attempting to be all things to both sides.

In the Fall of 1858, Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas in a race for a Senate seat from Illinois. Lincoln's condemnation of slavery was unequivocal. Douglas' equivocations about slavery were similar to those that come from Catholic Democrats when confronted with questions about abortion: I oppose abortion personally but will not support any action that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Douglas was not evil or unintelligent, but he believed, sincerely, that Lincoln's policy would lead to the dissolution of the union. Liberal Catholics are possessed of the same mindset when they believe they can remain in the Church and support abortion, Douglas believed, foolishly, in compromise when compromise was no longer possible.

If one examines the issue solely in constitutional terms, Douglas' position was stronger. Slavery is woven through the text of the Constitution. At the time of the Revolution and the formation of the United States, those in the North knew that blacks were held as slaves in the South; indeed, many Northern states did not abolish slavery until the second decade of the 19th Century. And the South's position was buttressed by the Dred Scott decision, which was decided not by a narrowly divided Supreme Court by seven votes to two. Yet Lincoln spoke for moral conscience, while the South spoke for legal rights based on a Supreme Court decision. The latter possesses the external strength of the state; the former possesses the great internal strength that comes from nagging and troubling sense that actions are not right simply because a court, however supreme, declares them so.

As with slavery, churches have divided over abortion. A few enfeebled mainline Protestant churches support abortion, but most religious groups oppose. Yet only the Catholic Church possesses the institutional strength to transmit that opposition across generations and down the hierarchy from diocese to parish. And as it the largest Christian church in the United States, the reach of the Roman Church spans the United States.

The opposition of the Roman Church has not resulted in a reversal of Roe v. Wade, nor is a reversal likely within a decade. The Supreme Court is narrowly divided on the issue, and those justices who are most opposed are those whose instincts incline them to be hesitant about overturning precedents however distasteful. At least two and possibly three justices have indicated, at least indirectly, that they wish to retire, and those who are most likely to leave are supporters of Roe v. Wade. Barack Obama is certain to appoint justices to the Court who are firm supporters of Roe.

How do the leaders of the Democratic Party view the opposition of the Church of Rome? With anger, no doubt, as Democrats view their position as cloaked in the right of privacy as proclaimed by the Supreme Court. Democrats have expended considerable money reminding lay Catholics of their historic ties to the Party and of support by Democrats for the kitchen table issues that are critical to many working class Catholic families. The tactic has worked with many lay Catholics but not with the bishops, as they view abortion as a transcendent issue. Democrats who ignore episcopal opposition should remember that the Roman Church is the world's oldest and largest organization with an institutional memory that spans centuries.

If Democrats view Catholic opposition with anger, they also view it with resignation, determination, and a barely concealed smugness. So far, the Party has thwarted all attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade and may be in a position to appoint justices who will affirm Roe for the next two decades. But Democrats should beware. Roman Catholic bishops are not self-ordained preachers who decide that affixing the dignity of bishop to their names will impress the gullible.

Bishops of the Church of Rome are intelligent men who have been screened, tested, and selected by one of the most sophisticated personnel systems ever devised. They will not give up, and they will not cease opposition to abortion because five Supreme Court justices decide that a woman's right to privacy is more important than the right of a baby to life or if justices should decide that same sex couples have the right to marry. If the bishops are united in their opposition to abortion, they are divided on the means they should use. Some bishops have rebuked abortion supporters; other bishops have confined their opposition to issuing statements; and others have said nothing, perhaps preferring private suasion to public condemnation. No bishop, as far as is known, has threatened excommunication, the ultimate sanction and the only penalty that might persuade recalcitrant Catholics that the hierarchy is as determined to end abortion on demand as it was to prevent England from converting to Protestantism.

In the 21st Century, Henry VIII is viewed as a ridiculous, porcine figure who had six wives. Those who lived during Henry's life knew that he was an intelligent and perceptive man who chose his allies and his enemies with care. He broke with Rome, but not before a careful consideration of all the risks. He acted as he did because he felt he compelled to do so, but he knew that all things being equal it was better to keep the Church on your side. Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress should ponder that.
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