What did the bishops actually say?

BabythumbSometimes one or two words can make a lot of difference when you are dealing with complex issues of law and doctrine. This is especially true when the topic being discussed is abortion. Consider the paraphrased quote in today's Chicago Tribune story by Manya A. Brachear about the meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops that is unfolding up in Baltimore.

Things get off to a solid, if predictable, start.

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George applauded the rise of an African-American to the White House, but he cautioned that President-elect Barack Obama faces "formidable" odds in serving the good of all.

"In working for the common good of our society, racial justice is one pillar of our social doctrine," said George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, during his address to the organization's meeting in Baltimore. "Economic justice, especially for the poor both here and abroad, is another. But ... the common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice."

The agenda is packed with hot-button issues that will be discussed this week -- much of it behind closed doors. When your body contains quite a bit of passive-aggressive doctrinal dissent, it's hard to leave the doors open. The issue of serving Holy Communion to Catholics who openly oppose the teachings of their church remains hot, hot, hot.

But reading on, here is the paraphrase by Brachear that will cause a few GetReligion readers to lose their tempers, if they do not slow down and read carefully.

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the conference, lauded Obama's election as historic.

"We can all feel proud that our country has overcome racism and moved forward from an intrinsic evil embodied in the law of the land," said Kicanas, a former auxiliary bishop in Chicago.

But he and George pointed out that as long as abortion rights remain embedded in the Constitution, the potential for intrinsic evil remains part of the law of the land, suggesting there is work to be done to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that made abortion legal across the nation.

"If the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision that African-Americans were other people's property and somehow less than persons were still settled constitutional law, Mr. Obama would not be president of the United States," George said. "Today, as was the case 150 ago, common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good."

Note that these clerics were, in paraphrase, quoted as saying that "as long as abortion rights remain embedded in the Constitution" there would be trouble.

Now, did these Catholic leaders say that those rights ARE embedded in Constitution or that the U.S. Supreme Court has RULED that they are embedded in the Constitution? Of course, if the Supremes say those rights are there in between the lines, then they are in there in way that settles it on one level, although that's a legal level that may or may not impress bishops.

In context, it's clear that the bishops were saying that slavery was once "settled constitutional law," even though the practice was always, in doctrinal terms, an "intrinsic evil." For traditional Christians -- those honoring teachings that go back to the Early Church Fathers (and Mothers) -- abortion is still an "intrinsic evil," no matter what the Supremes say.

This is a case where I think Brachear or the Tribune desk made it clear, if that paraphrased quote is read in context, what the cardinal and the bishop said.

But a strict deconstruction of that paraphrase? One or two more words is all it would have taken to please even the most skeptical of traditional Christian readers.

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