Scenes from Three Churches

Scene 1. An old friend, a confirmed Catholic, a seasoned pro-lifer, exasperated with the Republican Party, endorsed Barack Obama during the last election. The news of his defection spread, and it just seemed all the worse when it became clear that Barack Obama was the most radical pro-abortion candidate who had ever run for president. At Mass, my friend went to the altar, and the priest simply gripped his hand. He would not give him Communion. For my friend, it was a jolt as severe as anything he had ever felt. What was taking place became evident to others waiting in line, and from a place further back, an older man spoke in indignation: “Father, are you judging this man?”

I was not told what, if anything, the priest said in response. Were I supplying the lines, I might have had him say, “Sir, are you in turn judging me?” But judging with this difference: The priest was offering a judgment springing from the central teachings of the Church. He was making a gesture of taking, as profoundly serious, the teaching of the Church on the direct, willful killing of the innocent in abortion. He was conveying, in a direct, personal way, the recognition of a man known as a serious Catholic suddenly – and quite publicly – becoming an accomplice in the project of supporting that killing. When the protestor sounded his reproach over “judging this man,” was he now offering as the paramount principle of the Church, “judge not that ye be not judged”? Was it the contention now that the principle of abjuring judgment was the trumping principle – the principle that would override all other principles and teaching of the Church? If so, it was a gesture that would dissolve, in a stroke, every teaching of the Church and make a nullity of the Church’s claim to teach on any matter of moral significance.

Scene 2. A Catholic obstetrician recalled recently a visit to his daughter and son-in-law in California. Returning from Mass, the son-in-law complained that the priest had raised the issue of abortion, and the son-in-law was rather irritated: The issue of abortion, he thought, was a political issue; it did not belong in church. When the Supreme Court proclaimed a constitutional right to abortion, it sought to remove the subject of abortion from the domain of legislatures. But if legislators could no longer deliberate on the question of just who is protected by the laws on homicide, then there was no occasion or need any longer for the people who elected those legislators to argue among themselves. For they could no longer elect legislators with the authority to decide anything on that question.

In this way, the issue of abortion would be removed from the arena of politics, where politicians and citizens carry out an argument in public. The line soon took hold that this was not in any way the “business” of politics and politicians; it was a matter reserved for judges and courts. In 1996, during the presidential election, I raised the issue of abortion in speeches in Amherst and in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and in both instances a person in the audience loudly protested that this was not a fit subject for public discussion. But the ban then spread from the public to the private sphere as well. It is a subject to be avoided now in mixed company – altogether too vexing. And so the final turn: it seems to be the height of bad manners to introduce such an ugly subject into the homilies and preaching in church as well. And that is the case even when the subject involves one of the most central moral principles that the Church seeks to teach. In this manner, the “faithful” in attendance become accomplices in the silencing of their own Church.

Scene 3. When Archbishop Timothy Dolan was appointed this past week as the new archishop of New York, The New York Times reported an incident that took place not long ago in Milwaukee. In a Mass at St. Benedict the Moor in Milwaukee, “a white haired parishioner, Chuck Boyle, 79, rose and challenged [Dolan] to rethink the Church’s opposition to ordaining women” – a remark that elicited “sustained applause” from the audience. Russell Hittinger once pointed out just how thoroughly the American people have come to absorb the premises of “positivism” – that law was made by the people who had the power to “posit” or enforce their judgments. That put aside the question of those principles of right and wrong by which we measure the rightness or justness of what the law commands.

But now, as Hittinger remarked, even Catholics have absorbed that notion: They assume that the pope, or the bishops, in authority in the Church, are free to change the “rules” on the ordination of women. It seems to be beyond comprehension now that the pope does not regard himself as free to change that doctrine on the ordination of women. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith once explained, that doctrine is anchored in the understanding of a priest standing in for a figure incarnated, made flesh, as a man. But that too seems to have slipped beyond the grasp even of the white-haired parishioners.

Hence the old joke: Half of the Church is in heresy, and other half doesn’t know enough to notice.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.