Navigating Abortion Politics as a Catholic and an American

Navigating Abortion Politics as a Catholic and an American August 25, 2020



by guest writer William M. Shea, PhD


The background to this argument is my acute awareness of the two century long tension between being a Roman Catholic and being an American. I don’t at all think that Catholics thought or felt that there was any difficulty with being both but Protestant Americans surely did and they carped on it endlessly. They thought the papacy was a danger to democracy and lay Catholics were political sheep.  A few still do. But there wasn’t even an anti-Catholic peep at Biden’s nomination and these days he’s even been called “devout” in the secular media. But what kind of Catholic am I to be and how am I to vote?

Since the Roe v Wade decision in 1974 I have viewed with distress the way the issue of abortion has been handled in the public arena. My distress turned into anger when the Democratic Party, my party, proclaimed the ‘Choice’ to kill a human fetus a fundamental human right implied in the American Constitution. I not only objected to this intellectually but I realized over the years that I was being disenfranchised as a Democrat, with two results: abortion provided a wedge issue forcing millions like me to think about voting Republican; it provided the Republican Party with the opportunity to commit a monumental act of hypocrisy. Well, as it turned out I am not a one-issue voter while over the years I have evolved politically from conservative Republican toward what I would now call Christian socialism of the sort described by David Bentley Hart in a recent issue of Commonweal and in the platform of the brand new (2018) “American Solidarity Party.”

The leaders of the Democratic party are confessedly uninterested in the voices of its Catholic and other ‘pro-life’ constituents (and some conservative Jews and many Muslims) on the matter. Nancy Pelosi is an exception.  The DP has become the mouthpiece for other sets of latter day constituents whose voices are so loud in volume backed by pocketbooks that millions of Catholic Democrats must be ignored and even, according to some, excommunicated!  No wonder 54% of RC’s voted for Trump.

I was disappointed when the 1992 and 1996 Democratic conventions were turned into celebrations of abortion rights. I blame the Clintons for that, two people who sacrificed Christian moral wisdom for a pot of votes. In 1996 for the first time in decades I simply could not vote for the Democratic nominee because of his utter lack of  sympathy for the moral insight of people like myself. He even excluded our voice from the convention podium. Al Gore continued this morally spotted celebration of the right to destroy human fetal life, and joined to the celebration an appeal to Catholic voters by talking occasionally about searching for “common ground” initiatives. Yet he announced to the National Abortion League that there would be no compromise which means there is no common ground possible.  For the Democratic leadership abortion is no longer a problem or an issue, it is an unprincipled vote grab. The other view, my view, they can afford to dismiss because they know that we view the core values of the RP historically and as recently bent by The Donald as incompatible with Christian faith and with the social and communitarian vision of most Christians.   The Republican party to whose banner the “Life” forces flock, was unwilling to do anything significant about the issue in its twenty years in the White House. During their control of Congress for six years (aside from a bill on partial birth abortion, a bill which even a politically challenged person such as myself knew was doomed from the start), they lifted not a finger to promote a national dialogue on abortion. George W., besides mouthing his father’s empty Christian political rhetoric designed to “energize” his religious constituents and appeal to disaffected Democrats like myself,  never did anything to solve the problem. He, too, claimed to support life yet signed  more Texas State warrants for the death of human beings than any other governor in the Union. And he was proud of it!

What is a poor soul like myself to do, when now I am faced with the same shameless political maneuvering?  Should I turn to my religious leaders for insight?  They supplied it aplenty this year!  Priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals (not all of them, thank God) told me to vote Republican without ever using the term. Apparently I have a moral obligation to vote for Life and against Death – and their media water carriers made it clear just what they mean: vote Republican.  Of course, Catholic bishops never get involved in politics, not with the separation of church and state in our fair republic, so they could not use the name “Republican,” but they meant to turn me into a single-issue voter.

The bishops should know as well as I (they are surely no less observant and far more intelligent than I) that no mere president is going to be able to deal with this issue except by turning the Supreme Court into a Republican Party annex.  Nor is any Congress. The issue is beyond politics and courts, even the Supreme Court.  The candidates will again  say that a position favoring Roe v Wade would not be a litmus test for Supreme Court appointments. What price is it, then, that they exacted for their support?  They urged me to support a man as shallow in mind and spirit on this issue as he has displayed himself to be on all the others. There will be no check to the rate of abortions, and not even any money for the church’s schools, coming from Trump and the RP. Packing the Court will not work, for you cannot trust any lawyer who has a lifetime job and no one to answer to. I know this, the Democrats know this, the Republicans know this, and the bishops ought to know this.

For their part, have the bishops lifted a finger to establish a dialogue, local or national, on abortion? Of course not. They command, they do not converse; they preach, they do not teach nor do they learn. When one of their number started to listen to women on the question, the Great Men among them denounced him as a traitor. Another one of them, himself a Cardinal, tried to open up a conversation across the lay Catholic spectrum on a host of issues dividing Catholics,  he got the same treatment in the coded language of the Catholic hierarchy. Catholics themselves are as divided as the nation.  The bishops imply that I must in conscience vote Republican!

We have what looks to me like a cultural freeze on an immensely important moral topic. Bad faith, political hypocrisy and uncreative religious leadership are suffocating us now. I think we should start anew. The culture must change before the politicians and jurists will change the law. The country needs to educate itself on abortion and how to talk seriously about it.  Who is going to lead that effort? Who is going to aim at cultural transformation, at sustained conversation. Not the Bishops surely, nor the two parties, not the leading pro-choicers or the pro-lifers.

As for this election, I am caught between a man whose moral convictions, including pro-life, are non-existent, and another man who professes to abhor abortion “personally” and yet would allow my tax money to be used to support abortions. I’m stuck, not in my vote, but in my distress at the shortcomings of both parties and their inability to communicate honestly with the citizens and among themselves.  Democracy does not thrive in chilled silence and partisan hatred.

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