Late Edition: An Army of One?

“As your bishop, I have to say clearly that anyone—politician or otherwise— who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the Church. Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart.”

The speaker was Bishop William K. Weigand of Sacramento, on the occasion of Roe v. Wade’s 30th anniversary on January 22. Although he might have been speaking of numerous Catholic politicians—a dozen may be found in the U.S. Senate alone, including a couple of presidential wannabes Weigand’s specific target was California’s aggressively pro-abortion governor, Gray Davis. Like many another Catholic officeholder, Davis knows how to rise above principle when votes are to be had. He dines out on his religious affiliation, at least when it is not inconvenient to do so, while garnering support, contributions, and applause from the likes of the California Abortion Rights Action League.

Bishop Weigand’s statement drew blood. Davis responded by trotting out his spokesman, Russ Lopez, who said the governor takes pride in his pro- abortion record and “will not back down.” Not content with defending the indefensible, Lopez went on to instruct Bishop Weigand on his episcopal duties, chastising him for “telling the faithful how to practice their faith.”

There, in a nutshell, you have the modern liberal argument on the metes and bounds of church and state: Politicians may instruct bishops, but bishops must never instruct politicians or even, on Lopez’s reckoning, the people in the pews. Lopez’s arrogant presumption—Davis’s really—did not spring full-blown overnight. It was nurtured by three decades of episcopal lassitude and timidity in failing to uphold Church teaching. Over the years, Catholic officeholders have dis-covered not only that bishops don’t bite but that most of them don’t even bark. Davis’s behavior, in short, is learned behavior.

In the immediate aftermath of Roe v. Wade, many Catholic politicians sought to straddle the issue by invoking the mantra, “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but….” When only a few bishops ventured to pierce the self-serving sophistry of that particular rhetorical dodge, the politicians soon adopted the formula as their default mode, secure in the knowledge that no one in the pews would be roused against them. It was no surprise, therefore, when Geraldine Ferraro embraced it, without much criticism, during her 1984 vice-presidential bid. In that same year, then-Governor Mario Cuomo of New York raised the ante in a much-touted lecture at Notre Dame by arguing, in effect, that in a pluralistic society, a Catholic office-holder was under no moral obligation to do anything about abortion.

Significantly, the principal reply was delivered not by a cleric but by the estimable Congressman Henry Hyde, a man of true courage who has thought long and deeply about what it means to be a serious Catholic in a secular society. In the absence of any substantial episcopal criticism, however, it was Cuomo’s formulation that carried the day. Catholic politicians took due note. Henceforth, conscience would be king, and never mind how conscience was formed. It was only a short step from there to the conclusion, now widely embraced by many Catholics, that one is free to think whatever he wants about abortion regardless of Church teaching or the natural moral law.

Cuomo’s casuistry was subtle, even graceful, when compared with the self-serving crudities that have followed in its wake. Besides, Cuomo had enough sense to know what should not be said, at least explicitly. Davis, by contrast, is not only not embarrassed when he opposes his Church, he takes pride in doing so. The effect of his example goes beyond mere scandal; it is literally demoralizing—which is why Davis carried the Catholic vote by 14 percent last November.

All hail to Bishop Weigand for his courage, but the question persists: Where were California’s bishops while Davis was clawing his way to the top? The Golden State’s leading prelate, Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, has so far declined to comment on Bishop Weigand’s homily, a fact that surprises no one. Meanwhile, Catholic politicians, who know how to count, are watching and waiting to see whether Weigand is an army of one or whether his fellow bishops are serious about defending the Faith.


  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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