Not long before he was elected pope (overwhelmingly), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a public rebuke to the U.S. bishops. He reminded them that the question of abortion must be judged in a far different category from war and capital punishment. War is a question of practical wisdom, he observed, about which prudent Catholics may form opposing practical judgments. Same with capital punishment, which for centuries was rated by the church as just and sometimes necessary. By contrast abortion, Ratzinger wrote, is “intrinsically evil” and “always and everywhere” to be opposed. Many Catholics on the left wing of the Democratic party have never accepted this rebuke. The most some of them will concede is that abortion is a “profound moral question.” Cardinal Ratzinger’s point is that that question was long ago answered: Abortion is intrinsically evil. Never to be cooperated with.
There are other Catholic leftists who are quite anti-abortion. Too often, these wiggle mightily to avoid so strong a condemnation of abortion that they must leave the Democratic party, or, at least, refuse to vote for a politician who cooperates with the evil of abortion. They want, for instance, to vote for Barack Obama, even to campaign vigorously for him.
Well, the Catholic ethic is an ethic of prudence, not an ethic of doctrinaire consistency. It is not an ethic whose rules are those of arithmetic or geometry. Rather, it takes into account all the important matters that bear upon such a decision as which political candidate to support or to vote for. It pays careful attention to each person and each peculiar angle of each rare situation. Catholic ethics is more like a many-seamed garment, with intelligently designed curves and angles, than like a seamless garment, constructed geometrically. It is meant to fit the whole range of human realities.
But it also recognizes that prudence can never be used as a cover for committing an intrinsic evil, such as the killing that occurs in abortion. Typically, one candidate takes a secular stance on abortion: “personally opposed, but not willing to legislate my morality on this issue.” On other issues important to Catholic leftists, however, this candidate may be perfectly willing to legislate his morality, and theirs. Americans are the most moralistic people in the world. Everything we touch tends to be discussed as a moral issue. Except abortion — many want to turn abortion into anything but a moral issue.
Despite the fact that Cardinal Ratzinger, not to mention John Paul II, forcefully reminded Catholics of their duty not to cooperate with the evil of abortion, many Catholic leftists continue to cite the same American bishops who were rebuked by the cardinal and the pope. Why, moreover, do these leftists argue from “the consistent ethic of life”? Under the flag of “consistency” they are able to put virtually every issue dear to them on the scales. The result is to downgrade the real, distinctive, sui generis evil of abortions, which are now performed at a rate of about 1.1 million a year. They put equal emphasis on capital punishment and the “unjust war in Iraq” — the very thing Cardinal Ratzinger said they cannot in good conscience do.
Thus, Catholic leftists need the “consistent ethic” argument to make any case at all in their support of a pro-abortion candidate. Conversely, they must also argue from an “ethic of prudence” in order to justify their peculiar calculation that abortion is not as important as war, capital punishment, and their (highly debatable) claims about the “common good.” Even in its logical form, their reasoning is a tangled mess: “Yes” to a consistent ethic of life when they need it, “No” when they don’t.
In the particular case of Barack Obama, their case is an even greater mess. Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president, frustrated the will of the U.S. Congress by refusing to sign legislation outlawing partial-birth abortion. Even though this procedure means — just before a full delivery — puncturing the head of the infant so that the brains may be suctioned out, Obama, as an assemblyman in Illinois, took the same position here as the Clintons did: in favor of this grim procedure.
Worse still, Obama strongly spoke out in opposition to legislation to disallow abortionists from putting to death infants who survived a first attempt at abortion. At the federal level, this legislation was called the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, protecting the human infant born alive despite a vigorous attempt to kill her in the womb.
There are many pretty words that politicians, some Republicans and some Democrats, use to mask their actual practice in regard to abortion. They call it “a profound moral issue,” and they say they seek to make abortions “safe, legal, and rare” — a particularly adroit example of rhetorically pleasing everybody. In actual practice, though, they manage to keep abortions going just as before.
Senators would never allow themselves such disgraceful compromise if they were speaking about slavery. In the case of slavery, being “pro-choice” is not moral, as Sen. Douglas learned to his sorrow from candidate Lincoln. An irreducible natural right is at stake.
Of course, the Republican party was the anti-slavery party. And, alas, the Democrats of recent times have allowed the Republican party to become the anti-abortion party. For the Democrats, that is a disgrace. As a result, many Catholics have reluctantly had to change parties — or at least to change their voting habits. As a violation of natural right, abortion is even more extreme than slavery.
Of course, the abortion question does not affect all Catholics equally. Catholics go on calling themselves “Catholic” long after they have ceased receiving the sacraments or darkening a church door. But abortion does affect some large minority of Catholics to the core of their being.
No matter if the propaganda in the press and the cinema mostly favors the pro-abortion side, many Catholics are so close to births and birthing, and so highly value each newborn child, that they will never be led to believe that abortion is anything but intrinsically evil. It’s just plain wrong. There is never any excuse for it (well, virtually never).
Whenever Catholics hear the phrase “consistent ethic of life,” they look for the coercion and self-deception implied in it. It is a made-for-all-purposes excuse. It does not describe the ethics of prudence taught by Thomas Aquinas and favored for many centuries by the Church, and by the Lord Jesus himself.
In addition, those who call the Iraq war “unjust” are entitled to their opinion, but they have no serious Catholic authority. Neither the pope nor the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith nor the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, even when some of them opposed it as imprudent, have ever called the Iraq war unjust.
The other reason for supporting Obama that some Catholic leftists put forward is that very little in reducing abortions has been accomplished by the Republican party in the years since President Reagan. Is that claim true?
Well, President Bush did sign the two acts of legislation that Obama opposed in their state forms, the ban on partial-birth abortion and the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. These acts do not seriously alter the number of annual abortions. But they do establish in law the fundamental principle of the natural rights of infants in the womb. They treat these human individuals as worthy of respect and they defend their rights to live and breathe and continue growing into adults.
Two formidable obstacles have prevented Republican presidents from going farther. The first is heavy resistance from most Democrats (who until recently were driving pro-life Democrats out of party leadership) and some Republicans (country-club Republicans, mostly). The second is furious resistance from the liberal judiciary (mostly country-club liberals) at almost every higher level.
It is mind-twisting for reasonable people to discern how leftist Democrats think Obama will change his abortion stripes, and then go farther than President George W. Bush (boo! hiss!) in promoting a culture of life. Most of those who will vote for Obama do not think Obama is pro-life. Why should a few leftist Catholics?
During the legislative debate in the House, Democrats decided overwhelmingly to just go ahead and vote for the “Born Alive” act. They wanted to repress all debate, lest that issue educate the public dramatically on what real abortions are like. Abortion is best approved of in the dark, not in the light of day, where full and open debate might turn the public against it.
On more and more refrigerators across America, photos of brothers and sisters in mommy’s womb from just a few weeks after conception are already encouraging children more and more to find abortion abhorrent. The young easily identify with their siblings with tiny fingers and toes in the womb, and perceive with dark dread what it would be like if they had been aborted. Children after 1973 are prevented from feeling that they are gifts of God by the large figure blocking that sun — their mother, with the power to have turned thumbs down on their very existence. Children do not feel that they depend on the will of God but on the will of their mother.
I wish Democrats had not ceded the anti-abortion position to Republicans. I hope that those Catholics among them look again at Abraham Lincoln’s Peoria Speech of 1854, brought to our attention in Lewis E. Lehrman’s brilliant new book, Lincoln at Peoria. And I urge my old friends on the Catholic Left to be careful what they wish for, in wishing for Obama. And to make better arguments for doing so.
And, please, to hurry the Democratic party back to natural-rights principles.
Published in National Review Online August 8, 2008