Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Cathy Kaveny Doesn't Get

“I have to say, I really don’t get it.”

So begins a recent post by Cathy Kaveny over at dotCommonweal.

The purported source of her confusion is the Holy See's recent decision to declare Pius XII and John Paul II "venerable" and the negative reaction of many prelates and other Catholics to Notre Dame's decision to honor President Obama as the University's commencement speaker and award him an honorary degree.

Pius, she says, "was at best lukewarm in his opposition to Nazism and the original Holocaust" and John Paul was "apparent[ly] negligen[t] in failing to investigate the charges against Maciel and the Legionaries [of Christ]." 

Yet, says Cathy, in canonizing Pius [n.b. an action that has yet to take place] "the Church really doesn’t mean to endorse his approach to Nazism. And in canonizing Pope John Paul II, the Church really doesn’t mean to endorse his handling of the Maciel case."  This is because "their whole lives cannot be reduced to one position, one action, one set of judgments."

But this, says Cathy, "was essentially the argument made by Notre Dame about the commencement invitation" to the President.  And this is the source of her bewilderment.  After all, President Obama's position was only to "acquiesce in [the] legality of abortion, claiming that this is the best we can do realistically and pragmatically.”  Thus, the reader is left to conclude that it was wrong to oppose Obama’s speaking at Notre Dame since doing so reduced his whole political agenda to a single issue.

Doing her best to channel Jon Stewart, the difference says Cathy, with deliberate irony, is that "Obama was a commencement speaker –not a candidate for sainthood" and we have come to expect perfection in the former but not in the latter.

I appreciate the attempt at humor, but the analogy Cathy draws raises serious questions.  Are the cases really that much alike?

Many people of good will -- including many contemporaries of Pius and not a few professional historians -- will take issue with Cathy's description of Pius’ response to the Holocaust as "lukewarm."  Whether that characterization is historically accurate is certainly open to dispute, as is the wisdom of recognizing Pius as "venerable," given the sensitivity of Catholic-Jewish relations.  This, however, is beside the point. 

It can be conceded, at least for the sake of argument, that the prudential judgment that Pius exercised in responding to the Holocaust may well have been mistaken.  The same could be said of John Paul's response to the allegations regarding Marciel.  But this is where Cathy’s analogy breaks down.  Whereas one may well question whether Pius should have been more outspoken in his opposition to the persecution of the Jews and other targeted groups, no one contends (or rather no reasonable person contends) that he favored such persecution, that he thought the Nazi laws that authorized such persecution were just, or that he approved of the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich.

In short, whatever Pius may have failed to say or do in response to the Holocaust, he never said that gassing Jews was a good thing, or something that should be permitted, or subsidized, or expanded.  Likewise, even if John Paul was negligent in his oversight of the Legionaries and their leader, no one contends that the Pope approved of the abuse and deceit that was perpetrated by Marciel. 

Neither Pius nor John Paul ever personally endorsed, let alone vowed to put the weight of their office behind an action that is gravely evil.

The President, by contrast, clearly favors abortion.  He believes that laws creating a right to abortion are just and that the common good demands that the state pay for the procedure when women can’t afford it.  He thinks that widely available legal abortion is a good thing -- far preferable to the alternative -- and he has invested political capital to see that the abortion regime is not only preserved but expanded, both in this country and abroad. 

Moreover, President Obama not only believes that abortion should be recognized as a legal and constitutional right, but that the lethal exercise of that right may be a good thing in the individual case.

As then Senator Obama famously remarked on the campaign trail, if one of his daughters had an unintended pregnancy he wouldn't want her "punished with a baby" -- a moment of unscripted candor that reflects his true beliefs about abortion.  Notwithstanding Obama's furrowed brow and the earnestness with which he voiced misgivings about the procedure in more guarded moments, these comments together with his political actions reflect the President's belief that abortion isn't really such a bad thing.  It reflects his view that abortion is a legitimate alternative, even perhaps the best way of solving a specific kind of “problem.”

So unlike Pius who is faulted for not having spoken out about the Shoah, Obama’s problem isn’t reticence. It’s that he has said the wrong things and believes the wrong things, and that he has worked to turn his thoughts and words into law.

Surely if Pius or John Paul had championed the free exercise of an act that the Church considers both deeply sinful and profoundly unjust neither would be considered “venerable” let alone a candidate for sainthood.  Shouldn’t we withhold our honor from secular figures who do the same?


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