Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Richard John Neuhaus is Confused About the Past

As we all probably know, Neuhaus is a Catholic convert and priest who has done more than most to forge an alliance between Catholics and evangelicals in the public square. And, of course, the abortion issue is the deciding issue that cements to alliance. Neuhaus pens an essay on the significance of Roe v. Wade, to coincide with its anniversary, and the annual March for Life. It's worth reading.

Interestingly, Neuhaus sheds more light on the origins of the pro-life movement than perhaps was perhaps his intention. He was quite right that, at the time, "the Catholic Church stood alone in protesting the immediate evil and long-term implications of Roe v. Wade." Opposition to the "right" to abortion was seen as a curious Catholic position. What he really brings out is how evangelical fundamentalism, at the very time when it was beginning to exert some political muscle during the Nixon administration, was fully on board with Roe v. Wade. Two years prior to the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant association in the country) called for a liberalization of abortion laws. And for years afterwards, the Convention passed resolutions in favour of the "right to choose". In fact, it was not until the election of Reagan, when the evangelicals assumed greater power, that they turned against abortion.

So why the enormous shift? Of course, Neuhaus assigns a charitable interpretation to the change of heart, dealing with increasing awareness of the plight of unborn. Occam's razor suggests a more obvious solution, however. The evangelicals embraced the pro-life cause because it became politically expedient for them to do so. It allowed them to defend their conception of a patriarchal society (cultural, not theological) while hiding it behind a noble cause. It was the Trojan horse for them to push forward with a social agenda that did not have the moral clarity of abortion. And it had the added benefit of deflecting attention away from the obvious conflicts between a Christian organization and the many social and economic injustices ignored by the prevailing individualist ideology. We also cannot forget that the religious right rose to power in the south, partly in reaction to increasing racial integration. Racism became uncool, but by wrapping themselves in the pro-life mantle, a new cohort of southern politicians could actually claim the moral high ground. That would be white, male, conservative politicians...
And of course, they used this defining issue to make common cause with like-minded Catholics, leading to a deal with the devil: in return for evangelical support, Catholics will turn a blind eye to the other aspects of Catholic social teaching that would go against the individualistic and nationalistic viewpoint of many evangelicals. Neuhaus attacks the "seamless garment" concept of Cardinal Benardin. But Bernardin was right, and prescient. Bernardin knew very well that it would be a mistake to divorce abortion from other issues, and to ignore the pressing social and economic concerns that drive women to have abortions.

Bernardin was consistently denounced by the right (with Neuhaus on the front line) for supposedly engaging in moral equivalency. The charge, however, is nonsense. Bernardin never claimed that abortion was of equal importance to every other issue on the Catholic radar. No, the "seamless garment" is an well-grounded in Catholic teaching, as it recognizes the God-given dignity of every human being.

And so, here we are. The pro-life cause is still a Catholic cause, but the alliance with evangelicals has done untoward damage. Many Catholics pontificate about the moral duty to vote Republican, no matter what. Simplistic and misleading voter guides ape evangelical tactics. The weight of Catholic tradition can simply be discarded, reduced to one-dimensional slogans. Bishops are mocked and attacked, often in vitriolic terms. And people like Bill Donohue feel free to parrot fundamentalist claims about evolution.

As T.S Eliot had Thomas Becket say in his great play, Murder in the Cathedral: "The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right deed, for the wrong reason". Indeed.

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