John Allen, senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, offered in Friday's New York Times a moderating interpretation of the Vatican's recent statement, "Dignity of a Person." Allen's concern is that conservative Catholics will view the statement, which condemns embryonic stem cell research among other scientific tinkerings with human life, as a call to arms against a decidedly pro-abortion incoming American president.
"Call to arms" is hyperbole, but it pales in comparison to Allen's rhetoric, which claims that Pope Benedict XVI's latest document on life "risks being read as encouragement for the most ardent pro-life forces in America to let slip the dogs of war." He also frets that the pope's document "may be the political equivalent of shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."
To counteract all this dog unleashing and theater shouting, Allen counsels the pope to find some way to "mobilize those Catholics who hope to build bridges." He doesn't want "strategic silence" on abortion, he says, but this rings a bit hollow after extended hand-wringing at the damage done by vocally Catholic pro-life leaders. Perhaps Allen isn't advocating strategic silence, but he does seem to call for less forceful talk. After all, if the pope says something that convinces Catholics that abortion is truly evil, we might "unleash the dogs of war." By all means, Pope Benedict, don't be strategically silent, but on the other hand, would you mind toning it down a bit? It's the kind of false verbal parsing one expects out of a congressional office.
In effect, what Allen is asking is for the pope not to be Catholic. Or at least that he be less conspicuously so out of consideration for the tender American situation, which is fascinating insofar as Allen begins his essay by noting that Americans comprise only 6 percent of the global Catholic population. But Obama holds out the possibility, Allen reasons, of doing so much good on other issues valued by Catholics worldwide, like banning cluster bombs. That may well be true, but it baffles the mind how any political observer-especially one who has made his living studying the intricacies of the modern Catholic Church-can conclude that long-term good ever comes from muting dogma for temporal gain. In the end both tend to be weakened, the faith as well as how it is lived.
I'm being unreasonable. Allen contrasts the seemingly warlike, irresponsibly active pro-life Christians he disdains with the more reasonable sort of Christian, who upon surveying Obama's anti-life positions is "troubled" but eager to find the holy common ground. I don't like being unreasonable, but it seems to me that if one is going to embrace an unreasonable doctrine, then one will at least occasionally be required to behave unreasonably. There is no reason, after all, in picking up one's cross and following the bloody-browed Messiah unto death. "Listen to reason," Peter might as well have said to Christ, having worked out already in his mind the most reasonable path to the Savior's reign. We are not called to reason, as the reasoned tone of the very first lie ("Did God really say?") ought to remind us, if it's not too unreasonable yet to thumb through our Bibles.
So, contra Allen, if you ask me whether abortion is a murderous, bloody evil that ought frequently to be put in front of the average Christian, I'll answer you with an old question that is still, thankfully, undeniably rhetorical: Is the pope Catholic?