Private conscience, public morality

By Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Saturday, December 5, 2009

The brouhaha over a Rhode Island bishop forbidding a member of Congress from taking Communion exposes the religious and political minefields for Catholics in public life, as government in our pluralistic democracy becomes intimately engaged in the highly charged health-care issues of who lives, who dies and who pays.

Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin's decision to deny Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy the Eucharist -- the right to receive the body and blood of Christ, the most profound and essential religious experience for Roman Catholics -- is not the first such action by an American prelate. John Kerry and Joe Biden have similarly been singled out, and there are probably others.

American bishops didn't used to do this. Even when they disagreed sharply with policies pursued by Catholic officeholders, they were willing to sit down and discuss alternatives. I know. I saw this when I served as chief domestic adviser for President Lyndon Johnson and as secretary of health, education and welfare for President Jimmy Carter. In the 1960s, LBJ became the first president to aggressively promote family planning abroad and at home. Abroad, he refused to send grain to India during a famine until Indira Gandhi committed to a family planning program. At home, he ordered federal agencies to make contraceptives available to the poor. I was the (Catholic) White House aide responsible for enforcing those policies.

Johnson's actions prompted a stinging attack from Catholic bishops, who charged that he was coercing the poor to practice birth control. The president told me to "work something out" with the bishops, who were our needed allies in battling poverty and racial discrimination. At meetings with Father Francis Hurley, the bishops' top Washington staffer, and Detroit Archbishop John Dearden, leader of the American bishops, I assured them that we were offering an option to the poor, not coercing acceptance. We ultimately agreed that if the president phrased his policy in terms of "population control" (which allowed for more food and the church-approved rhythm method of family planning as well as contraception), the bishops would cool their rhetoric. LBJ kept his word, and when he later signed a U.N. declaration supporting population control, the bishops were silent.

Carter and I opposed federal funding of abortion unless the life of the woman was at stake, a position Catholic bishops shared. Congress authorized funds for abortion in that circumstance and in cases of rape or incest "promptly reported." My options were to resign or to enforce the law by issuing regulations that defined "prompt" reporting. Back then, women generally did not report rape or incest unless they thought they were pregnant, so I set prompt reporting at within 60 days. The bishops were furious, and their attack vehement. Some said that I should have resigned rather than enforce the law. But none suggested that I be denied the Eucharist.

In recent years, the bishops have heavily criticized Catholic politicians who support federal funding for abortion. The attack is understandable, but the denial of the Eucharist seems to me a sort of nuclear option. Is it only aimed at politicians who for vote federal funds for abortion? If the issue is the sanctity of life, what about Catholic legislators who vote for the death penalty or to fund the Iraq war, which the Vatican condemned as immoral? Should they be denied the Eucharist?

As government moves to influence funding for most health services, it will become the political battleground for a host of thorny ethical, moral and religious issues: psycho/neurosurgery, sterilization, abortion, test-tube fertilization, genetics, use of tax dollars for extraordinary life-extending procedures, the rights of terminally ill patients to try any and every cure -- or choose none. These issues cannot be resolved simply by a jerk -- or bend -- of the knee.

In the contentious legislative process of our pluralistic democracy, political leaders need all the wisdom they can muster. Catholic politicians need to listen to a variety of voices because non-Catholics, too, have a right to be heard. But those who speak out must understand how wrenching these decisions are, how they arise as parts of complex legislative initiatives, and how most politicians struggle in their search for fair answers.

As Catholics and as citizens, we have a right and obligation to assert our convictions on public issues clearly and vigorously -- to hope and to work that they should prevail. To expect less from a public official would ask that he leave his conscience at home.

But to have convictions of conscience and be guided by them is not a license to impose such convictions indiscriminately on others by uncompromisingly translating them into policy. If public policy is to serve the common good of a fundamentally just and free, pluralistic society, it must brew in a cauldron of competing values such as freedom, order, equity, justice and mercy. Public officials who fail to weigh these competing values serve neither private conscience nor public morality. Indeed, they offend both.

Where we cannot find unanimous answers, there is at least one point on which Catholic bishops and Catholic politicians can find common ground: insistence that those who search for the right answers are doing so with integrity and sincere conviction. That was what the church leaders I dealt with in the 1960s and '70s recognized, as their successors should today.

Joseph A. Califano Jr. is founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. He was secretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979 and President Lyndon Johnson's chief assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969. His e-mail address is

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