The Arctic tern, polar opposites and policy alliances

The March issue of the Smithsonian Magazine includes a factoid about the Arctic tern, a little bird with a remarkably long travel itinerary. This winged marvel migrates between the North Pole and the South Pole each year, following the sun’s heat from the upper hemisphere to the lower hemisphere and circling back as the earth speeds around its solar path on tilted poles. The annual trek for the four-ounce bird can add up to 44,000 miles each cycle. Over the bird’s average life span of thirty years, the total miles traveled can equal the distance of three round trips between the earth and the moon. The tern wins the prize for having the longest migration pattern of any animal.

Imagine the tern as the Holy Spirit, leading the Catholic Church from one end of the political spectrum to the other end in any legislative cycle, whether at the international, national, or state levels, and you have an idea of the migration required by the Church’s all-encompassing vision of social justice and integral human development. The Church is not an inhabitant of any one political pole, but works in both the liberal and conservative hemispheres, and maintains alliances with advocates of all political stripes depending upon the issue.

Just as the tern is, when flying from the world’s top to bottom and back again, only striving to keep within the warm winds of summer as they shift from pole to pole, the Church is following the rays of one shining truth--the God-given dignity of the human person--as it works on a wide array of policy matters.

Take for example the interest of the Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts in two bills heard before the state legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary in February. One bill, House 1468, is opposed by the bishops because it would authorize doctors in the commonwealth to prescribe lethal drug overdoses at the request of patients with terminal conditions. Another bill, House 3840, is supported by the bishops because it would repeal the so-called buffer-zone law that prohibits speech outside places in Massachusetts where abortions are performed.

In advocating against the legalization of a new threat to the lives of vulnerable persons posed by assisted suicide, and supporting the removal of criminal restraints on pro-life counseling at abortion facility entrances, the Church finds allies from the different poles of political activism.

Opposition to assisted suicide comes not only from pro-life groups but also from disability rights and libertarian organizations concerned that through a weakening of the homicide law the state would be sending the message that some lives are not as valued as other lives and increasing the risks of mistake and abuse. Opposition to no-abortion-speech buffer zones arises not only from those groups that believe abortion is wrong but also from abortion-rights advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union which are concerned that the state is squelching constitutionally protected speech on public sidewalks.

The Catholic Church in Massachusetts also works with a wide variety of groups on such issues as preventing the legalization of predatory gambling in the commonwealth, improving access to housing, social services and health care, and providing better re-entry programs for people who have completed their time in prison. At the national level, the Catholic Church is one of the few participants involved in the health care reform debate that not only supports reform but also insists that abortion coverage not be mandated or subsidized with public funds.

Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak is a pro-life Democrat. He sponsored a pro-life amendment, supported by the bishops, that was added to the version of the health care reform bill passed by the United States House of Representatives earlier this session. He noted in an interview published in the February 14th issue of the National Catholic Register that the Catholic bishops’ active role “has taken on greater importance in this Democratic-controlled Congress.” While additional progress must be made, the bishops’ pro-life position is gaining more influence in Democratic circles, because, according to Congressman Stupak, the bishops “have always been there” not only on the pro-life issues but also on such concerns as immigration and the war in Iraq.

It is important to be able to fly from pole to pole, so to speak, by being able to work with Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives according to an understanding of justice that transcends these political boundaries. The Church is not a political party or a social movement. The Gospel and Catechism cannot be reduced to planks in a platform or be converted into a political campaign. With respect to particular bills and specific programs, if they do not violate human dignity then Catholics can have differences of opinion about their prudence or efficacy.

But on upholding the dignity of the human person the Church remains adamant. This conviction guides the Church as it navigates through the policy debates of modern society. It is a focus that pundits sometimes find difficult to label in political terms, and it brings to our side sometimes surprising allies in our world-changing journey.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.