The Canadian Parliamentary Election was held on October 14. David Warren writes from Ottawa: “By common consent of the five major parties, there was no discussion whatever of abortion, gay marriage, ‘human rights’ tribunals, or any other of the civilizational issues that are, in Canada, decided exclusively by liberal judges” (10/21/08). What did the “Bishops, North of the Border,” as Warren calls them, have to say about this? The answer is stark: “Our bishops had nothing to say about this — or, at least, nothing audible. As American may soon learn, Catholics of any elevation are left with little to say, once the triumph of postmodern liberalism becomes so complete that a dissonant voice may be stifled in the cause of ‘national unity.’”
In the immediate post-election era, we see a desperate effort to “accommodate” the Church to the new political “facts.” What facts? 1) A majority of Catholics voted for a candidate, however charismatic, whose anti-life record is the worst among contemporary public officials. 2) The country is out of line with other “modern” countries who have long ago decided, with the Canadians, namely, that these life issues are no longer open to discussion by “reasonable” men. A religion that upholds them is, in fact, bordering on the fanatical. So, it is time to cool it.
Some eighty bishops, including Cardinal Rigali in the name of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), did make strong pro-life statements about the centrality of this issue, which are worth looking at on the Conference’s website. Still, Catholic politicians like Nancy Pelosi and the new Vice President, have no doubt noticed that many bishops, seemingly the majority, did not speak. Since they have not been personally excommunicated or denied Communion, some quiet rationale must exist whereby their pragmatic political necessities of approving pro-abortion positions, while remaining good Catholics, can be reconciled. A number of writers on the Catholic “left” have referred to the bishops who did issue statements as mavericks or a small minority. This too implies that there is deep disagreement within the ranks.
The Holy Father and the bishops’ conference have, in the meantime, sent gracious letters to the president-elect congratulating him and hoping for cooperation. These acts are subject to much speculation. The fact of election does mean that the new president has to be dealt with, even if he turns out in practice to be worse or better than expected. Whether Mr. Obama will imitate President Clinton and sign all the pro-abortion decrees he can immediately after the inauguration remains to be seen. Most pro-abortion and pro-gay groups expect that he will; others think he may be prudent.
But what grounds are there for this “accommodation?” The obvious one is simply to imitate the Canadians and Europeans where these issues are no longer “on the table.” No sense in wasting time worrying about them. They cannot in any realistic sense “change,” to cite a famous campaign slogan. Here we have the same “realism” with which some tried to convince Ronald Reagan and John Paul II that communism could not change, so we should accept it and be like the rest of men.
Another approach is the “seamless garment” argument. In practice, this view seems to be a proportionalist position; that is, a country and the world have many, many problems that have to be related to each other. The life issue in all its phases is but one of these. If we worry about that issue alone, we will neglect other equally or more important things, like poverty, environment, war, economy, heaven knows what. In this list, life issues may be significant but they must be “balanced” with other things. This is what Catholic politicians do. They are “protecting” the Church by showing that it is not a one-idea lobby.
Next, the lesser evil argument seems fruitful. In political things, the choices are not always, or even usually, between good and good, but, as here, between greater and lesser evils. So a politician or judge is confronted with two evils. In practice, the only alternatives presented are awful. He knows that. Thus, he works to effect the “lesser” one, even if that lesser one is still an evil. His only other alternative is to get out of politics, another evil.
When we spread out the list of possible evils that are connected with life issues, it is said, little things like abortion, which after all is a “right,” can be “tolerated.” The politician has a clear conscience. He is working for the greater good; that is, he is representing the Christian view by preventing something more heinous. He could not do this if he could not get elected to office. To achieve the latter goal, he must not appear anti-abortion.
Confused cries of “national unity” and “accommodation” are already being heard South of the (Canadian) Border.
James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.
(c) 2008 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org