Church Pays Cost of Abortion Absolutism: Polarization on Issue Has Undermined Catholic Social Justice Teaching

By D'Antonio, William V. | National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Church Pays Cost of Abortion Absolutism: Polarization on Issue Has Undermined Catholic Social Justice Teaching


D'Antonio, William V., National Catholic Reporter


Until the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision there seemed a natural affinity between the teachings espoused by the U.S. bishops and the policies and programs of Democrats and liberal Republicans. It was a marriage not of convenience, but of commitment: Progressive legislators led the way to passage of a vast array of legislation (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, public housing, Head Start) that reflected Catholic teaching, while bishops supported the use of tax monies aimed at improving the quality of life for all.

That all changed after Roe, as the partisan implications of the growing pro-choice and pro-life movements gradually came into focus.

A decade after the 7-2 decision, the parameters were set. Ronald Reagan's Republican Party became predominantly pro-life, their Democratic counterparts pro-choice. Today in Congress, Catholic Republicans represent a nearly unanimous antiabortion bloc, while Catholic Democrats, once a toss-up on the issue, are now largely (though not exclusively) pro-choice.

Meanwhile, commitment in Congress to the range of social and economic justice issues outside of abortion supported by the U.S. bishops is largely a Democratic Party phenomenon; as a group, Catholic Democrats are the most significant bloc of votes for the type of economic and social justice legislation to which the hierarchy regularly lends its support. And in the 31 years since Roe, Congressional Republicans, including the growing number of Catholics in their ranks, are increasingly opposed to government intervention into the "free market," skeptical of social welfare programs, and more likely to support military spending and tax cuts than Congressional Republicans of 30 years ago.

National Catholic political leaders, it seems, are as polarized as Congress itself.

These trends didn't just happen. They are the result of numerous factors --increasing Catholic economic affluence, the influence of the religious right on the Republican Party, and pro-choice activism among Democratic stalwarts. Not least among the reasons, however, was the decision of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy to make abortion an issue beyond political discussion, a moral and legislative absolute.

The implications of the hierarchy's choice are real and significant:

* In the corridors of Congress, it made the "preferential option for the poor" less important, a matter of "prudential judgment" over which "good Catholics" could differ without judgment or sanction.

* It undermined Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's 1983 call for a "consistent ethic of life," an idea that would involve a broad-scale dialogue in the public arena.

* It gave rise to a new type of Catholic legislator, typically Republican, who ignored church guidance on a range of economic, social and military issues while remaining in the hierarchy's good graces through adamant opposition to abortion rights.

It is clear that 20 years after Bernardin's call for a national dialogue about what might constitute a consistent ethic of life, we are more polarized and in dispute over the idea than was true in 1983.

The background

In the 1976 election, Republican President Gerald Ford was mildly pro-choice; Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter was personally antiabortion. As late as 1980, presidential aspirant George H.W. Bush could mount a credible campaign for the Republican nomination (he won the Iowa Caucus) as a pro-choice candidate.

In 1981, Republicans regained the White House, and during the next several years President Reagan cut taxes, reduced social spending, increased the military budget and supported rightwing dictatorships in Central America. At the same time, Reagan's Republican Party adopted a strong antiabortion position, while the Democrats moved toward a pro-choice position.

In this difficult climate, with positions hardening on abortion and Republicans increasingly hostile to the bishops' liberal views on other issues, Bernardin tried to foster a dialogue about a "consistent ethic of life.

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