The Body Politic and the Body of Christ

Published June 29, 2004

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

On Wednesday, June 23, 2004, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel debated Fr. Thomas Reese (editor-in-chief of America: The National Catholic Weekly) on the controversy over communion for Catholic politicians who break with Church teaching, particularly on abortion.

Herewith, excerpts from Mr. Weigel’s remarks:

  • On public argumentation: The Catholic pro-life position is in no sense a sectarian position. This, unfortunately, is what Senator Kerry seems to suggest when he says, “I have this set of Catholic convictions over here, but there are these several matters of public policy and I will get to the unsettled nature of those in a minute over here, and for me to bring these Catholic convictions to that public policy sphere would be an untoward imposition of a peculiarly Catholic set of ideas into a pluralistic political environment.”Now as I have said for the last four months, this is really quite absurd. For 31 years, the Catholic Church has been making public arguments in public terms that do not require specific Catholic theological commitments to engage. You don’t have to believe in seven sacraments or the primacy of the pope or the Christology of the Council of Chalcedon. You don’t even have to believe in God to engage the Catholic Church’s pro-life argument.

    When Catholic politicians suggest that the Catholic pro-life position is somehow analogous to the Catholic Church insisting that every American stop eating hot dogs on Fridays during Lent, that’s a misrepresentation of the nature and character of the Catholic position, so we have to underscore that very strongly. The bishops of the United States ever since Roe v. Wade have not made what can in any reasonable way be described as a sectarian argument for the inviolability of the right to life from conception to natural death. They have used public arguments, public philosophical arguments: they have appealed to embryology, to logic, to elementary ideas of justice, not to specifically Catholic warrants to make this case. And when Catholic politicians, of all people, suggest otherwise, they are doing not only a disservice to the Church, but a disservice to public life as well.

  • Contrasting the abortion issue to capital punishment: My understanding of the Catholic Church’s position on this today is that, while the state does have the legitimate right to execute a capital sentence, it ought not do so in most of the circumstances in which this is done now. Why? Because the state has other ways of protecting society against predatory individuals. That’s the prudential judgment that’s been made. I don’t think that’s an altogether satisfactory argument theologically, but we’re not here to argue moral theology.But the church has never said, and, frankly, could not say given 2,000 years of Catholic history, not to mention the Hebrew Bible which we inherited from our parent, Judaism – the church simply can’t say that capital punishment is malum in se, an evil in itself. It just can’t do that. It would be impossible to do that. The church can say, has said, and always will say that abortion and euthanasia are mala in se; that these are grave moral evils in and of themselves. Why? Because they always and everywhere involve the willful taking of an innocent human life, which capital punishment, properly done, let’s say, does not involve.

    The question of the overuse of the death penalty in the United States I think is an urgent issue in rebuilding a culture of life in America. But the two are not commensurable theologically, and I don’t think they’re commensurable culturally. I have an ongoing argument with my older daughter, who’s a medical student and thinks I’m inconsistent on this. I mean, she’s an abolitionist on capital punishment and a very sophisticated and smart one, and her argument is that this damages the culture of life, which is the necessary foundation of any legal protection of human life. And I’m sure she’s right in some sense, but I would say, as Father Reese said, that in some sense there is a numbers dimension to this. And you know, 1.6 million abortions per year, close to 40 million since Roe v. Wade, is – there’s a point at which those statistics indicate or underscore the fact that there’s a difference in kind and not just in degree between these two questions.

  • In response to a reporter who suggests that the Catholic Church cares about the beginning and end of life, but not “the middle”: Catholics aren’t single-issue voters, as everybody’s polling data indicates. But if there is a perception that Catholics are not interested in the middle, as you call it, permit me to suggest that that is a false perception created by the obsession of the American media with the abortion issue and the euthanasia issue, and indeed matters of the Catholic Church and sexual morality in general.The Catholic Church runs the largest, most successful independent school system helping impoverished kids in the country. If you want to see its results, you can go 10 blocks from here and see them. We run the largest independent health care system in the country, in which an enormous amount of resources are put into helping people who otherwise could not have access to quality health care. We do more for immigration services than any private-sector agency. If people don’t know about that, it is, frankly, because you are not telling them about that.

Click here to read the entire event transcript:

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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