Posture, Not Policy

I have become increasingly confused by the demand of Catholic thinkers like Germain Grisez (Catholic Politicians and Abortion Funding, 8/30) that we should be steadfastly opposed to abortion. I am appalled at the widespread practice of abortion in the United States, but I find Grisez’s arguments, like those of many church officials, abstract to the point of emptiness.

Does being opposed to abortion mean that they wish to re-criminalize abortion? If, as Grisez suggests, abortion was wrongly made legal by an act of raw judicial power, I assume he would wish it made illegal by reversing that decision. But a simple reversal of Roe v. Wade would not have the effect of making abortion illegal. Roe undercut state legislation on abortion by claiming a constitutionally protected privacy right. Absent the constitutional ruling, the issue would be back with the states who have primary jurisdiction over criminal law. It is almost certain that in the absence of Roe, some state legislatures would establish laws legalizing abortion.


Specific legislation might range from highly restrictive to more permissive. In short, the realistic outcome of reversing Roe would not be the abolition of abortion as a legal option within the United States. Women seeking permissive abortion conditions would choose a particular state. Easy access to abortion would be as it was in the good/bad old days, when couples went to Reno for a quick divorce.

To make abortion illegal in the United States in an effective way, one would need a constitutional amendment banning the procedure, an act akin to the Prohibition amendment. There are those who opt for such an amendment. All one can say is that it is quite improbable that any such amendment could be approved, given the general if troubled support for some sort of legal abortions within the United States.

But let us suppose that somehow abortion would be made illegal. What would the legal penalty be for violating the prohibition? One would think, judging from the rhetoric about the killing of the innocent (Grisez), that abortion must be tantamount to murder, or at least voluntary manslaughter. Would the normal, severe penalties be exacted in that case? Against the abortion provider? Against the woman? If the death penalty or long prison sentences seem too severe and one settled for fines or limited jail terms, what does that say about the moral/legal status of abortion? If not murder, what? Do circumstances count?

Proclaiming opposition to abortion without examining the very real and difficult problems of specific legislation that are presumed to follow from that stance may warm the moral sensibility, but it remains a posture, not a policy.

Dennis O’Brien
Middlebury, Vt.

Political Strategies

Most Roman Catholics seem to be in agreement with the church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion on demand. We are, however, deeply divided as to the best political strategy to pursue in the face of this social evil. The division I see is between those who advocate a political campaign for the re-criminalizing of abortion as soon as possible, to the exclusion of all other social justice issues, and those who do not. The case against the recriminalizing of abortion in the short term, namely before a national consensus against abortion is achieved through persuasion and consensus building, can be summarized as follows:

1. A law forced on the electorate by judicial activism (as was ironically the case with Roe v. Wade) would be unenforceable and therefore, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, a bad law.

2. Abortion would be driven underground (remember Prohibition) with a huge negative impact on the rule of law, on women’s health and without the corresponding good of a substantial reduction in the killing of unborn children.

3. There would be a huge temptation for the pro-life movement to declare victory and retire from the field, thus abandoning the essential task of persuasion and consensus-building.

The effectiveness of the political strategy of those on each side of the divideto put it simply, whether or not to vote for George Bush in Novemberis open to debate. What is not acceptable is that one side would claim to be advocating the only strategy permissible to a faithful Catholic.

Truth claims are not negotiable; political strategies most certainly are.

(Deacon) Brian Carroll
Berkeley, Mich.

Moral Dimension

Regarding Representative David Obey’s recent essay in your journal, (My Conscience, My Vote (8/16), I would agree with him that no bishop ought to coerce any parishioner into taking any course of action. The Catholic faith would be served much better when all Catholics witness to Sacred Scripture and sacred tradition by their willing surrender in thought, word and deed to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Included in this surrender, by the way, is respect for the bishop as the primary teacher in the diocese as well as for the individual’s informed conscience.

On the latter point, Representative Obey seems to be well informed, dropping heavy quotes from John Courtney Murray and Thomas Aquinas to anchor his argument. The substance of his argument, as far as I can tell, is that as a public official sworn to uphold the United States Constitution, he cannot force his private religious beliefs on his diverse constituency, especially when a particular moral issue is unenforceable.

The argument is very weak. First of all, is there any issue in politics that does not have a religious or moral dimension? Second, if we should not pass laws that are unenforceable, then are we to allow the legalization of drug use? Do we promote prostitution as a legitimate occupation? Third, who said abortion is an exclusively religious issue anyway? One does not have to appeal to Catholic doctrine to denounce abortion; there are other sources, like biological science, natural law, and the U.S. Constitution (remember we hold these truths to be self-evident, etc.), which can be enlisted to defend the human life being formed in the womb. The right to life is a human right, inalienable and God-given. Mr. Obey is a sly one and can give any bullying bishop a run for his money.

Nevertheless, what is most disturbing about Mr. Obey’s essay, for me, is not his specious argument, but his frightening ability to bifurcate himself into one part Christian and one part politician. He complains much about his complex position, but leaving one’s believing self in the church must take quite a load off one’s politicking self in the chamber. Would that Mr. Obey were a bit more complex, instead of swallowing whole hog the party line.

In fact, if he’s looking for direction in his impossible situation, then perhaps he should put down Thomas Aquinas and pick up Thomas More.

(Rev.) David Hugh Werning
Silver Spring, Md.

Though He Flounders

It was with both amazement and sadness that I read Representative David Obey’s recent article, My Conscience, My Vote (8/16). The battle over giving/refusing Communion to folks who either disagree with us or live on the margins of our faith continues to rage.

That does not amaze me or sadden me so much as what has not been said (at least to my knowledge) by any cardinal or bishop in the United States, namely the following reference to the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes: We must distinguish between the error (which must always be rejected) and the person in error, who never loses his dignity as a person even though he flounders amid false or inadequate religious ideas. God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts: he forbids us to pass judgment on the inner guilt of others.

As far back as 1958 our canon law professor, Rev. Maurice Walsh, S.J.recently deceased at Campion Center, Westontaught us clearly and forcefully. When a person whom a priest knows to be floundering comes up the aisle for Communion, the priest is never to refuse Communion and thus embarrass that person in front of his/her parish or religious community. The priest is always to judge in favor of the person approaching the altar.

William D. Ibach, S.J.
Marquette, Mich.

Reasoned Argument

Representative David Obey’s apologia for his stance on abortion is the most thoughtful and nuanced statement I have ever seen by a politician (My Conscience, My Vote 8/16). It made me proud to be a Catholic and a Democrat.

Mr. Obey shows how difficult it is to walk the fine line between American individualism and the Catholic commitment to the common good. He also makes it clear that the problem we face is not between religion and politics, but between morality and public policy. When we confuse the two, as John Courtney Murray rightly pointed out, we make a wreckage of them both.

His emphasis on the role of persuasion is particularly important. As members of a public church, we Catholics cannot abandon our traditional strategy of persuasive collaboration in favor of legal interdiction. To do so would be to acknowledge that we have failed in our mission of moral transformation and that we are now asking the government to do by coercion what we could not do by preaching and reasoned argument.

Charles E. Bouchard, O.P.
St. Louis, Mo.

Political Wisdom

Congressman David Obey’s article (8/16) shows just the kind of ethical and political wisdom needed to advance the cause of Catholic values in a pluralistic society. He has long shown this wisdom in his legislative work. I wish the positions advocated by his critics, including those who are bishops, were as effective in advancing the cause of human dignity as his. My thanks to him for his illuminating reflections.

David Hollenbach, S.J.
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

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11 years 11 months ago
I found it interesting that not one letter you printed (Letters, 10/18) in response to Congressman David Obey’s essay, “My Conscience, My Vote” (8/16), and Germain Grisez’s “Catholic Politicians and Abortion Funding” (8/30) was written by a woman.

But that small detail aside, I have to admit that while the writers by no means agree with one another, each letter was so well written, presenting differing views so skillfully and thoughtfully, that I am even more conflicted than ever about the issue of denying Communion to a public official who disagrees with us on matters of morality, such as abortion.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of these particular letters is their overall charitable tone, their lack of what the editorial, “The Catholic Mind,” in the same issue, decries as “petty name-calling, ad hominem arguments and a ‘gotcha’ politics of denunciation.”

Talk about studying a complex problem from all angles without rancor; only a Jesuit journal could create this cerebral dilemma! Thanks—I think.


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