by Bill Droel
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996) of Chicago urged his fellow Catholics to adopt a consistent ethic of life; to honor the inherent dignity of each person from conception to natural death. Some Catholic leaders harshly criticized him, arguing that some issues warranted more attention than others. “Bernardin deserves a fresh hearing,” writes Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago in Commonweal (6/2/17). Bernardin’s articulation of Catholic morality transcends “the partisan political framework” in which so much of today’s thinking is trapped, Cupich continues. In particular, the Catholic principle of solidarity draws together what are often treated “as discrete topics… Solidarity, consistently applied across a full range of issues that impact our human interactions, is required” at this moment.
Not everyone welcomes the implications of solidarity, Cupich admits. It “is a word that frightens the developed world. People try to avoid saying it. Solidarity to them is almost a bad word.” Thus if the word is the only hang up, Saint John Paul II (1920-2005) offers synonyms for solidarity, including social charity, civilization of love and friendship. Plus, as suggests Cupich and Bernardin, the phrase consistent ethic of life captures the same meaning. Whatever the preferred term, solidarity is a Catholic contribution to our fractured world; one which, according to Cupich, can evoke a sense of pride.
But, can it work? Is it possible for a Catholic to transcend our “partisan political framework” and be consistent on public policy?
Heath Mello, a Catholic and a Democrat from Cupich’s hometown of Omaha, recently ran for mayor. Mello happens to be consistently pro-life. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, supported him. So did a couple of prominent Democrats. However, many Democrats stayed away from Mello, reports Peggy Steinfels in Chicago Catholic (5/14/17), as does Robert David Sullivan in America (5/15/17). Mello lost; his opponent received about 53% of the mayoral vote.
In late April Thomas Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, proclaimed that the party would not support any pro-life candidate. Perez made this comment fully aware that Catholics have for several years defected from his party in part because of its seemingly monolithic stance on abortion. Thankfully, Rep. Nancy Pelosi corrected Perez, saying that Democrats are allowed to have differing opinions. Pelosi, of course, is pro-abortion though she is Catholic.
There are Republicans who happen to be Catholic. They too are pressured to choose one over the other on the issues. For example, Catholic business leaders who support a family wage and who want to be Republicans must overcome the prevailing stance within their party. Some have joined Business for a Fair Minimum Wage to express their position. They and others point to surveys of executives and small business owners that back a wage increase, including those conducted by Luntz Global, Small Business Majority and American Sustainable Business Council.
A more accurate Republican counterpart to Mello of Omaha would be a consistent Catholic who, like Mello, is against current abortion policies and also supports the Catholic doctrine on labor relations. Such a person (if one could be found) would have great difficulty getting Republican support for any candidacy.
These examples are not meant to discourage anyone from the challenge of solidarity. Bishops and other Church employees must continue to advocate simultaneously for issues that are usually treated as one-or-the-other, or as one for now maybe the other at another time. It is, however, lay people who must prudently apply Catholic principles in complex settings. Mello gets along fine within the Democratic party with his stance on budget matters, social service delivery and more. Members of his party don’t care all that much if he now and then expresses his general opinion about abortion. His unique opportunity (and his perilous decision) occurred when inside his workplace as a state senator Mello voted for fetal ultrasounds—a small piece of a large debate. Such calculated opportunities can occur for ordinary lay people within their normal setting of family life, the neighborhood, professional association, local precinct, labor local, and—let’s be honest—parish clubs and committees.
Obtain Droel’s booklet on solidarity, Public Friendship, from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)