Is Abortion a “Catholic” Issue?

The charge— and such it is — resounded for years in the debate over abortion. Now it has an antique ring to it. Jerry Falwell and the evangelical Protestants have seen to that.

But abortion as a Catholic issue has arisen afresh, with a new twist. The charge nowadays is that abortion has been able to maintain its hold on American law only because Catholics allow it.

This charge is heard often in the anti-abortion camp. It has been articulated most clearly and forcefully by Ellen McCormack.

Her name is not a household word. More than six years have passed since Mrs. McCormack ran for the Democratic presidential nomination on a right-to-life ticket. The Long Island housewife was probably the unlikeliest entry in any race since an elderly Irish workhorse named Tipperary Tim abandoned his wagon to run in England’s Grand National. (He won. Mrs. McCormack lost to Jimmy Carter, himself a rather unlikely entry.) Yet few can outdistance her as an analyst of abortion politics.

Speaking at a meeting of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Mrs. McCormack observed that Catholic senators from heavily Catholic states have been blocking a Human Life Amendment guaranteeing the unborn child’s right to life.

“Time and time again we find it is Catholic senators from the northern states that lead the fight for abortion — especially Catholic Democratic senators,” she said. Mrs. McCormack cited Edward Kennedy and Daniel P. Moynihan, as well as former Senator Edmund Muskie and former Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.

“All of these senators are Catholic, all of them are Democrats, and all of them have become militant advocates for the pro-abortion position.”

The vote of each senator is critical. Mrs. McCormack pointed out that a single senator’s vote choked off Sen. Jesse Helms’s Human Life Bill last year, when it lost 47-46. Only two senators from the 13 most heavily Catholic states voted for this key anti-abortion legislation. Of the 26 senators from these states, where Catholics total more than a third of the people, all but two regularly oppose anti¬abortion efforts in the Senate.

Does this sound as though abortion is a Catholic issue? Certainly not in the old sense. But certainly so in the new sense: that abortion maintains its hold on American law only because Catholics allow it.

Further evidence offered by Mrs. McCormack is persuasive. Traditionally the Democratic party has been the party of Catholics, yet she recalled that the 1980 Democratic National Convention not only endorsed a pro- abortion position but passed a resolution against funding any pro-life candidate. During last year’s gubernatorial race in New York, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor declared that no anti-abortion Democrat should be nominated for an important post. Although Catholic voters in New York State are numerous enough to decide any major election, the state has elected one pro-abortion governor after another: Nelson Rockefeller, Hugh Carey (a Catholic), and now Mario Cuomo (also a Catholic). Pro- choice politicians have rung up a similar record in other heavily Catholic states.

Catholics, it seems, don’t care. That is, they don’t care enough about abortion to think a politician disqualifies himself when he promotes abortion, or wants to pay abortionists with tax monies, or votes against legislation that would limit such payment, or vetoes legislation that would do any of these things.

Why don’t Catholics care? The reason is so obvious that it could almost be reached a priori, before the evidence is tabulated. It is a lack of unequivocal leadership from the bishops. Catholics don’t care because their bishops don’t seem to care.

Here the appearance is deceiving. Many bishops care tremendously, and show it. The bishops as a conference vote regularly and unanimously to support their Committee for Pro-Life Activities. A number of bishops give from their own pocket to the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, a lobbying office was founded by a group of bishops when the Supreme Court overturned most laws restricting abortion. Some few bishops even picket abortion centers. Almost all preach powerful sermons or write profound letters against abortion.

But when it comes to the vote, and to guiding Catholics on the ethics of voting for a pro-choice candidate, the bishops are on record listing abortion as one issue among many. They expressly hope “that voters will examine the positions of candidates on the full range of issues.” When abortion is listed first among the issues, it is, with the explanation that the list is “in alphabetical order.” Put, for all practical purposes, on a level with abortion are “unemployment, adequate educational opportunity for all, an equitable food policy both domestic and worldwide, the right to a decent home and health care, human rights across the globe, intelligent arms limitation and many other social justice issues.”

True, the bishops note “that our profound concern for the specific issue of abortion is based on the fact that life is not only a value in itself but is absolutely fundamental to the realization of all . . . human rights.” A clear statement of principle, indeed. Yet from that principle they do not draw the ethical conclusion that a politician who attacks the right to life by favoring abortion disqualifies himself from public office.

This may sound like single-issue politics, but it is not. Single-issue politics holds a candidate qualified for office because he is on the right side of an important issue, or working for the interests of a certain group. It deals in matters of partisanship or prudence, not of principle. Bloc voting by minorities is an example of single-issue politics. Lobbyists are its most practiced devotees.

Carried to the uttermost, a single-issue strategy on full employment (for example) would favor Mao Tse-tung because he had a workable full-employment policy. But under normal conditions voters don’t go to such absurd extremes. A politician like Mao disqualifies himself in their eyes. They might be hell-bent on full employment, but not at the price of forced labor, wholesale confiscations, and procrustean reductions in the labor pool.

That’s where disqualifying issues (as distinct from “single” issues” enter in. They set limits. They deal in principles, not in mere prudential policies and still less in partisanship. Precisely because they deal in principles they can never go to absurd extremes. In fact it is disqualifying issues that keep partisanship and the “single” issues that create partisanship from reaching such extremes.

Disqualifying issues ordinarily go unnoticed because they can ordinarily be taken for granted. They are the foundational issues, the constitutional issues in a narrow or large sense, such as the basic rights: to life, to marriage, to property. When however one of these basic rights is assaulted or neglected, it comes to the fore as a disqualifying issue, disqualifying any politician who attacks it or fudges it.

At that point defense of the assaulted right becomes paramount. It transcends partisanship and lesser issues, including “single” issues. It cuts deep across party lines because driven by the moral imperative to defend or restore a good essential to the polity.

This is the politics of disqualification. Naturally the disqualifying issue, because paramount, takes on characteristics of the “single” issue. Yet single-issue voting operates outside the realm of necessary political principles: it is only a means, albeit a superb and at times indispensable means, to a goal that not all voters would or should consider essential. The politics of disqualification, on the other hand, stems from the need to defend or restore a good that all voters would or should consider essential.

Even in normal times the politics of disqualification is at work, but not in the field of issues, only in the question of integrity. Here a politician is disqualified by vice.

Disqualifying vices have shifted with our mores over the past quarter-century. Dishonesty is still a disqualification (witness the pursuit of Richard Nixon), but habitual fornication (“a swinging lifestyle”) apparently is not.

Catholics too have found that their own notion of a disqualifying vice, and even of a disqualifying issue, is drifting with the ethos of society. Yet if anything remains a disqualifying issue and a disqualifying vice among Catholics, it should be abortion.

Catholic teaching on abortion is unequivocal and terrible, in the deepest sense of the word. Abortion and the related practice of infanticide (now a burning public issue) are branded “abominable crimes” by the Second Vatican Council. Abortionist and mother alike are automatically excommunicated. Catholics are summoned to something akin to civil disobedience when laws favor abortion: ” . . . whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law that would admit in principle the liceity (permissibility) of abortion,” wrote the Holy See’s Doctrinal Congregation in 1974. “Moreover,” that same authority continued with the express ratification of the Pope, “he may not collaborate in its application.”

Hence the hue and cry of 1976 when Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, then president of the Catholic bishops’ conference and now Cardinal of Chicago, declared his “outrage” at candidate Jimmy Carter’s stated opposition to a constitutional amendment to restore pre-natal children’s right to life. Was the archbishop telling Catholics that candidate Carter had disqualified himself? Was he undercutting the Democratic Party? Was he telling Catholics to vote for Gerald Ford?

Jimmy Carter thought so. He demanded audience, and met Archbishop Bernardin and other leaders of the bishops in what an insider describes as a “brutal” confrontation. Carter brushed aside a list of issues the bishops had planned to discuss. He wanted to talk about abortion, and about Archbishop Bernardin’s declared “outrage” at the Democratic Party’s abortion plank.

Carter’s own indignation echoed clamorously within the bishops’ conference. At least one of the conference’s most powerful bureaucrats, a lifelong Democrat, threatened to resign. The upshot was a statement from the 48 bishops of the central committee that abortion was “among our concerns,” along with “the issues of unemployment, adequate educational opportunity,” and other desiderata down to “human rights across the globe.”

Nor did this statement fade from sight once it had given candidate Carter his clearance. It and similar election statements of the bishops’ conference have returned in subsequent elections to demote the politics of disqualification to the rank of single-issue voting.

For the 1980 elections, when Carter was running against a declared anti-abortion candidate, the bishops once again urged Catholics to “examine the positions of candidates on the full range of issues.” In the 1982 congressional and gubernatorial elections, a Catholic priest who had served in Congress, Father Robert Cornell, expressly appealed to the bishops’ statements when he backed up two pro-abortion candidates. He urged that Catholics “not make important electoral decisions on the basis of a single narrow issue.”

Most recently, Archbishop Edmund Szoka of Detroit used the same argument in justifying a nun who took a political appointment involving payment for some 20,000 abortions a year in Michigan. The nun was doing so many good things in her job as director of the Department of Social Services, he pointed out. Why then all the fuss about abortion? “To make such a big issue of this one thing seems a bit sensational,” he complained.

Not all Catholics accepted Archbishop Szoka’s argument, nor by implication the argument of the bishops’ conference. The archbishop retreated and demanded the nun’s resignation after ads of protest ran in The Wall Street Journal and various Detroit newspapers.

Mrs. McCormack too takes another view. The continued ensconcement of abortion in American law and in American life “depends on whether Catholics will henceforth vote for candidates on the basis of principles and issues,” she told the Catholic League.

“If they rationalize that abortion is only one issue, and so will support a candidate even if he or she takes an anti-life position, then the Right-to-life movement is doomed.”


  • Patrick Riley

    Patrick Riley was with the DeRance Foundation when he wrote this article in 1984.

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