Orbiting Dicta

The Papal Prince and the President

Even in far-off Ireland word quickly spread last week mainly via Pro-Life channels that Chicago’s Cardinal George had launched a verbal fusillade against President Obama as he tried to make good on his promise to loosen restrictions on abortion put in place during the Bush years.  However repugnant Mr. Obama’s approach may be to many Catholics, Evangelicals, and other people, there is something darkly ironic about a Cardinal Archbishop, a “prince of the Church,” calling the pot…”despotic.”

Unlike Cardinal Archbishops, Presidents of the United States are elected (doubly so, given the resilient anachronism of the Electoral College, that very undemocratic institution) and serve for a limited number of years fixed by law, not by age.  He (or even she) cannot enact legislation nor (unlike Cardinal Archbishops) rule by fiat, George Bush’s efforts to do so notwithstanding.  Congress and the legislatures of the individual States produce laws.  In the first instance, the President is charged with executing and enforcing such laws.  In the second, the Supreme Court of the United States ultimately rules on the constitutionality of state legislation when it is challenged.  The President is largely restricted to signing or not signing laws (which may be passed over his veto), submitting budgets, funding or defunding various programs, ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens, and conducting foreign policy with the advice and consent of Congress.  The acts of the President are also subject to scrutiny by federal courts, paramount among them the Supreme Court.  And the President can be impeached.  Otherwise campaign promises are no more than the words imply, and in fact little more than rhetorical flourishes subject to the vagaries of time, circumstance, and the machineries of legislative and juridical process.

The U.S. system of checks and balances may be cumbersome but it manages to protect both States’ rights and individual liberties to a remarkable degree.  (As my old friend, the late Herbert McCabe, was fond of saying, as a democracy the American system is a pretty dismal institution; it just happens to be better than all the others.)

It is understandable that Catholic bishops are distressed by Mr. Obama’s left-of-center attitude toward abortion, gay rights, and other red-button issues.  But “despotic”?

Even harder to understand is the long silence of the episcopacy in the face of a former President who pushed the nation into an unjust and ruinous trillion-dollar war by means of subterfuge and prevarication, who presided over the establishment of secret military bases for the detention and interrogation of alleged terrorists denied access to legal counsel and defense, who countenanced the torture of prisoners, who fiddled while New Orleans drowned, who gutted decades of protective environmental legislation, who avoided leading the nation into bankruptcy only by dint of selling the national debt to China, and who in effect came perilously close to undermining the foundations of the U.S. Constitution.  But he was against abortion.

Episcopal tunnel vision is perhaps better than no vision at all.  But not much.