On Litmus Tests and the Common Good

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego recently accused “some bishops” of making abortion a “litmus test” for Catholic politicians during the Biden presidency.  These bishops, he said, “argue that abortion is not merely a ‘preeminent’ issue in Catholic Social Teaching, but rather constitutes the de facto ‘litmus test’ for determining whether a Catholic public official is a faithful Catholic, and for determining whether the overall policy stances of non-Catholic officials can be considered morally legitimate.”

Bishop McElroy is also disappointed, it seems, that some bishops are advancing “an overall stance of confrontation” with the new president whereas Pope Francis “has placed encounter, dialogue, honesty and collaboration at the heart of his approach to public conversation” and thus would be “unlikely to endorse” punitive actions such as withholding Communion from President Biden because of his public abortion advocacy.  He added that “if adopted, such a position will reduce the common good to a single issue.”

This exchange has me imagining how a similar interview with a prominent German bishop might have taken place during the 1930s and 1940s.  What would we today say about a bishop who would have responded to the atrocities being perpetrated on the Jews during that period by criticizing fellow bishops such as Konrad von Preysing, Josef Frings, and Clemens von Galen for making the “Jewish issue” a “litmus test for determining whether a Catholic public official was a faithful Catholic and for determining whether the overall policy stances of non-Catholic officials could be considered morally legitimate”?

I mean, could a Catholic public official be considered a “faithful Catholic” if he or she publicly supported and helped put into effect the arrest and deportation of millions of Jewish people?  Could the overall policy stance of a non-Catholic official be considered morally legitimate if he or she was participating in the arrest and deportation of Jews?

I’m not exactly sure why the public official’s being “non-Catholic” would make any difference since, like abortion, opposition to the arrest and deportation of Jews need not be based on revelation; it follows from a natural recognition of the dignity of the human person. So “Catholic” or not, it’s wrong; we expect people to know it was wrong; and we condemn German officials for their involvement.

Would Bishop McElroy say that our situation is very different from theirs?  Some people seem to think so.  But then again, I imagine the German bishops of the 1930s and 1940s thought their own moral situation was “very different” from earlier pogroms against Jews in Russia or elsewhere in Europe during the preceding centuries.  When you’re living at the time of the Nazis, you don’t say, “Hey, I’m not a Nazi!” the way we do now.  You say, “Hey, how dare you compare me and my noble Nazi brethren to those barbarians in Russia.” Or “Hey, we’re not Seleucids, you know!”

The Priest Barracks at Dachau*

Yes, I recognize the cases are different.  In the case of the bishops in Germany, many of them did not know that the Jews were being sent to death camps.  But make no mistake, they knew enough.  The arrest and deportation of the Jewish people was bad enough to merit repeated condemnation to the point of risking severe consequences, such as arrest or even martyrdom.  Many didn’t know, of course, that the Jews were being exterminated.  We, on the other hand, are absolutely certain about what is happening to these unborn children.  The cases are also “different” in that the German bishops risked some severe consequences if they spoke out.  Our bishops risk. . .what exactly?

So yes, the cases are different, but not in ways that would excuse any American bishop.

Bishop McElroy seems unhappy that some bishops are advancing “an overall stance of confrontation” with the new president whereas Pope Francis “has placed encounter, dialogue, honesty and collaboration at the heart of his approach to public conversation.”  Well, I suppose if someone believes in “honesty,” he might say to someone like Joe Biden, “To be honest, you’re killing babies.”  As for “encounter,” isn’t the whole point that Biden will never encounter aborted children?  They’re dead.  We seek to give those who have been silenced a voice.

Which brings us to “collaboration.” I suppose a German bishop during the 1930s and 1940s could have argued that he preferred a strategy of “collaboration” to “confrontation” with the government of Adolf Hitler, calling upon the authority of Pope Pius XII, who, when he was Vatican Secretary of State, had arranged the Reichskonkordat with the German government.  Now this would have been complete rubbish, of course, but a German bishop could have said it.  And some did.  They were critical (undoubtedly with that educated sophistication of which the Germans are so capable) of their “confrontational” brother bishops who, in their simple, single-minded way, kept after the German government to such an extent about the Jews that they probably seemed to be “reducing the common good to a single issue.”

But then again, could there be any sort of authentic “common good” for a nation exterminating millions?  No one today says, “Hitler, sure, was not great on the Jewish question, but he really put the working class back to work, improved health care, and made the trains run on time.”  That would be morally abhorrent to most sensible, decent people.

One wonders whether our German bishop – devoted (at least in his own mind) to the greater good of Germany, who refused to have “the common good” reduced to “a single issue” of “what to do about the Jews,” and who styled himself in favor of “collaboration” rather than “confrontation” – whether that bishop would have reassured himself, saying:  “I am certain no one will look back fifty years from now and say about me, ‘What kind of bishop would have prided himself on being a collaborator with a government that accelerated the murder of millions?’”

Indeed, what, I wonder, would Bishop McElroy say in retrospect about such poor, deluded foolishness?


*The “Priest Barracks” at Dachau (1933-1945) held 2720 clergymen of all faiths, 95% of whom were Roman Catholic.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.