The main reason that Catholic Democratic politicians have been able for several decades to vote to support abortion without worrying about the Catholic Church rebuking them is because of the cover provided by several prominent American priests, chief among them being Fr. Robert Drinan and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.
This article in Crisis Magazine examines the role of Fr. Hesburgh in providing cover.
Standing in front of a famous 1964 photo of Father Theodore Hesburgh locking arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, honored Father Hesburgh at a party on Capitol Hill celebrating the retired president of the University of Notre Dame’s 96th birthday in late May. During her celebratory remarks, Pelosi praised Father Hesburgh’s courageous record on civil rights and pointed to the photo, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, taken at a rally just days after a vote on the Civil Rights Act. Pelosi was joined at the party by dozens of congressional well-wishers—as well as Vice President Joe Biden—all paying tribute to the priest that Biden described as “the most powerful unelected official this nation has ever seen.”
Biden is correct. Father Hesburgh has indeed exerted a powerful influence on our country, on our Church, and especially on our Catholic colleges and universities. He has received 150 honorary degrees, the most ever awarded to one person, and has held 16 presidential appointments involving most of the major social issues in his time—including civil rights, nuclear disarmament, population, the environment, Third World development, and amnesty and immigration reform. In July 2000, President Clinton awarded Father Hesburgh the Congressional Gold Medal—making him the first person from higher education to be so honored.
Father Hesburgh has always viewed himself as a “citizen of the world” and his secular activities reflect that. Father Hesburgh was the first priest ever elected to the Board of Directors at Harvard University and served two years as president of the Harvard Board. He also served as a director of the Chase Manhattan Bank. A longtime champion of nuclear disarmament, Father Hesburgh has served on the board of the United States Institute of Peace and helped organize a meeting of scientists and representative leaders of six faith traditions who called for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
On many occasions, Father Hesburgh found himself the first Catholic priest to serve in a given leadership position on boards of secular organizations. Much of his success can be viewed as stemming from his ability to distance himself from the authority of the Church. Such was the case during the years he served as a trustee, and later, Chairman of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, a frequent funder of causes counter to Church teachings—including population control.
Some of Father Hesburgh’s activities are curiously missing from the Notre Dame website’s formal biography of their beloved president emeritus. For example, in the early 1970s, Father Hesburgh became swept up into the “one world” cause and he gave a speech at Harvard University which called for an international agency to be created to grant people “world citizenship.” Suggesting that this would help to break down the great dividers of people, Father Hesburgh affiliated with the United World Federalists, and in 1974 became a member of the Advisory Board of an organization called Planetary Citizens. The mission of the now defunct organization was “to create, expose, and nurture positive change in the world.” Their first objective was “to help people around the earth to cross the threshold of consciousness from a limited, local perspective to the inclusive and global view required in a planetary era.” The business offices of Planetary Citizens were located directly across from the delegates’ entrance to the United Nations. This was convenient for Father Hesburgh when he was appointed to serve as ambassador to the 1979 UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development—the first time a priest had served in a formal diplomatic role for the United States government.
Providing Cover for Catholic Pro-choice Politicians
Pelosi described the party for Father Hesburgh at the Capitol as “bipartisan,” intending to bring politicians and staffers from “both sides of the Capitol, both sides of the aisle and all sides of Pennsylvania Avenue”. The reality remains, however, that Father Hesburgh has always held a special place in the hearts of Catholic Democrats like Pelosi and Biden who want to be able to vote in favor of abortion rights yet still be perceived as being in the good graces of the Church. Pro-choice Catholic politicians are grateful to Father Hesburgh because for the past 40 years he has been providing them with the kind of Catholic cover they have needed to continue voting to expand abortion. Faithful Catholics have been disappointed that the courage Father Hesburgh showed in advancing the cause of civil rights for African Americans and other underrepresented groups did not seem to extend to protecting the civil rights of the unborn.
This is not to say that Father Hesburgh himself is “pro-choice.” It is clear from his writings that he abhors abortion; he once wrote that “it is difficult to explain how a moral America, so brilliantly successful in confronting racial injustice in the sixties, has the most permissive abortion laws of any Western country.” But faithful Catholics may well question how Father Hesburgh can object to abortion while at the same time promoting the Catholic politicians who have done everything they can to expand access to abortion.