Late last month, 55 Catholic Democrats from the House of Representatives released what they termed a “historic” Catholic Statement of Principles. In substance the statement seeks to reconcile the support for abortion embraced by the Democratic Party with Catholic social teaching and a “consistent moral framework for life.”
This statement has been salt in an already festering wound for Catholic Democrats estranged from their party by its ever more entrenched pro-abortion platform. It is a position that has caused Catholics, especially practicing Catholics, to trickle away from the Democratic Party. Over the past years, pro-life Democrats have systematically been culled out of positions of importance in the party, and the official platform has come to mirror the mission statements of NARAL and Planned Parenthood. The idea of pro-life Democrats has now become something of an oxymoron, except in rare cases, like that of Pennsylvania, where the party begrudgingly trots out a pro-life candidate as the only possible way to defeat a strong pro-life Republican. This is especially disingenuous, given that the candidate’s own father, Robert Casey Sr., was denied permission to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because of his pro-life stance.
All the typical rhetoric is in the “Statement”: talk of a “safety net” for those who are “most in need,” a commitment to advance “respect for life” and the “dignity of every human being,” and of course, protection for “the most vulnerable among us.” Unfortunately it is precisely the most vulnerable among us–voiceless unborn children–whom the Catholics of the party have sacrificed on the altar of Moloch. If the party would only take its own rhetoric seriously, then the most important social-justice issue of our day would command center stage. There is no indication of that happening any time soon. As a result, Catholics who would otherwise be sympathetic to the Democratic Party reluctantly find themselves obliged to abandon it.
More “progressive” Catholics have often had recourse to the image of “big tent” Catholicism, appealing for a broader acceptance of heterodox opinions within the Church. The image is apt, in that Catholicism does embrace a rich and varied array of opinions, emphases, schools of thought, theologies, spiritualities, and apostolates. At the same time, even the most enormous of tents has its boundaries, beyond which it is possible to stray. The statement makes a feeble attempt at defending the claim that the “big tent” of Catholicism can cover abortion.
That is a tough case to make. Just as you don’t have the polytheistic wing of Islam or the seal-clubbing wing of Greenpeace, you don’t have the pro-abortion wing of the Catholic Church. Certain non-negotiable moral standards define Catholicism just as surely as doctrinal beliefs do. We all advocate a big tent, but it can stretch only so far until it rips asunder.
Moral teaching is just as essential to Christianity as its doctrinal beliefs are. The earliest Christian writings, such as the Didache and the Letter of Barnabas speak of the “two ways,” one of which leads to life and the other to death. Both texts (and this is in the first and second centuries of the Christian era) speak explicitly of abortion as an element of the second way–that of death–and as directly opposed to the Christian spirit. Since its beginnings, Christianity has viewed abortion as an abhorrent crime against God and man.
To justify their position, the authors of the statement appeal to the so-called “primacy of conscience.” Yet conscience is not a pass to excuse wrongdoing. Would it make any difference if a serial killer claimed he was following his conscience when he murdered his victims? Even if the politicians are following their conscience, Catholic morality makes an important distinction between good conscience and bad conscience, and a conscience that sees nothing wrong with killing the innocent falls decidedly in the second category. Our first duty concerning conscience is to form it according to the moral law, and especially for a Catholic, no doubt can exist regarding the objective evil of abortion.
True, the statement acknowledges the “undesirability” of abortion, and the signers hasten to assure their constituencies that they do not “celebrate its practice.” That they do not “celebrate” the greatest social ill of our time may prove cold comfort to those who spend much of their free time actively campaigning for its abolition. And as regards its “undesirability,” this poorly chosen term will likely provoke only indignation. Hangnails are undesirable; under-seasoned salads are undesirable; lines at the cash register are undesirable. Abortion is repugnant and evil. Can you imagine a politician stepping forward and (with much hand-wringing) asserting that he finds rape “undesirable” and that he does not “celebrate” its practice, but that he will not stop defending legislation that permits it? Such a politician would rightly be ridden out of town on a rail.
I would like to make a counterproposal. Rather than asking Catholicism to embrace its antithesis, why not forge a true “big tent” Democratic party where all are welcome, even those who are pro-life? Better yet, why not return to that noble strain of politics that prided itself on its defence of the most vulnerable members of society? Why not forego the precious support of abortion power-brokers and rediscover the roots of the Democratic party? No number of “historic” statements could match the impact of a lived commitment to true social justice.
–Father Thomas D. Williams, LC, is dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University where he teaches Catholic Social Doctrine, and is a Vatican analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.