October 21, 2004

Catholic Wars

Over at Mirror of Justice the abortion vote gauntlet has been thrown down by Michael Perry. His challenge:

If you disagree with me--if you think that, Father Langan and Ms. Steinfels to the contrary notwithstanding, a faithful Catholic cannot conscientiously vote for Kerry, and, moreover, that there is no room for a reasonable difference of judgment about whether a faithful Catholic can conscientiously vote for Kerry--then please tell me and the other readers of this blog precisely where, in your view, Father Langan's and/or Ms. Steinfels' arguments are not merely arguments that you reject, but unreasonable arguments that any faithful Catholic must, in good conscience, reject.

I'm going to take a break from my normal topics to address this inside baseball question. The two authors he cites are better than most in making the case for the Catholic faithful to support Senator Kerry. Ultimately they fall away from the path that the Church sets down as permissible dissent. Here is why I think they fail. First Ms. Steinfels.

Diversity for diversity's sake is not a Catholic value, yet Ms Steinfels makes it seem like one. There should be no pro-Satan division in the Catholic electorate, were he on the ballot. Once you admit that there are limits to diversity of admissible Catholic opinion in public life, the question is where you draw the line, where does realistic compromise shade into material cooperation with evil in the voting choices of a Catholic?

The yearly abortion death toll (that is controlled by US politics) of 1.3 million american unborn, an unknown number of foreign unborn (due to US executive orders generally passed in Democrat administrations), and a prospective further increase in the death tolls via destructive embryonic stem cell research is not Ms. Steinfels most important issue, the WOT is. In fact the killing of the unborn which will top 5 million during the next president's term absent a pro-life change in the law and culture is down in the asterisks, not on her numbered list. I actually do not protest against this ordering of priorities. Her important issues do not have to be my important issues for her to be a good Catholic though I find her priorities to be disturbing and would urge her to rethink them as she's focusing on issues where fewer lives are at stake and minimizing attention to the big issue of life.

When you start to ignore reality, minimize the influence the President can have on abortion in order to excuse the grave error your chosen candidate expresses on the subject, that's where things get a bit more serious.

Catholics will never convince their fellow citizens that fertilized eggs are protectible human life

Well, all christians are in the miracle business, the evangelization business, and if you come to things with that attitude, you're really missing the point of these two realities. In fact, we can convince our fellow citizens of this because, on balance, we have been doing so over time.

About Kerry, I have come to the following conclusions: He will be no worse than Bush

The candidate who has declared for federal funding of abortion for the poor, who would (as Clinton did) wipe out executive orders and provide abortions on military bases, cooperate with abortion friendly family planning groups internationally, and send the very worst sorts of wrong messages to the culture is "no worse than Bush". That's not reordering priorities, that's paying lip service to pro-life values. Because of President Bush, the death toll in abortion is a few thousand less due to the illegalization of partial birth abortion. Kerry would have continued the veto pattern set by President Clinton. Kerry has taken extreme positions that most Catholics likely believe are at the far end of a spectrum. Sadly, they are not. There are two elements in the Democrat electoral coalition that would push things even further towards the culture of death and as far as I can tell, a President Kerry would have little moral ammunition to stand up to them.

One segment is the pro-infanticide academic movement led by Peter Singer from his bioethics chair at Princeton University. When Sen. Kerry talks about medical experimentation following the highest ethical standards, you can be sure that Peter Singer will get a voice on such bioethical councils in a Kerry administration. Singer has come out in favor of human infanticide up to the 6 month after birth on the grounds that a human child is less aware than a dog that can be put to death without legal consequence.

The second worrisome segment is the pro-human experimentation movement which advocates the end of animal testing and replacing that testing with human volunteers, irreversible coma patients, and prisoners. The efficiency and efficacy arguments in favor of such experiments are actually quite good. We've never been able to figure out how to replicate some of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese human experimentation in animal models and some have broken the old WW II boycott on that data in order to get some good of it (this would be quite similar to the Bush policy on stem cell lines, actually).

Presidents set tones, they use their bully pulpit, and they pass executive orders in their daily work to move the culture along. Their impact on the judiciary can be strong or not depending on whether they have litmus tests. A Kerry presidency will not nominate any orthodox Catholic believers to the federal bench. That is an astounding litmus test which has the effect of being anti-catholic bigotry. The Republican tactic has been to nominate strict constructionists which tend to be, but are not always, pro-life. This increases the percentage of pro-life justices while avoiding the political version of a nuclear confrontation over every circuit court nominee.

In short, Ms Steinfels would like abortion to go away so she can get on with supporting her candidate who will provide what she thinks are good things as he stacks the body parts high on the conscience of our nation. It is mostly a sin of omission, of being unable to look at the reality of Kerry's life issues stands for fear of being forced to take a stand against him. The refusal to examine your conscience, to hide away the sinful consequences of your actions is something that no Catholic can endorse. We must all eventually face our internal demons and defeat them to hope to gain Paradise.

Now, on to Fr. Langan's essay (.doc format). Here, the problems are somewhat different.

While Fr. Langan is quite correct that the philosophical reasons against abortion are necessarily emphasized in a pluralistic society's debate on abortion while theological motivations take a comparative back seat position compared to a state where Catholicism is the official religion, this bind both sides of the debate equally. This does not mean that the moral authority of the Pope and the bishops cannot profitably be deployed even in a pluralistic society. This is especially true when they are moral giants, not pygmies in pointy hats.

But even here there is a problem. If we must look over our shoulders at what will the atheists, the Baptists, the Jews, the Hindus think before we exercise internal discipline, we might as well throw away the canons and just hire pollsters, a great many pollsters. As Catholics, we cannot be ashamed of who we are and succeed in our mission. Internal to our own faith we must maintain our right to discipline our own believers in accordance with our own rules.

Fr. Langan's second observation is also flawed, but it is a flaw that is like many of Ms. Steinfels errors, within the broad bounds of acceptable Catholic discourse. Abortion is not a monolithic subject as any even moderately careful observer can readily see. While first trimester abortion legislation is impossible today, partial birth abortion clearly was not. In fact, the measure was and remains quite popular. It is this salami slicing approach to the culture of life that is likely to get us to the desirable end state of a fully implemented culture of life with broad support for it throughout society. Again, this is tactics, only worrisome if it becomes part of a larger mosaic of friendly fire, undercutting pro-life effectiveness.

Fr. Langan's third and fourth observations start to get on thinner ice. The theological objection to abortion is that it is the taking of innocent human life. The philosophical objection to abortion is that it is the taking of innocent right's bearing human life. Once you recognize that abortion kills a rights bearing human being, due process, balancing tests, and the whole machinery of equal justice under law swings into play and the vast majority of convenience abortions will fail the balancing test, saving the lives of those unborn children. Failing to apply his own point one to points three and four could just be poor argumentation and not "throwing the fight" so let's move on but keep an eye out to see if there's a further pattern.

Fr. Langan's Fifth point has such thin ice that he is in peril of falling through the cracks. The idea that push back, even violent push back, can justify the denial of individual rights to the most helpless among us is astounding. The concept reminds me of a story I once heard regarding the British fight against suttee. Upon coming to a village about to toss a wife upon the funeral pyre of her husband, the visiting englishmen stopped the proceedings. The local headman protested saying that the englishman needed to respect their local customs to burn brides. The englishman responded that he would do so as long as the village respected his local custom of hanging wife burners. Civilization cannot long endure where the application of its rules is conditioned on there being no strong words against its restrictions. Catholicism has never been civilization hostile.

Fr. Langan's Sixth and Seventh points are true but only in a limited sense. You do not finish a mountain climb by running downhill. As a good Catholic that is open to diverse methods and tactics one should keep an open mind. But there is a fatal error of omission here. One should not open one's mind so far that one's brain falls out. To accommodate diversity while maintaining fidelity to God's word, there must be some bright lines that cannot be crossed and remain in the pro-life camp. By speaking only of the need for flexibility without the corresponding need for backbone, Fr. Langan mis-frames the situation in a way that is very friendly for pro-choice politicians to pretend to pro-life virtues.

When compromises are demanded, there must be some sort of realistic pathway to get from the compromise position to the end goal. I have yet to see such a thing on the subject of federal funding for abortion, promoting abortion abroad, promoting coercive family planning, all of which Bush is good on and all of which Kerry is weak on.

Fr. Langan reverses himself in his Eighth point. Where is the flexibility to consider single issue voting as a possible strategy among the menu of strategies? Or is flexibility, not true flexibility, but merely code talk for reducing the prominence of abortion in Catholic voters' electoral calculations? Frankly, I think it would do the US political class a world of good if, for one election, in a predefined jurisdiction, Catholics voted single issue on abortion just to fire a shot across the bow so that we are taken seriously.

Fr. Langan and I find ourselves in agreement in the need to evenhandedly apply our efforts across parties in furthering the pro-life agenda. Each party should be cut an equivalent amount of slack. And thus we dispose of his Ninth point.

Fr. Langan is back to his misleading ways in his Tenth point as he assembles the straw man accusation of partisan politics and gleefully wacks it into submission. It's a pity that he misunderstands (or is that misstates?) the relationship between political activity and the internal discipline surrounding the administration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The political benefit accrues to the politician who can say, subtly or blatantly as circumstances require, "I'm one of you, support one of your own" and it is this message that drags the Eucharist into politics, not any discipline for wayward politicians. The political hogs have long fed at the trough of false legitimacy and now that their stream of free gravitas is being threatened with a shutoff they are squealing like stuck pigs.

Fr. Langan's penultimate point Eleven is simply removed from reality. Instead of persuasion and authority being in opposition to each other, the more effective persuasive efforts become, the more likely authority's statements of prohibition will be more listened to. One shortcuts the other. Properly done they shouldn't fight each other. First lay out the rule, then lay out a section of the long persuasive argument to lead someone to life. Once you've persuaded someone past partial birth abortion, past abortion as birth control, past abortion as avoiding inconvenience, the repeated lesson that the incomprehensible, short, authoritative prohibition worked well on all these cases, perhaps we don't have to go through the other dozen cases. The false choice that you either persuade or you prohibit creates a mental construct that disallows any synergy between the two and diminishes the effectiveness of both tactics.

Fr. Langan's final point seems to take back all of the flexibility he promised in points Six and Seven. It is black or white, persuasion or authority. Law, or individual conscience. The truth is that in a federal system with easy transport, authority will likely impose legal restrictions in some jurisdictions at the fall of Roe v Wade and persuasion will wither abortion rates in other jurisdictions. In both cases, the Church would do well to work on the weaker part of the complementary strategies.

Finally, I hope that it is clear that I find neither of these Catholics to have written essays entirely without merit. But that does not mean that they are entirely right, nor that there are no elements that are not just wrongly argued but unacceptably far afield. When you have constructed a regime where a little meaningles, private lip service allows the most pro-choice politicians to claim that they are good Catholics (with the attendant bonanza of votes attached) as they work mightily to thwart meaningful improvement in abortion legislation and even promote measures to make things worse, you've materially cooperated with the evil that they do.

Posted by TMLutas at October 21, 2004 04:51 PM