EJ Dionne kicks on the Wayback Machine to pick up an argument started during John Kerry’s presidential run, pushed up to today thanks to Catholics in Congress trying to emulate Kerry. A coalition of 55 Catholic representatives, all Democrats, plan to issue a paper this week explaining why the politics of abortion should be irrelevant to their standing in the Church. Dionne praises this as a strengthening of the underlying secular nature of our government. He starts off, as did Kerry, by quoting John Kennedy:
When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he said some things about Catholic bishops that might, in today’s climate, be condemned as insolence toward church authority.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act,” Kennedy told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”
After reviewing the statement’s preamble, signed by pro-choice and pro-life Democrats alike, Dionne argues that this resolves a dilemma faced by Catholic voters who would gladly vote as liberals if it weren’t for their local priests:
For Catholics with moderate or liberal leanings, the argument from some bishops that they could vote only for staunch foes of abortion posed a wretched dilemma. It seemed to demand that such voters cast their ballots for conservative or right-wing candidates with whom they might disagree on every other question — social justice, war and peace, or the death penalty. All are areas where liberals are often closer to the church’s view. “Our faith does and should affect how we deal with issues,” DeLauro said. “But we’re rebelling against the idea of a one-issue church.”
The problems with this argument multiply with every pass through the text. Dionne is, as always, earnest about his subject, but he and the signatories of this statement are flat wrong. And while Dionne is earnest, these politicians who run as Catholics in order to garner votes show a hypocrisy that, unfortunately, surprises no one.
Let’s start by deconstructing the argument that Dionne makes in the above paragraph. One can argue what policies best serve social justice; Democrats believe that government programs do this, and in some cases they may be right, while the GOP argues that providing a better economy and less intrusiveness does this, and in some cases they may be right. Neither party runs on the notion of “social injustice”, and I credit both with honest but differing philosophies on how to create the greatest possible public good.
On war and the death penalty, Dionne argues this as if the Catholic Church bans both — but in fact it doesn’t at all. The Church argues against the death penalty as a practice, but its catechism allows it (para 2267). It also allows for just war, a concept conceived and formed by Saint Thomas Aquinas. In fact, it almost argues it as an imperative under the conditions set forth in the catechism in paragraph 2309, among others.
On abortion, however, the Catholic Church has been crystal clear and absolute for 2,000 years, as paragraph 2270 states (emphasis mine):
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. … Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,”77 “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
This “formal cooperation” goes to the heart of being a pro-choice Catholic in office. Merely proclaiming to be pro-choice does not put a Catholic in opposition to the catechism, although it’s hardly recommended. Actively voting to legalize abortion or voting against legislation such as the partial-birth abortion ban does put one in opposition to 2270. As the text itself notes, the Church considers that a “grave offense”, one that unless repented and forgiven in confession, mandates the withholding of the Eucharist. That is de facto excommunication, as the bishops noted.
There aren’t many “grave offenses” in the catechism outside of the Big Ten, and the Church considers this part of the “Thou shalt not murder” commandment. It is, in point of fact, a basic tenet of the faith.
Signing this document attempts to tell the Church that the faith must change one of its basic tenets in order to serve the political careers of a handful of people that already do not accept its teachings. The Church will not and should not become a smorgasbord of philosophy, allowing its members to dictate which parts of the catechism it accepts and which it discards. Any organized religion stands for truth in its own way, and this is part of the basic Catholic truth that members must accept to be Catholic.
And here’s the real point — Catholicism is not mandatory.
Members of a faith join or remain because they believe in the truth of the teachings and tenets of the sect. If they disagree with the basic tenets, they should leave and find a sect in which they do believe. The Catholic Church may not have the right to tell people how to vote — but they certainly have the right to tell people about the truth as they see it and to bar those who openly disagree with their teachings. There exists no right to access to the Eucharist except as the Church defines it. And those who commit grave offenses in the eyes of the Church have put themselves in a position of being denied access to communion.
The bishops have been forced into the position of threatening excommunication expressly because of stunts like this new statement. Their job is to make clear what the Church teaches, and since the politicians involved have made their alignment with Catholicism part of their political campaigns, the bishops have to draw a line and protect the catechism by pointing out the hypocrisy involved — and holding those who defy it accountable.
If these people want to be pro-choice and vote for abortion, that’s their right. It’s also the right of the Church to apply the consequences of those decisions.
UPDATE: Esmense claims that the Church was silent on abortion until the 17th century, but this is absolutely incorrect. Catholic writers have opined on this topic, and consistently argued in opposition, since the early days of the Christian church:
The early Church Fathers agreed. Fortunately, abortion, like all sins, is forgivable; and forgiveness is as close as the nearest confessional.
“The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).
The Letter of Barnabas
“The way of light, then, is as follows. If anyone desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works. The knowledge, therefore, which is given to us for the purpose of walking in this way, is the following. . . . Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (Letter of Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
The Apocalypse of Peter
“And near that place I saw another strait place . . . and there sat women. . . . And over against them many children who were born to them out of due time sat crying. And there came forth from them rays of fire and smote the women in the eyes. And these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion” (The Apocalypse of Peter 25 [A.D. 137]).
“What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers?
. . . [W]hen we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it” (A Plea for the Christians 35 [A.D. 177]).
“In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (Apology 9:8 [A.D. 197]).
“Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery.
“There is also [another instrument in the shape of] a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes, [meaning] “the slayer of the infant,” which of course was alive. . . .
“[The doctors who performed abortions] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and [they] pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive” (The Soul 25 [A.D. 210]).
“Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does” (ibid., 27).
“The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion [Ex. 21:22–24]” (ibid., 37).
There are plenty of other references as well. As I wrote earlier, this teaching goes back to the origin of Christianity. This also demonstrates that abortion has been a longstanding human controversy and not just something that popped up lately.