Joseph Califano Solves The Church-State Problem … Again

Over five years ago Joseph Califano, former just about everything, modestly explained in the pages of the Washington Post “How I Squared Church and State,” by which he meant how he had resolved the long-standing problem of how liberal politicians should deal with conservative church doctrine. The solution, he explained at some length, was actually quite simple: simply follow the examples he had set in dealing with the bishops over abortion, birth control, sterilization, fetal research, etc., as a top domestic advisor to President Johnson and as President Carter’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

We must be a nation of obdurate bishops and secular backsliders, however, for apparently Califano’s instructions have not been followed. Or at least that’s what I conclude since the Washington Post brought him back yesterday for a reprise of his old arguments. All the old examples are trotted out, in almost identical form.

For example, from 2004 article on meeting with bishops over their objections to President Johnson insisting on family planning a condition for foreign aid:

It was my first political negotiation with the Catholic hierarchy. I met several times with their Washington representative, the Rev. Francis Hurley. I reminded Father Hurley that LBJ was doing God’s work — trying to eliminate poverty, helping the elderly, promoting equal rights for minorities. “The bishops,” I argued, “should not attack and wound a president who, on balance, is advancing so many of their causes.” We crafted an uneasy truce: If the president used the term “population problem” (which also allowed for solutions such as increasing available food) rather than “birth control” or “population control,” the bishops would stay silent. Johnson kept his part of the bargain. So did the bishops.

From Saturday’s article:

At meetings with Father Francis Hurley, the bishops’ top Washington staffer, and Detroit Archbishop John Dearden, leader of the American bishops, I assured them that we were offering an option to the poor, not coercing acceptance. We ultimately agreed that if the president phrased his policy in terms of “population control” (which allowed for more food and the church-approved rhythm method of family planning as well as contraception), the bishops would cool their rhetoric. LBJ kept his word, and when he later signed a U.N. declaration supporting population control, the bishops were silent.

Now, since the Post has seen fit essentially to recycle Califano’s argument that the circle would be squared if everyone simply agreed to emulate Califano, I see no reason not re re-post my old criticism from Califano Would Confess … But He’s Innocent. What follows is what I said then, with enough minor changes to allow me justify not indenting the whole thing.

About two months earlier I had posted some critical comments about Mario Cuomo, widely regarded as something like the secular Catholic sage of the Democratic party. Cuomo had recently published a Bush-bashing gloss on Lincoln, and I took that occasion to note at some length that his famous speech at Notre Dame, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” was, ironically, almost identical in rhetoric and underlying values to the views on slavery expressed by Lincoln’s famous antagonist, Stephen A. Douglas. As I wrote then:

Essentially, Cuomo argued at Notre Dame that he agreed with and accepted his Church’s teaching that abortion is wrong, but that in a pluralistic democracy he did not believe he had the right to force his belief on others. He said this, of course, at much greater length, but that’s the essence of what he said.


Cuomo’s position, in short, is eerily similar to Stephen A. Douglas’s notion of “popular sovereignty.” As historian Robert W. Johannsen has written,

Slavery, [Douglas] believed, must be treated impartially as a question of public policy, although he privately thought it was wrong and hoped it would be eliminated some day.

Although many are accustomed to thinking of the Republicans as the party with the religous problem (you know, “the Christian Right,” etc.), these days it’s the Democrats whose water is being roiled with controversy over faith and politics — specifically, whether Kerry in particular and pro-abortion Democrats in general should be allowed communion. Now comes former-everything Joseph Califano who in a long restatement of the Cuomo-Douglas position (both unacknowledged) in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post, “The Bishops and Me: How I Squared Church and State,” announces in effect that he had already solved the problem. Thus, alas, it is necessary to visit this topic once again.

Before getting on with it, however, let me say a few words about what I’m not going to say. This post is not about abortion and will not discuss what position politicians should take on it. Nor, since I am no longer a Democrat, will I attempt to tell that party what its position should be or whether it should continue to exclude pro-life Democrats from positions of influence, as it did when it refused the late Pa. governor Bob Casey speaking roles in the 1992 and 1996 nominating conventions. And since I am not now nor have I ever been a Catholic, I would not dream of pontificating (if you’ll pardon the expression) about the communion question or other matters of church policy or discipline. Finally, although I shall be critical of Mr. Califano’s article and argument, I want to emphasize that I challenge neither the sincerity of his beliefs nor his right to weigh the demands of his church and his public obligations as he sees fit.

I would like to argue, however, that whatever one’s positions on the above matters, and despite his assurances of having solved the vexing question of church-state relations (or, where solution proved impossible, soothed them with the salve of wise and widely acclaimed compromise), Mr. Califano’s article does not succeed in rescuing his fellow Catholic pols from the occasionally conflicting demands of their faith, party, and personal ambition.

“When God and Caesar claim controlling jurisdiction over public policy in America,” Califano begins, “public servants who are Catholic can get caught between a religious rock and a public policy hard place.” He then proceeds to describe a series of issues that he dealt with, as domestic adviser to LBJ and secretary of HEW under Carter, where he “repeatedly confronted the tension between my religious beliefs and public policy — and the bishops repeatedly confronted me.”

The moral theology of the Catholic Church was an invaluable compass for me, but balancing my Catholic convictions with my obligations as a public servant was a wrenching intellectual, spiritual and emotional experience.

My criticism is not so much of the particular choices he made as of his conclusion that, by virtue of the “tension” he experienced and the “balancing” that he was forced to undergo, he managed somehow to escape unscathed from between the rock and the hard place. He didn’t, and the road map he recommends to his church and the polity at large would not lead others out of it either.

The simple fact is that in every single tug of war between what he proclaims to be his religious beliefs and public policy, public policy always won. He may have balanced his “Catholic convictions” against his obligations as a public servant, and that balancing may well have been “wrenching,” but once the balancing was done those convictions never interfered with his actions. In short, it is not possible to distinguish his actions at all from what they would have been, in each instance, had he not been a Catholic at all.

Some examples:

Birth Control

The “Catholic hierarchy” strenuously objected to LBJ’s “aggressive posture on birth control,” and Califano was sent to pacify the bishops. “The bishops,” he argued, “should not attack and wound a president who, on balance, is advancing so many of their causes.”

Medicaid Funding of Abortions

Califano favored limiting public funding to cases where the life of the mother would be endangered, but Congress passed a broader law that also permitted funding in cases of rape or incest.

At that point, my choice was to enforce the law or, as some suggested, to resign. I was not about to retire to some Walden Pond or Vatican Hill. So I issued regulations giving women 60 days to report cases of rape or incest, recognizing that in those days most women did not report such horrendous incidents unless they thought they were pregnant. The Catholic hierarchy erupted. So did President Carter. Both wanted a much shorter period, the bishops because they thought it would curb abortions; Carter because he thought it would reduce the opportunity for fraud. I held firm, believing that I had fairly reflected congressional intent. The Congress agreed with me.


HEW was financing 100,000 sterilizations a year.

The bishops wanted a complete ban; they considered morally unacceptable any experimentation or action that threatened the sanctity of life, including sterilization. Again I honored my obligation to follow the law. I issued regulations banning funds for the sterilization of anyone under 21 (on the ground that no minor could give informed consent to an irreversible procedure that goes to the essence of the life process) and of inmates of correctional facilities, mental hospitals or other rehabilitative facilities.

This last point is particularly interesting because I’m not aware that Califano’s HEW insisted on parental consent for abortions for those under 21 (someone correct me if I’m wrong about this). In any event there are more examples, but by now you get the picture.

Califano’s attempts to justify these and similar choices take several familiar forms. The starkest is some combination of pure personal ambition and the no doubt sincere belief that the public should not be denied the singular benefits of his remaining in office: “I was not about to retire to some Walden Pond or Vatican Hill.”

Another justification is a convenient reading of Catholic tradition:

…having experienced the complications and compromises — the need to choose the lesser of two evils and the importance of having Catholics in public life — I believe that public figures who are Catholic are entitled to consult their own conscience to determine whether they are entitled to receive Communion. The Catholic tradition of leaving that decision to the individual Catholic and God applies to Catholics who have divorced, sinned or eaten food five minutes before Mass. It should apply to public officials.

I’m not sure what that “entitled” really means. If it means that’s what Califano thinks they should do, that’s one thing. Let me repeat that I’m no Catholic theologian (or a theologian of any kind), but it seems to me that if Califano were right about “the Catholic tradition” leaving the decision of whether to take communion completely up to the individual then no one would ever be denied that right. Could that be true? Insofar as individual conscience has displaced papal authority as the ultimate arbiter of Catholic doctrine, it’s hard for an outsider like me to see what besides some incense and ceremony separates Catholicism from Protestantism.

Califano quotes and relies on the Jesuit theologian Gustave Weigel, who argued in an influential 1960 lecture that “the Roman Catholic Church would not attempt to interfere in the political activities of a Catholic president, nor would a Catholic president be bound by Catholic morality in deciding public issues.” This is no doubt a workable compromise for a church that does not want to banish itself to the political sidelines, but it does leave the question, a question re-inforced by Califano’s own vigorous use of the provided leeway, of why Califano thinks “having Catholics is public life” is so important, since they don’t have to behave like Catholics. Why is it important to have Catholics in public life if, once there, they’re no different from anybody else?

Like Cuomo before him, Califano tries hard to demonstrate that he’s holding on to his “Catholic convictions.”

I would prefer it if Kerry (and the 48 Catholic members of Congress who warned, in a letter to Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, that U.S. bishops risk reviving anti-Catholic bigotry if they deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights) expressed opposition to federal funding of abortion and voted to ban partial-birth abortion.

But that sentiment is merely a personal preference. Like Cuomo’s identical views of the role of his personal dislike of abortion in his public actions and Stephen A. Douglas’s similar success in not letting any qualms he may have had about slavery interfere with his political positions, Califano uniformly subordinates his “Catholic convictions” to the demands of party, politics, law.

Again, I’m not saying he shouldn’t have done that. This is America, after all, and it is hard to deny sovereignty here to individual conscience. Nor am I saying that he should have been denied communion. It is for Califano to decide how much weight to give to church doctrine and his own convictions, and it is for the Catholic church to decide how, or whether, to enforce its own doctrines with discipline against individual members.

I suppose what I’m saying is that Cuomo’s and Califano’s convictions aren’t what they think they are. As I either said or implied in my earlier post on Cuomo, the arguments they offer to justify their acquiescence to abortion, sterilization, etc. were also employed to justify acquiescence to slavery. I suspect the simple fact is that neither of them think abortion is as bad as slavery. If they did, they wouldn’t have been so willing to go along with it.

One last point. The felt necessity of many Catholic liberals to make their peace, at least publicly, with abortion in some respects is just another example of what can be described as a flight from principle that has affected (some would say infected) modern liberalism. The sway of relativism in modern thought, including but certainly not limited to the post-modern excrescence that has captured more than a few outposts in academia, has tried to teach all of us that what we used to think of as our principles are really nothing more than personal preferences. Interpretation is more and more; text is less and less. “Without regard” to race, creed, or color now means “with regard” if one likes the regarders and their purpose.

Cuomo and Califano are modern Democratic liberals. It’s increasingly hard to see what their Catholicism adds to the mix, other than a little public angst.

UPDATE [7 December]

A meticulously careful reader, Linda Seebach (once an editor, always an editor), called my attention to the fact that in 2004 Califano recalled that the bishops were defused when he and President Johnson shrewdly realized that if they “used the term ‘population problem’ (which also allowed for solutions such as increasing available food) rather than ‘birth control’ or ‘population control,’ the bishops would stay silent.”

In last Saturday’s retelling of the same anecdote, however, Califano’s shrewd solution was “that if the president phrased his policy in terms of ‘population control’ (which allowed for more food and the church-approved rhythm method of family planning as well as contraception), the bishops would cool their rhetoric.”

“Population problem” or “population control,” who cares? What matters is not the actual fact but Califano’s shrewd brilliance. Just ask him.

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  1. Mario Cuomo, R.I.P. July 28, 2016 at 3:21 pm |

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