Obama pulls out the “But I’ve got friends who are Catholic” defense

It’s a variation of the “I’m not racist, I’ve got black friends” line. You know: it’s supposed to be some sort of “amulet against potentially career-destroying accusations of prejudice,” or something. And it has been totally Derbyshired (or “Derbed” for short).

Anyhow, that’s essentially what the President has been saying lately. Seems he doesn’t have much to say other than, “OUCH! STOP THAT!” ever since his gambit to co-opt the Church and bring her to heel on a national scale began backfiring like a Model T.

See, ever since the HHS Mandate (which sounds like a Gilbert & Sullivan show) brought the U.S. bishops to their greatest unanimity since “John Carroll took a deep breath and decided something,” and then more recently Obama stumbled outta the closet on same-sex marriage after Joe Biden upstaged him on the issue, he has been losing Catholic support after winning (ugh) 54 percent of our votes in 2008.

That wouldn’t be so bad for him if states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, and other states he’s going to lose were predominantly Catholic. They’re not. But states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and even Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, have a significant Catholic population. And each of them is both “in play,” and fairly important for Obama’s reelection chances. Running some Electoral College numbers, if Romney wins all the states McCain won in 2008, plus takes Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio (not unlikely), he only has to win one more state to win the White House. Michigan? Colorado? Iowa? New Mexico? Wisconsin? Arizona? Pennsylvania? Another state with lots of Catholics?

You might say Obama and his team are aware of and mildly alarmed by this trend.

Back to the opening of this post. Now at recent events he’s been touting his past ties to the Catholic Church, presumably as some sort of “amulet.” Only, he’s doing it wrong.

He said, “When I was a young community organizer, I was working with Catholic churches and they taught me that no government program can make as much of a difference as kindness and commitment on the part of neighbors and friends.

In other words: … no, in a word: subsidiarity.

Apparently no one told the genius that that is exactly what Catholic organizations have been doing in this country since before it was a country. Our faith compels us to help those around us in kindness and commitment to their well-being. We don’t help only Catholics, we don’t employ only Catholics. To do either would violate the teachings of the faith that motivates us to set up hospitals and schools. And all we are asking for in the present fight for religious liberty is the right to keep doing it as we have been, for the reasons we have been.

Of course, it isn’t like he was working with the Chaput-Dolan-Lori variety of Catholic leaders back in Chicago. No, he was working with Catholic leaders in a Chicago very much under the sway of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Like Father Michael Pfleger.

Cardinal Bernardin (God rest his soul) was not, erm, “the solution,” if you know what I mean.* He rarely met a politically liberal strain in the Church that he didn’t like, and once famously credited Mikhail Gorbachev—not Pope John Paul II, not Ronald Reagan, not Margaret Thatcher—with bringing down the Soviet Union. Bernardin is famous as the father of the “seamless garment” notion, which he called a “consistent ethic of life.”

That’s the one that causes folks to think abortion and euthanasia are no more important than opposition to war, fair wages, and other social justice issues, so it’s okay to vote for politicians who want to give more assistance to the poor, regardless of their support of abortion.

But it’s a rather cutting-off-the-limb-you-stand-on sort of ideology. If a “consistent ethic of life” includes willingness to compromise on defense of life itself then you’ve got nothing to be consistent about. IOW, life is a yes or no proposition: there’s either life or there is not life. It’s not like poverty or liberty or access to health care or stewardship of the environment: one is either in possession of life, or one it not. If one compromises on life one has undercut the entire meaning of “consistent ethic of life.”

The point is made grammatically, too. The noun is “ethic.” “Ethic” is modified by both “consistent” and the prepositional phrase “of life.” If you are willing to compromise in such a way that “not-life” occurs rather than “life,” then either your ethic is “of life” but not “consistent” (i.e., you have an “ethic of life” at some times but not others); or it is not “of life” (i.e., you have a “consistent ethic,” but it is not “of life,” even if life is spared/saved by it on occasion).  Either way,

In sum, Obama tried to make “government” everyone’s best friend in the local community and shut down those who have actually been doing that for a loooong time. Smart. And now he’s trying to play cleanup and make people whose Catholicism amounts to checking off that box on the form love him again by saying “but I’ve got Catholic friends!” Only those Catholic friends are the dying breed of yesteryear who are losing sway in the U.S. Church and whose notions are discredited. Not working thus far, let’s hope it never does.

The amazing “own-goal” aspect of this is, had Obama listened to Old Joe and not forced the HHS Mandate the bishops would never have unified as they have and he would have had a much greater chance to split the Catholic vote once again. The bishops were mostly with him on the rest of the healthcare bill—it wasn’t until the law directly interfered in religious liberty that the righteous opposition was raised.


*”If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the…”



  • JRH

    “My dad can beat up your dad.”


    Dear Tom: My understanding of seamless garment was that the primary example of a moral equivalent to abortion was capital punishment. As for war, keep in mind at the time Cdl. Bernardin put forth the theory, the American Bishops were deeply concerned about the prospect of an all-out nuclear exchange with the Soviets with the potential to end life on earth as we’d known it. See “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and our Response.” to understand the tenor of the times. Are there no moral equivalents to abortion? Do we really believe in a doctrinal minimalism that says abortion is evil but the 265+ executions on Gov. Perry’s watch is maybe OK? I truly fear that under Cdl. Dolan’s watch non-Catholic America will come to see us as only the pelvic (and related) issues church and our credibility in the public square, where conservatives say we ought to be so active in, will be terribly diminished. ~Pax tecum, Gref

    • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

      And a just concern it is, Greg. My take is actually fairly simple: be deeply concerned about everything else. But only if you first acknowledge that the right to life is inviolate. Because without the right to life nothing else matters. If that is “pelvic,” it is because society has made the “pelvic” their new god rather than the previous deities to whom they would sacrifice post-birth human persons. We did not make it “pelvic,” we remain steady on our principles, responding to what ills the times.

      • bpeters1

        @Greg — I share your concern as well, and, as I understanding it, Bernadin’s “consistent ethic of life” was proposed precisely to undermine the sort of “doctrinal minimalism.” I’m struck by your initial comment that Bernadin proposed a “moral equivalence” between abortion and capital punishment — I wasn’t aware that he ever issued any claims about “moral equivalence,” “identical gravity,” etc. regarding the various issues (viz. abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc.); I thought that all Bernadin claimed was that each of them, in all of their particularity and differing moral gravity, violated the fundamental principle of respecting the dignity of every human life. Can you point me to a source in which he proposes such an “equivalency,” because if he indeed does, I would find such a move to be problematic.

        • Greg Smith

          bpeters ~ Thinking about it, I now suspect that the comparision I referred to was put forth not by Cdl Bernadin but by commentators expounding about the theory. ~ Greg

        • bpeters1

          (apologies — needed to proof that one before submitting it!)

        • Against Myopia

          Could this simply be a case of someone purposely mischaracterizing Bernadin’s position to suit his own crass political purposes? Seems that’s the case if no one can respond to BPeters1’s call for documentation of the claim of equivalency in Bernadin’s explanation of the consistent ethic of life. What’s most sad, however, is how quickly folks at this website want to simply dismiss all other pro-life concerns besides birth control, abortion, and euthanasia.

          • bpeters1

            @Against Myopia — right on. The really ironic thing in Tom’s original post is his using the Princess Bride’s “I do not think it means what you think it means” meme while he takes shots at a position that, to the best of my knowledge, Bernadin doesn’t actually hold.

          • Greg Smith

            AM- As I indicated in the above post, I believe I was incorrectly referring to comments by commentators at the time rather than what the Cardinal actually wrote and taught. Apoligies to bpeters and all. – Greg

          • bpeters1

            @Greg — no need to apologize (to me at least!). I think that the major mischaracterization of Bernardin was being done by Tom (to whom I understood AM’s post to be directed) in the original post. Tom is the one who described the CLE as a “cutting-off-the-limb-you-stand-on sort of ideology” which permits folks to equate abortion and other “social” issues and then vote with attention only to the latter. You never drew such a conclusion; in fact, you expressed concern over opposite extreme: the doctrinal minimalist position of relegating the “social” (which really are “life” issues, and vice versa!) to the back-burner where they can be safely ignored. With you, I find this “doctrinal minimalist” understanding problematic, as I do the one (viz. the straw-mam of Benardin) offered by Tom above. But these aren’t the only two options, and what Berardin actually taught seems compelling to me (in media stat virtus!). Such a position holds that abortion, the death penalty (esp. in developed nations), unjust immigration policies, euthanasia, etc., all stem from a dreadful disregard for a principle at the heart of Catholic moral and social doctrine: the sanctity and dignity of every human life; furthermore, if we are to oppose any of these injustices (which can never be reductively “equated” with one another, and some of which are indeed more grave than others), consistency demands that we oppose all of them (as does the Church’s Social Doctrine), for they all stem from a violation of a common principle. My question to Tom is this: Do you find anything objectionable to this position (which is Bernardin’s, to the best of my knowledge), described in the sentence immediately before this one?

  • Fred Fittin

    Let’s see…..If the situation was such that he said “Some of my best friends are Jewish”, he would be declared an anti-semite….Can you say that the present scenario requires an appelation of “anti-Catholic”?

    • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

      Fred— I don’t think we have to say he is specifically “anti-Catholic,” as much as “pro-power.” And since the Catholic Church is, at present, that which is most obviously standing between him and more power, he has to train his guns on the Church. So I wouldn’t, at this juncture, say he is personally and pointedly anti-Catholic, but I would certainly agree that he has it out for the Church right now.

  • bpeters1

    Tom, I think you’ve greatly mischaracterized Card. Bernadin. Although some of the personally-opposed-but crowd have appealed to Bernadin’s idea of a “consistent ethic of life” in order to defend an “evening out” of all issues onto the same “plane” of gravity, I don’t think that his idea entails or even supports such a problematic reduction. What it does necessarily entail is that one cannot simply be “pro-life” by only caring about the issue of abortion (or even the so-called “5 non-negotiables”). As I understand it, at the core of the “consistent ethic of life” is the belief that abortion, euthanasia, unjust war, capital punishment, etc. are all “life” issues which concern the fundamental Catholic belief in the dignity of every human individual. In other words, Bernadin’s thought, as I understand it, does not give a free pass for left-leaning Catholics to vote for a pro-choice candidate so long as s/he supports some other tenet of Catholic Social Doctrine (gravity, proportionality, and all the other things discussed in the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship are still part of the calculus). What Bernadin’s thought does do is demand that right-leaning Catholics not ignore or dismiss any issue which falls outside of some narrow scope as “the only important” ones, relegating all others to a de facto free-for-all in which Catholic Social Teaching does not really matter and “prudential judgment” is the master escape clause. I think that this is the reason that so many right-leaning Catholics dislike Bernadin and turn his “consistent ethic of life” into a straw man (as was done here): Bernadin’s thought forces such Catholics to acknowledge that the Church’s teaching on “life” issues extends into topics which many of them would rather just comfortably ignore.

  • Anna

    Excellent analysis! Thank you!

  • tlr

    This is and enjoyable and enlightening piece. It sets the stage for the next level of the Catholic/Christian/Pro-life response. The WH wishes for this to just disappear from the radar. Hopefully the “awakened giant” will have a very busy summer and autumn.



Receive our updates via email.