For Catholics, the abortion debate changed
Clearly the political landscape has changed with the 2008 election cycle. Less noticed in the secular media has been a significant change in the Catholic debate about abortion and politics.The Catholic Church has not changed its strong condemnation of abortion, and most Catholics who take their faith seriously — including all participants in this debate — agree with that condemnation.
Thus, the Catholic debate has not been about the church’s moral teaching, but about how to translate that teaching into public policy — especially in a nation where the legalization of abortion has become “settled law,” and where there clearly is significant diversity of opinion among people of goodwill on whether abortion should remain a matter of choice or should be restricted if not made totally illegal.
The move from moral teaching to political and legal strategy always involves practical political judgments where the Catholic Church claims no special authority. Thus, in his articulation of such judgments, Denver’s Archbishop Chaput made it clear that he was speaking as a citizen and not with his authority as a Catholic bishop.
Yet he continued to argue the “traditional” anti-abortion position — as did at least one-quarter of Catholic bishops in public statements made during the course of the recent electoral campaign, calling it the single most important issue for Catholics to consider when voting.
Over the years, Catholic opponents of the “traditional” position have mainly disagreed with the view that opposition to abortion is the single and most fundamental issue. They have taken the position often called a “consistent ethic of life,” one that says that the voter must consider the full range of “life issues” before deciding which candidate or party deserved their vote.
What has changed this year is that opponents of the “traditional” position have begun to argue that opposition to Roe and advocacy of legal remedies are not the only, nor even the best way for Catholics and others to vote. Many staunch Catholics of both parties argued that, despite Barack Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s clear pro- choice positions, a vote for them was preferable because of their clearer support for the kinds of economic and social supports that allow women to keep their babies rather than abort.
The often fierce character of this “Catholic debate” led two of the most senior Catholic bishops in the U.S. to articulate a third position. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre (Long Island) issued a joint statement calling for a “both-and” resolution to the debate. They argued that Catholics do have a clear obligation to seek legal remedies to abortion, yet have an equally serious obligation to support economic and social remedies for abortion — the kinds of remedies that some found in Obama’s ideas. Perhaps most significantly, they clearly asserted that while work toward both of these remedies was necessary, neither alone was a sufficient Catholic response to abortion. Thus, neither provides absolutely clear guidance for Catholic voters.
In effect, then, their position undercuts the absolute claims of the “traditional” position and leaves the significance of abortion for voting up to the judgment of the individual Catholic.
It will still take much empirical analysis to determine why “the Catholic vote” moved toward Obama in ’08. What is clear is that the debate in Catholic leadership circles has indeed changed.
John F. Kane is professor of religious studies at Regis University and editor of Leaven (www.leavendenver.org).