King George and the Archbishop

By Chris Pepus

In his successful effort to win Missouri, President Bush received an assist from an October pastoral letter by Raymond J. Burke, the Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Louis. In the letter, Burke urged support for political candidates who oppose legalized abortion, gay marriages and stem-cell research. While many Catholics oppose Burke's stance, his intervention in the election may have boosted turnout among cultural conservatives in the St. Louis area (Burke's archdiocese contains 550,000 worshippers) and also across the state.

It is always problematic to base modern-day government on ancient religious texts, as witnessed by the Bible passages that condone slavery and sentence rapists to marry their victims. Beyond that however, Burke's position distorts both the Bible and recent church teachings. The archbishop explains how he chose which issues to emphasize in his letter: "The first consideration must be given to the protection of human life itself." So why did gay marriage make his list of fundamental evils, while war and the death penalty did not? Burke writes:

"Procured abortion and homosexual acts are intrinsically evil, and, as such, can never be justified in any circumstance. Although war and capital punishment can rarely be justified, they are not intrinsically evil; neither practice includes the direct intention of killing innocent human beings."

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether abortion constitutes killing, there is no justification for placing gay sex in such a context. Burke tries to class homosexuality and gay marriage as threats to life by saying that (straight) marriage "of its very nature cooperates with God in the creation of new human life." Anything that facilitates pregnancy can be said to do that, even casual heterosexual sex.

Likewise, Burke's general discussion of war ignores the fact that Pope John Paul II has repeatedly condemned the Iraq War in explicit terms, calling it "immoral, illegal, and unjust," and also a "defeat for humanity." Since the deaths in Iraq constitute, on the pontiff's terms, immoral killing, why did Burke not include the war on his list of issues pertaining to the defense of life? Because if he did, the letter would no longer be a blanket endorsement of President Bush.

Burke claims papal authority for his recent pronouncement, repeatedly citing Pope John Paul's 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium vitae, which deals with abortion. However, that document also condemns many other practices as destructive of life:

How can we fail to consider the violence against life done to millions of human beings, especially children, who are forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes? And what of the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade, which spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood? What of the spreading of death caused by reckless tampering with the world's ecological balance, by the criminal spread of drugs, or by the promotion of certain kinds of sexual activity which, besides being morally unacceptable, also involve grave risks to life?

The pope described all of the above developments as "attacks against life" and, except for the closing references to drugs and sex, the litany of evils reads like a to-do list for the second term of the Bush administration.

The church's position on abortion itself stems from a highly selective reading of scripture. The Bible is ambiguous on the issue. The main text cited by anti-abortion Christians is this psalm:

"You knit me in my mother's womb ... My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you. When I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of earth, your eyes foresaw my actions. (Psalms 139:13-16ix)

That is a highly poetic expression of the idea of divine love, but when the question arises as to whether the abortion of a fetus constitutes murder, the Bible's answer appears to be "No." The Book of Exodus prescribes the penalty for a case in which a woman has a miscarriage as a result of physical assault:

"When men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman, so that she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury, the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman's husband demands of him." (Exodus 21: 22)

Leaving aside the problem posed by the text's cavalier treatment of violence against women, it is evident that the author(s) of Exodus did not regard a fetus as a human life. (The famous pronouncement of "an eye for an eye" and "a life for a life" immediately follows the passage.) Contrast that to Jesus' parable about the rich man who goes to hell for allowing the poverty-stricken Lazarus to die outside his gate (Luke 16:19-31). The Bible's condemnation of economic injustice is clearer -- and more fundamental to the faith -- than its position on abortion; and the Bush administration's record of economic injustice is no less clear. Burke may be right, however, when he claims long-standing precedents for his position. Cozying up to the rich and powerful is a religious tradition that goes back farther than Christianity itself.

Chris Pepus is a writer in St. Louis.

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