By Charlie Johnston
(There are a lot of links in this article that cover some technical issues in detail. The article stands on its own, but to develop a sure feel for the serious issues involved here, the links will help enormously.-CJ)
I was shocked Friday to hear that the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB) had issued an advisory to all the parishes in the state banning Texas Right to Life (TRTL) from using parish sites for programs and urging Catholics NOT to participate in any TRTL activities or programs. It stunned me because I have spent a lifetime working with right-to-life groups – and TRTL is the best, most effective I have ever seen. In fact, if it were two groups, each half as good as it is, it would be the two best right-to-life groups I ever saw. I figured there must be some serious issue for the TCCB to issue such an edict against the best such group in the country.
When I read the Bishops’ statement, I was even more stunned. They listed three reasons, every one of them political rather than related to faith and morals. They did cite some matters of faith and morals to try to bolster the credibility of the political decision they had made, but they deftly misled readers about Catholic teaching. In each case their anger seems to stem from the reality that TRTL lives greater fidelity to actual Catholic teaching than the Bishops do. Let us take a look at each of the three reasons TCCB cited, along with a little history and context.
1) The Bishops attack TRTL for being too pro-life on matters of abortion. TRTL has occasionally noted the TCCB’s absence of support for effective measures to protect unborn children, measures that TRTL HAS gotten mass support for and sometimes passed, despite the lack of support from Texas Bishops. In support of this attack, TCCB quotes St. John Paul’s Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, which explicitly allowed pro-life Catholics to take an incremental approach when it was the only one that could improve existing law. I was working in the vineyards of the pro-life movement and statewide politics in Illinois when this came out. It was welcome, for we often had to make common cause with officials and candidates who had exceptions to abortion bans in order to get any progress at all. The Pope recognized and “baptized” our sincere efforts to re-build a culture of life with imperfect tools. What Pope John Paul the Great most emphatically did NOT do in this Encyclical was endorse “incrementalism” as a means of watering down pro-life legislation that had substantial support and could pass. That remained forbidden, within the context of sincere prudential judgment. The TCCB seems to treat “incrementalism” as a mandate. I think they are sincere on this – as their reflex position has been to support watered down life legislation. But it is a perversion of what St. John Paul wrote. In this case, then, the TCCB is condemning TRTL for failing to treat a perverse mutilation of St. John Paul’s Encyclical as Holy Writ. Even if TCCB’s interpretation of Evangelium Vitae was legitimate (and it is not), the disagreement with TRTL would be a political one, not a matter of faith and morals. It would be a matter of faith and morals only if TRTL was attacking the Catholic Church’s Magisterial position on life, itself. The Texas Bishops are apparently embarrassed that TRTL does a better, more effective, more consistent job of advancing the Church’s position on life than they do. Fine. Get more effective or keep quiet: do NOT launch a transparent political attack on the people who are doing the job you won’t do.
2) The Texas Bishops attack TRTL for upholding Catholic teaching on end-of-life issues in hospitals. Texas has a bizarre law which allows a hospital to decide, unilaterally to remove ordinary care from a patient to let them die. They can do this even over the objections of the patient and his family. This is not confined to extraordinary forms of care, such as chemotherapy, but to basic care. You read that right: Texas hospitals can decide to impose death on a patient against his will after giving ten days notice of the decision to withdraw or deny life-sustaining medical treatment. Even more astonishingly, the TCCB has been a consistent supporter of that law, in direct contradiction of Catholic teaching. You will notice that they studiously did NOT cite St. John Paul in this particular, because St. John Paul was adamant that ordinary nutrition and hydration may NOT be withheld from a patient. The only appeal a patient has, once a doctor has made this determination, is to the hospital’s ‘ethics panel.’ In order to get the appeal heard, a doctor must sign off with the patient on the appeal. Once upon a time, people behaved ethically and there was no need for ethics panels. Now, we have ethics panels to give a secular imprimatur to the unethical things we do corporately. It certainly stung the Texas Bishops to hear these panels frequently referred to as “death panels.” But what else would you call a panel that has unappealable life and death power over its patients regardless of the patients’ wishes? And if the TCCB wants to quit being charged with supporting such death panels in contradiction to Catholic teaching, they could have adopted the more rational option of ceasing to support them rather than condemning the premier organization in Texas that upholds actual Catholic teaching. I was involved with such a case when I took up the cause of young Joseph Cronin, who went into a coma following an asthma attack. He was prematurely diagnosed as brain-dead and scheduled to be starved to death. Fortunately, several groups took to work very vigorously to save the boy. Foremost among them was Texas Right-to-Life. The only Bishop in Texas who worked to prevent this tragedy was retired Corpus Christi Bishop Emeritus Rene Gracida. Bishop Gracida was key to caring for the boy and his family and supporting his right-to-life. Readers at my old website flooded the hospital with calls, buying time for the boy to get a better diagnosis and win transfer to a new hospital not determined to kill him. The TCCB maintained what I presume they think was a prudent silence. The boy was rescued and transferred to safety in New Jersey. Tragically, he died a few months later, not because of the coma, but because a nurse bungled a routine feeding tube change which she was not supposed to do without someone else present. He drowned in his own blood. More recently, a Texas hospital decided it was tired of messing with a man named Chris Dunn and that it was time to impose death on him. They had an ethics panel and all sign off on it. Once again, it was Bishop Gracida and Texas Right-to-Life who rallied to the man’s aid. Once again, the Texas Bishops Conference was not interested in objecting to this execution of the policy they support. Sadly, in this case, the mother of the patient successfully fought the hospital for weeks, but Dunn eventually died of his illness about six weeks after the saga began. The Texas Bishops own language betrays them in this charge they make against TRTL. They condemn TRTL for advocating for the routine life support of nutrition and hydration while citing the “long-standing Church teaching requiring a balance of patient autonomy and the physician conscience protection.” This is just mealy-mouthed double-speak. The Church does NOT teach that basic hydration and nutrition can be withheld from a patient against his will and that hospitals have arbitrary sovereign control over life and death. In this case, the TCCB is clearly condemning TRTL for upholding Catholic teaching that this conference opposes. It is a rank betrayal.
3) The TCCB objects to TRTL basing its voter-guides on the actual voting history of candidates rather than a “fair analysis” (read arbitrary assessment) of the legislator. This is downright incoherent. Almost every interest group – and certainly every credible interest group – bases their voter guides on actual voting records, answers to questionnaires, and a candidate’s past history. Otherwise, the interest group could just endorse their cronies, regardless of those cronies actual positions – and the interest group would quickly lose credibility. Even if the Texas Bishops had a reasonable objection (which they don’t), this would be political, rather than spiritual, grounds. It is unseemly and deeply offensive that Bishops who blanch at the idea of refusing communion to radically pro-abortion politicians will, in thundering tones, denounce the most effective right-to-life organization in the country insisting that the candidates they endorse actually act to protect life.
So what brought all this on? Well, it is a week and a half before the Texas primary elections. For years, the primary obstacle to effective pro-life legislation in Texas has been establishment Republican Joe Strauss, who was Speaker of the Texas House. Strauss and his allies killed most pro-life legislation before it could ever reach the floor. Understanding the problem, TRTL took the lead in identifying Republican legislators who talked pro-life, but worked to prevent pro-life legislation from being passed. That effort was so successful that Strauss chose to leave the House, rather than risk losing re-election. After a very successful session, TRTL took the lead again in working to ensure that the Republican contingent for the general election would be people who walk the pro-life walk rather than just talk – and so targeted a bunch of Strauss’ old allies in strangling pro-life legislation in the crib, before it ever hit the floor. Recent polling data had suggested that the Republican roster of candidates for the Texas statehouse would be the most reliably pro-life in recent history – and that many of the Strauss allies were headed for involuntary retirement. Ah, but the TCCB has a long history of alliance with the Strauss wing of the party. If Strauss’ influence is shot, then the TCCB must re-build their political influence from the ground up – and with people they have taken pains to alienate. So they brought their big gun to bear: ostracization a week and a half before the election, once again seeking to give political cover to their allies who are mealy-mouthed, at best, in defense of life.
I do not suggest that the TCCB is not pro-life (although, in the case of the end-of-life directives, it is near impossible to study the evidence and conclude that they are), but that their principles have become forfeit in a web of establishment alliances. Call it Crony Catholicism. Now, in a great test over which they value most, their principles or their alliances, they have made a frantic last-ditch effort to protect their alliances.
They have made a terrible long-term mistake in launching this entirely political attack on TRTL. Having taken a purely political approach, they open themselves up to a political scrutiny that religious organizations are not usually subject to. State governments have a lot of contracts and plums to offer. I once had a Lieutenant Governor try to recruit me to head a state agency in which I had no knowledge or experience. The selling points were that it only met four times a year and the pay was $200,000 a year. Mighty attractive, but it was clear that it was my conservative street cred the Lt. Gov. was after, not my expertise on the subject. Whatever my flaws, my principles are not for sale, so I declined…repeatedly. After this nasty broadside, the TCCB should not be surprised to find itself being subjected to a forensic examination of all its state contracts – and all such plums held by it and its Diocese’s staff members.
Ah well, the Texas Republican Party was in need of reform. The TCCB is in need of the same – and this political attack increases the odds dramatically that it will get some reform. So everybody will come out a winner. It would be a great blessing to have an unabashedly strong pro-life Texas Republican Party and an unambiguously strong, pro-life TCCB.
( This post has been updated to note that TRTL has traditionally avoided public criticism of TCCB despite differences in approach and that Chris Dunn died of his illness in the midst of the battle with the hospital, which was fighting to, but had not yet denied basic care to him. Normally I would spend a full week of research on a piece such as this, but since the original action had clearly been designed to impact an election just a week away, time was essential and the outlines of what happened needed to get out quickly. I add this link to the blog of Kassi Marks, a long-time pro-life attorney whose long direct experience with the issues clarifies it well.)