There seems to be a battle going on between the Catholic Right and Democratic Party-aligned groups such as Catholics United as to who truly speaks for American Catholics. On issues such as war and economics, while Catholics United usually stands where I do, on issues such as abortion, and stem cell research they do not.
So who speaks for me?
Abortion reduction; Overturning Roe v. Wade; Homosexual marriage; Embryonic stem cell research. These are all issues where I stand in polar opposition to the hierarchy of my Catholic faith. And while I stand in opposition to orthodox teaching on these matters, I still am a Catholic.
On some issues (artificial birth control, embryonic stem cell research and LGBT rights) I believe that Church teaching is incorrect and must be revisited. On abortion, while I have qualms with abortion for any reason beyond the first trimester, I also recognize for a woman it is quite often not a simple black-and-white, good-versus-evil decision. Beyond that, I still don’t know of any Scriptural authority that declares that abortion is murder. If anything,, most Judeo-Christian thought on the subject treat it as a matter subject to equitable calculation.
More often than not, the circumstances surrounding an abortion are filled with grey. Case in point: the nine-year-old Brazilian girl impregnated in an incest rape. Unlike the Brazilian archbishop who attempted to stop the victim’s abortion, most American Catholics would recognize abortion as the lesser of two evils.
This bring me to some observations on groups such as Catholics United and Catholics Democrats, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. They do differ from the Catholic Right in that they understand that abortion is not the sole definer of a pro-lifer and that a pro-life perspective infuses economic liberalism.
I must disagree with my good friend Frederick Clarkson that the presence of these groups represents “creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party.” Based upon my personal experience, these folks are drawing on a particular teaching on their faith (more on that below) known as Consistent Ethic of Life or “the seamless garment;” the notion that all life is sacred. When we talk about a Bill Donohue or a Robert Sirico opposing abortion at all costs, they are clearly illiberal cultural warriors. A strong case can be made that these icons of the Catholic Right are using abortion and LGBT rights as wedge issues primarily to elect laissez-faire economic conservatives.
Both Catholics United and Catholic Democrats have called out the hypocrisy of the Catholic Right on economics, war and torture. And although they ultimately oppose abortion and are using the idea of abortion reduction as a means to its elimination, that does not make them illiberal. A better description of their point of view clashing with pro-choice liberal was put forth by former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh as one school of liberalism versus another.
But despite the fact that Catholics both Right and Left, see abortion as an evil to be eradicated, there are many other Christians both Catholic and non-Catholic who view abortion differently than Bill Donohue or Chris Korzen. For their rest of us, it is a matter of freedom of conscience. All things being equal, who am I to dictate to them how to follow their consciences?
As I said above, these groups are drawing upon certain Catholic teachings on abortion and related issues. But with that said, they fail to recognize the full measure of their positions with regard to non-Catholic America. I wonder if my good friends at Catholic United and Catholic Democrats understand that they are embracing a form of religious supremacy? While they most likely don’t see it that way, that is the only way to describe their desire to eliminate abortion. Because of this, they too do not speak for me as a Catholic.
While I’m uncomfortable with an abortion under any circumstance, I am even more uncomfortable with using the state to impose the tenets of any given theology. This is antithetical to the religious pluralism that is foundational to our constitution and to the common sense of a democratic society. Put another way, if my faith can do it to others, then someday another faith can do the same to mine.
Here is how I (and most of the Catholics I personally know) feel about issues such as abortion: these are matters of conscience best left to individual citizens to decide. Yes, I personally would like to see a reduction in the number of abortions performed in the United States, but I do not want to see access to the procedure limited in any way whatsoever. Beyond that, while abstinence-only education may be the desire of many religious folks, especially among the Catholic Right, it just isn’t realistic. The best approach is comprehensive, medically accurate sex education.
A few months ago I was discussing abortion with my uncle who is about eighteen years older than me. Like me he attends Mass regularly, but unlike me he is a conservative Republican. And yet he is pro-choice. He recalled the time before Roe — when women were found dead in sewers and back alleys from botched abortions. My uncle concluded that as much as he may not like abortion, he said he never wants to go back to those days.
So, once again the question must be posed: As a pro-choice Catholic, who speaks for me?