Politics and the Pulpit: Cardinal George and the Lame Duck Session

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George earlier this month issued two salvos against the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, a same-sex marriage measure that was to be taken up by Illinois' lame duck legislature. It did not come to a vote last week -- too many of its supporters were absent -- but George's interventions highlight two important roles for explicitly religious voices in democratic debate.

First, as he points out, laws are not just about rights and permissions. Ideally laws tell us what being a good citizen of our country means, and they train us to behave this way. As the Cardinal says in both his column in the Catholic New World and his letter to parishes, "laws teach," and most people use them as shorthand definitions of morally, civically good behavior. The problem, says George, is that when laws are formulated democratically they reflect the vision of the political majority, which often endorses institutions and behavior that are bad for society. Segregation laws of the pre-civil rights era spring to mind, as do current laws that disenfranchise former felons. Here religious voices, when they are independent of powerful lobbies that bend to the law to their own purposes, can make prophetic contributions to the justice of the political process.

The local media's focus on Cardinal George's statements about same-sex marriage obscured the fact that the Archdiocese of Chicago handled the lame duck session slate well in this respect. On the issue of gun violence, the Archdiocese urged support of HB5831, which would require all firearms to be registered with the state. Although he did not address it again in January, Cardinal George spoke out publically against the proposed gambling expansion in 2011.

Just months ago the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which also represents the Archdiocese, urged the extension of Temporary Visitor Driver's Licenses (TVDLs) to undocumented immigrants to make the roads safer for all and to provide more opportunities for undocumented residents to live humane, full lives in the absence of national immigration reform. The only major issue of the lame duck session on which the Archdiocese does not seem to have gone on record is pension reform, which could easily have been linked to the long Catholic social justice tradition on labor.

And these interventions for a more just society did not all come from the top. Most of them originated elsewhere. Saint Sabina parish on Chicago's South Side is coordinating action on the gun violence measure, and the Catholic Conference represents the whole state, not just the Archdiocese. Illinois Women Religious are behind another initiative for which the Archdiocese is providing educational parish bulletin inserts this month: opposition to human trafficking. The Chicago Catholic hierarchy clearly cares about effects of all sorts of laws that teach justice, and the positions it endorses come not just from State Street but from many corners of the Illinios. Its advocacy for just law is much broader and more collaborative than the kerfuffle over same-sex marriage might suggest.

This rich backdrop of concerns raises the second issue: when religious leaders do speak on political questions, we assume that they have singled out an issue that is urgent, foundational, or both. Cardinal George's decision to devote both of last week's opportunities for public political reflection to same-sex marriage signals his belief that this measure defies human nature and threatens respect for the social foundations of our culture more immediately than any other issue of the lame duck session. He clearly fears that same-sex marriage will erode the very civic, democratic customs that support a just society. Any law that destroys its own foundations teaches bad lessons and must be opposed.

But when they make use of their bully pulpits, religious leaders must choose carefully. Their political authority depends on public trust in their compassion, honesty, and wisdom. This does not mean that they must bend with public opinion, but it does mean that their choice of issues must be compelling and their arguments must be well-founded and politically relevant.

Measured by magnitude, the lame duck session's other issues had more reach. The gambling expansion would more than triple the number of gambling positions in Illinois, putting opportunities for addictive, financially destructive behavior within easier reach of millions. Firearms registration and concealed carry law revisions would affect the 1.4 million Illinois firearms owner identification card holders, not to mention gun owners without licenses and millions more who are potential shooting or suicide victims. According to the FBI, over 55,000 violent crimes were reported in Illinois in 2012, a large proportion of which involved firearms. Illinois is widely said to have 250,000 unlicensed undocumented drivers, all of who are now eligible for licensing examinations and insurance -- to everyone's benefit.

Finally, Tim Blair of the State Employees' Retirement System reports that this smallest of the state's three troubled pension systems has more than 124,000 current contributors and retired members. The three systems together have the potential to wreck the state's bond rating and its budget, endangering health, education, and welfare for all 12.9 million Illinoisans, but especially for the poorest. Each of these issues has the potential to wreak cataclysmic damage on the common good of Illinois.

By contrast, the same-sex marriage bill directly affects about 32,000 or so same-sex couples and their children. A significant proportion of these couples -- like many opposite-sex partners -- would likely decline to take advantage of it. Assuming rates of same-sex attraction hold fairly steady, same-sex marriage will never become a majority phenomenon. But it may benefit the common good by completing both legal and social recognition for same-sex households. And it would certainly teach the value of partnered commitment, which would presumably raise respect for marriage across the board.

Certainly we cannot argue by the numbers alone. Cardinal George would be correct to say that all 12.9 million Illinoisans are affected by the moral messages of any law, good or bad. But local commentator Robert McClory has pointed out errors in George's accounts of the history of marriage that weaken his case. I and many others have raised questions about his interpretation of natural law theology. And many people -- both Catholics and others -- are unconvinced by George's argument that gay marriage will erode our social and political foundations. They believe society would instead be strengthened by renewed support for marriage.

Same-sex marriage's new supporters include state Republican chairman Pat Brady, who has rejected calls to step down after endorsing Illinois's same-sex marriage bill, as well as a coalition of 40 Illinois business leaders, including Johnson Publishing. They argue in an open letter that that the state's economy has between $39 and $72 million to gain from legalizing same-sex marriage. All told, more arguments for the common good of Illinois's communal life support the bill than question it.

A prophetic political intervention must have political urgency and political force. Cardinal George may have squandered his political capital by advancing a cause that has neither in a season that has too much of both.