"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From the plus ça change department...

In 1984, the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave a now-famous speech at Notre Dame arguing that American Catholics not only may, but should, support legal abortion. Soon thereafter, the then-chair of the theology department, Fr. Richard McBrien, took up and expanded on that argument in book that is still in print: Caesar's Coin: Religion and Politics in America. (For a sense of what McBrien is all about, go here). I undertook to rebut said argument in my review of that book for National Review. I now learn that last year, Cuomo refined the argument in a speech before the Forum for Politics and Faith in America, expanding it to cover embryonic-stem-cell research and other matters too. It seems once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Since the text of Cuomo's latest is not yet available online, I rely on the refutation offered by Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton, one of America's premier Catholic intellectuals. I highly recommed his whole speech, entitled "Freedom is a Two-Way Street" and given at the Vatican last fall. It is a tour-de-force covering the fundamental questions confronting Catholics in public life. But for now, the refutation.

Here's the key passage; the words within quotation marks are Cuomo's:

Cuomo asserted that holders of public office -- including Catholic office-holders -- have a responsibility "to create conditions under which all citizens are reasonably free to act according to their own religious beliefs, even when those acts conflict with Roman Catholic dogma regarding divorce, birth control, abortion, stem cell research, and even the existence of God."

According to Cuomo, Catholics should support legalized abortion and embryo-destructive research, as he himself does, because in guaranteeing these rights to others, they guarantee their own right "to reject abortions, and to refuse to participate in or contribute to removing stem cells from embryos."

This is the same argument—albeit blessed with greater intellectual heft and charm—as that made by the Nancy Pelosis and John Kerrys of today. George's reply is spot on. I quote only the portion immediately following the above:

But Cuomo's idea that the right "to reject" abortion and embryo-destructive experimentation entails a right of others, as a matter of religious liberty, to engage in these practices is simply, if spectacularly, fallacious. The fallacy comes into focus immediately if one considers whether the right of a Catholic (or Baptist, or Jew, or member of any other faith) to reject infanticide, slavery, and the exploitation of labor entails a right of others who happen not to share these "religious" convictions to kill, enslave, and exploit.

By the expedient of classifying pro-life convictions about abortion and embryo-destructive experimentation as "Roman Catholic dogmas," Cuomo smuggles into the premises of his argument the controversial conclusion he is trying to prove. If pro-life principles were indeed merely dogmatic teachings -- such as the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth is the only begotten Son of God -- then according to the Church herself (not to mention American constitutional law and the law of many other republics) they could not legitimately be enforced by the coercive power of the state.

The trouble for Cuomo is that pro-life principles are not mere matters of "dogma," nor are they understood as such by the Catholic Church, whose beliefs Cuomo claims to affirm, or by pro-life citizens, whether they happen to be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists. Rather, pro-life citizens understand these principles and propose them to their fellow citizens as fundamental norms of justice and human rights that can be understood and affirmed even apart from claims of revelation and religious authority.

It will not do to suggest, as Cuomo seems to suggest, that the sheer fact that the Catholic Church (or some other religious body) has a teaching against these practices, and that some or even many people reject this teaching, means that laws prohibiting the killing of human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages violate the right to freedom of religion of those who do not accept the teaching.

If that were anything other than a fallacy, then laws against killing infants, owning slaves, exploiting workers, and many other grave forms of injustice really would be violations of religious freedom. Surely Cuomo would not wish to endorse that conclusion.

Yet he provides no reason to distinguish those acts and practices putatively falling within the category of religious freedom from those falling outside it. So we must ask: If abortion is immunized against legal restriction on the ground that it is a matter of religious belief, how can it be that slavery is not similarly immunized?

The liberal-Catholic answer, of course, is that there is a social consensus against slavery, worker exploitation, etc., whereas there is no such consensus in the matters under dispute. Hence laws against former are not impositions of religious dogma, whereas laws against abortion and ESCR would be. But that defense is a non-starter.

In a democracy, one gets laws passed by persuading enough legislators to vote for them. That is why, e.g., we have the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery, even though the religious convictions of most Southerners at the time favored slavery; that is why, in every state, we have laws against polygamy, a practice which some religions allow but which is opposed for religious reasons by Christians. Now a legislative process is all that pro-lifers advocate as a way of outlawing abortion. That would entail overturning Roe v Wade and returning the issue to the states. Of course that would hardly mean the end of abortion; one would have to persuade people on the ground, state-by-state, which would in turn involve the long, arduous process of strengthening the "culture of life" in various ways. But that's exactly what the Cuomos reject. They insist that Roe not be overturned, and thus that abortion remain a constitutional "right" insulated from legislative change. But which is it? If was OK to outlaw some practices that some religions allow and others forbid, why is not OK to do that now in the case of abortion? As George points out, the lib-Dem Catholics offer "no reason to distinguish those acts and practices putatively falling within the category of religious freedom from those falling outside it." This exposes their position as purely one of expediency: vital to their party base, the alleged right to abortion must be supported if they are to gain and keep power. But let's not confuse a motive with an argument.

Such a sense of expediency is only to be expected from unbelievers; but in a Catholic, it is objectively hypocritical. I say "objectively" because the lib-Dem political stance on "life issues" is objectively inconsistent with their faith. But they have rationalized their way into believing the opposite. As I age, I notice that much sin is like that. How much room that allows for divine mercy, I cannot say; only God can say how subjectively culpable the rationalizations are. But in the meantime, the Church can alert people to the objective gravity of the situation by doing what my own bishop has done, what then-Cardinal Ratzinger called for in principle, and that George advocates: denying the Eucharist to such politicians.

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