Published March 15, 2006
A thought exercise:
It’s 1964, and Congress is debating the Civil Rights Act. For years, the Catholic bishops of the United States have taught that segregation is an offense against the moral law. For years, Americans of various religious and philosophical persuasions have argued that segregation violates the Constitution’s promise of equal justice for all. A sizable number of Catholic members of Congress, squirming under the bishops’ pressure, have tried to counter the integrationists’ arguments by appeals to the “primacy of conscience” in relating moral principle to public policy.
Now, prior to a vote on the Civil Rights Act, a group of Catholic members of Congress issues a public statement. They “agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life” and the “undesirability” of segregation. They pledge themselves to advance policies that encourage justice, including racial comity. “As legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives,” they aver, “we work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being.” They believe, as the bishops believe and the Church teaches, that “government has moral purpose,” and they claim to “seek the Church’s guidance and assistance.”
Then eighty percent of the signatories of this statement go out on the House floor and vote against the Civil Rights Act.
What we would say about that? That these were politicians trying to have it both ways? That, whatever their assertions, those who voted against recognizing the full legal and political rights of African-Americans clearly did not believe that segregation constituted a fundamental injustice? That, their protestations notwithstanding, these legislators took neither the teaching of the Church nor the logic of justice seriously?
I think that’s what reasonable people would say. And I think that’s what ought to be said about the latest attempt to finesses the abortion issue, which came in the form of a statement signed by 55 House Democrats, all Catholics, which was released on February 28 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). The citations above are all taken from the DeLauro statement — which also pledges the members to some good things, like “promoting alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and improving access to children’s health care and child care, as well as policies that encourage paternal and maternal responsibility”.
But here’s the rub, or, better, the rubs.
Thirty-three of the fifty-five signatories of the DeLauro statement (including Rep. DeLauro) voted to support the legality of partial-birth abortion. Forty-one of the signatories (again including Rep. DeLauro) voted to make abortion legal in Defense Department clinics and hospitals abroad. Thirty-seven of the signatories (including — you guessed it — Rep. DeLauro) voted against efforts to constrain the courts from compelling hospitals and doctors to perform abortions. How do any of these votes square with the signatories’ statement that they “agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion — we do not celebrate its practice”?
This is the same old same old — “I’m personally opposed, but…” — tarted up in new vesture. One cannot speak credibly about the “undesirability of abortion” and then vote to protect and expand the abortion license. One cannot credibly claim to believe what the Catholic Church believes “about the value of human life” and then ignore the central question posed by Roe v. Wade: is the willful taking of innocent human life compatible with a free and virtuous society? One cannot appeal to the “primacy of conscience” to defend the unconscionable — any more than one could make that appeal in denying full legal and political rights to Americans of African descent.
It’s the bishops’ prerogative responsibility to decide what is to be done, within the Church’s discipline, about Catholic legislators whose votes support the willful taking of innocent human lives. That’s a matter internal to the Church’s life, to be addressed by the Church’s pastoral authorities. What everyone, irrespective of creed, ought to find disturbing is the obtuseness of the DeLauro statement. Legislators who, having vowed their respect for African Americans and their distaste for segregation, then voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be thought duplicitous — at least. The same conclusion applies here.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.