A Psychological Impossibility

In Victorian England, Thomas Henry Huxley was the most determined and ardent defender of Darwinism, thereby earning himself the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog.” By parity of reasoning, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League might be called “the pope’s bulldog.” Hardly an insult, let alone an injury, is aimed at the Catholic religion without Donohue’s nipping at the heels of the offender.
Recently, Donohue came across a list of members of Sen. Barack Obama’s National Catholic Advisory Council and let out a very loud yelp. For it turns out that more than 15 members of the Council are also members of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, where they all have strong pro-choice voting records. In response to Donohue’s barking, on May 8 members of the committee — not just congressional members but those from the academic and other worlds as well — sent a letter of protest to Donohue, telling him how wrong he is and how strongly compatible with Catholic social teaching Senator Obama’s policy stands are.
Although the letter was written by a very distinguished list of politicians, academics, and others, and although it was written in a very sophisticated (or should I say “sophistical”?) manner, it contained little more than the usual drivel that Catholics (or should I say “Catholics”?) trot out when they wish to justify their support for a pro-abortion political candidate.
What it boils down to is this: Abortion isn’t the only issue of concern to Catholics; there are many other issues as well (war, poverty, racism, torture, immigration, etc.); and when we weigh all these things together we see that Obama’s Catholic quotient, despite his not being perfectly correct on abortion, is much higher than Sen. John McCain’s, even if we concede that McCain is more Catholic on the narrow issue of abortion.
Besides, even on abortion, Obama, though not perfectly correct, isn’t all that far from it, since he views abortion as “a profound moral challenge.” That’s pretty close to the Catholic position, isn’t it? After all, the pope too views abortion as a profound moral challenge. It’s just that Obama has a somewhat different solution to the problem than the pope has. But reasonable persons of good will can differ on these things, can’t they? What’s more, everybody who is not easily fooled realizes that Republicans have never been serious about abortion; they have simply used it as a cynical gimmick to seduce pro-life voters.
I wonder what Obama’s “Catholic” Advisory Council would have to say if a letter along the following lines had been written in Germany during the 1930s or 1940s: “Killing Jews isn’t the only issue of concern to Germans; there are many other issues as well (Volkwagens, autobahns, the national economy, etc.); and when we weigh all these things together we see that Hitler’s German quotient, despite not being perfectly correct on Jews, is much higher than that of any rival political party. And besides, Hitler views Jews as a ‘profound moral challenge.’”
It doesn’t puzzle me that many people believe in abortion. After all, for many people and their friends and relatives abortion is often a very convenient option. Nor does it puzzle me that many pro-abortion people never bother to address the all-important question of whether the growing embryo/fetus is a human person. If you’re pro-abortion, this is a very uncomfortable question; best not to think about it. It doesn’t even puzzle me that many sincere Catholics are pro-abortion despite the fact that their religion condemns abortion as a very serious sin. After all, most Catholics are not theologically sophisticated, and it hasn’t occurred to them that being Catholic requires acceptance of all the teachings of the Church. As good Americans, they believe in “private judgment” when it comes to religion; the notion of a Church that “teaches with authority” makes no sense to them.
What does puzzle me, however, is that there are intelligent and well-educated Catholics (like those, I presume, serving on Senator Obama’s Advisory Council) who say that they agree with the Church on abortion, yet support a pro-abortion candidate (Senator Obama) for president. How can a sane person who has reached the age of reason believe on the one hand that abortion is unwarranted homicide, yet on the other support a presidential candidate who makes no secret of the fact that he wants to protect and even extend this homicide “right”? Unless you are a moral monster, you can’t possibly hold these two things at once, for they contradict one another. It is psychologically impossible both to agree with the Catholic teaching on abortion and to support a pro-abortion candidate for president.
I am forced to conclude, then, that those who say they agree with the Catholic Church on abortion yet support Senator Obama only really mean one of these two things: Either they’re just kidding when they say they support Obama, or (more likely) they don’t really agree with the Church on abortion. I don’t necessarily mean that they are lying to us when they say they agree with the Church. Maybe they are. More probably they are lying to themselves: They don’t truly believe that the unborn baby is a human person, but they think they believe this. (We should never underestimate the human capacity for self-deception.)
I’m not saying that Catholics of this kind have to vote for McCain. If you believe that McCain is wrong on nine big things yet right on one very big thing (abortion) and that Obama is right on nine big things yet wrong on one very big thing (abortion), it follows that as a Catholic you mustn’t vote for Obama, but it doesn’t follow that you must vote for McCain. On Election Day you can go into the voting booth and leave the presidential line blank. There is an impressive Catholic precedent for this: During the Spanish Civil War, when Rome and the Catholic hierarchy were pro-Franco, the great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain opted for neutrality, supporting neither the Catholic Franco nor Franco’s anti-Catholic communist-anarchist-republican opponents.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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