All is mostly quiet on the Catholic front. But behind closed church doors, Catholic religious leaders must be dancing in the aisles over a draft Supreme Court opinion that overturns Roe v. Wade — and the hope it represents about a final ruling.
So far, only a few Catholic leaders have addressed what looks like the ultimate triumph for the church: the end to a constitutional right to abortion. “Yes, let us pray this leaked opinion stands,” Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas tweeted on May 3. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone tweeted a photo showing masses of anti-abortion protesters in Washington D.C., and wrote: “Tonight I am thinking of all the years of hard work by pro life people of all faiths and none. Years and years of patient advocacy, help for unwed moms, political engagement and more.”
“Their long game has come to fruition,” Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, told me in an interview. “I would call them the prime mover of the anti-choice movement.”
If so, it’s a remarkable turn in American political history. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy had to remind voters he was not the Catholic candidate running for president, but a Democrat who happened to be Catholic. In a famous address to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, he said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
Today, Catholic prelates have no problem telling a Catholic president how to act. Just a year ago, Catholic bishops were threatening to deny communion to President Biden — the only Catholic since Kennedy to win the White House — because of his support for abortion rights. They backed down then, but the authors of a conservative blog called The Pillar suggest the imminent overturn of Roe might pressure the Washington D.C., archbishop to reconsider his support for allowing Biden to receive communion.
The church put its clout behind the “right to life” movement back in the 1960s, when some states started to liberalize abortion laws. Southern evangelicals joined them, putting the anti-abortion movement “on steroids,” said Manson. What followed were decades of political activism, and a cause embraced by Republicans, who saw it as a path to power. That in turn ultimately led to the appointment of enough Supreme Court justices who are apparently willing to toss precedent in the interests of overturning Roe.
The ultra-conservative bloc on the court includes Justice Neil Gorsuch and four of six Catholic justices. The four are Samuel Alito — who wrote the draft opinion leaked to Politico — Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. There are two other Catholics on the Supreme Court — Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who represents the liberal wing, and Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who has been known to seek compromise. It’s unclear how Roberts will come down on Roe. Meanwhile, the overall percentage of Catholic justices is notable, given that Catholics account for about 22 percent of the US population.
Polls continue to show that a majority of Americans believe Roe should be upheld, and so do a majority of Catholics. According to Catholics for Choice, one poll shows that 68 percent of Catholics support Roe’s protection of legal abortion and one in four abortion patients is Catholic. But whatever the personal choice of people who identify as Catholic, church leaders are committed to ending legal abortion. Last year, a Rhode Island priest made national headlines when he banned 44 lawmakers who supported the state’s abortion rights bill from receiving communion at his parish. He defended it by saying “pedophilia doesn’t kill anyone” — a reference to the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal — but abortion does. Manson also believes the church’s fight against abortion is part of a larger fight about controlling women’s freedom. Church leaders, she said, “see women not only as biologically different, but because of that biological difference, they have a different role to play in society.” That role, she said, is motherhood, and the goal is to keep women bound by it.
If Roe finally falls, Catholic Church leaders will rejoice and get behind a federal abortion ban. And, then what about same-sex marriage? The Catholic Church opposes that, too. How much will church dogma influence the law of this secular land? Citizens of a country founded upon a supposedly bedrock principle — the separation of church and state — should be thinking long and hard about that.