Friday, October 24, 2008

Misunderstanding Chaput (UPDATE)

Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is getting no love, to use the parlance of the day, from progressive Catholics. Doug Kmiec implies that Chaput is biased against Democrats, saying that he "singles out" their policies for criticism. Michael Sean Winters writes that Chaput is “the second most vocal supporter of the GOP.” Journalist David Gibson suspects that "the bottom of [Chaput's] argument is that a Catholic cannot vote for Obama." All three statements are mischaracterizations. And it reflects, I think, a larger misunderstanding that progressive Catholics have about their co-religionist opponents.

Chaput’s basic opposition is to political candidates who support Roe v. Wade. As he wrote in August,

Obviously, we have other important issues facing us this fall: the economy, the war in Iraq, immigration justice. But we can’t build a healthy society while ignoring the routine and very profitable legalized homicide that goes on every day against America’s unborn children. The right to life is foundational. Every other right depends on it. Efforts to reduce abortions, or to create alternatives to abortion, or to foster an environment where more women will choose to keep their unborn child, can have great merit—but not if they serve to cover over or distract from the brutality and fundamental injustice of abortion itself … Yet for thirty-five years I’ve watched prominent “pro-choice” Catholics justify themselves with the kind of moral and verbal gymnastics that should qualify as an Olympic event. All they’ve really done is capitulate to Roe v. Wade.

This position is not, strictly speaking, Republican or Democratic. It was also the late-career position of Robert P. Casey, Sr., the late Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. On the third day of the 1992 Democratic convention, Casey organized a full-page ad in The New York Times which called Roe “the most momentous act of exclusion in our history.” Casey also opposed the re-election of Mark Singel because Singel, in a reversal of his previous position, came out for Roe.

In addition, Chaput’s position echoes that found in the Catechism:

The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

… The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."81

Now, our two parties have official positions about Roe. The Republican’s platform calls for the passage of a human life amendment, which if enacted would reverse Roe; the Democrats’ platform calls for preserving Roe. Naturally, the archbishop has made a descriptive statement about the GOP: that on cultural issues the GOP is “the natural ally” of the church.

It is true that Chaput has criticized pro-choice Democrats, such as Barack Obama. But that's because they favor abortion rights, not because they are Democrats.

Yet Chaput has made no prescriptive statements about the Republican Party; he has not endorsed, or even praised, one of their candidates for office. In fact, he said in an interview that “we are not with the Republican Party. They are with us.” That’s hardly the statement of a GOP booster.

If Chaput were a GOP supporter, he would say nice things about a Republican pro-life candidate instead of a pro-life Democratic one. Chaput said no such thing. For example, he didn’t imply support in 2006 for Bob Beauprez, the Republican opponent of Bill Ritter, the pro-life Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and now the state’s governor).

If Chaput were a GOP supporter, he would have said nice things about Rudy Giuliani, who was a leading Republican presidential candidate this year. Chaput said no such thing. Instead, he told Newsweek that Catholics would have to discuss their options:

"What if a candidate were right on all the issues except racial discrimination?" asked Denver's archbishop, the Most Rev. Charles Chaput. "Why isn't [abortion] as important as that?" If Giuliani is the nominee, Chaput says, Catholics will have to choose between the lesser of two evils or stay home from the polls in protest.

For what it is worth, I suspect that the archbishop is a Democrat. He invited me to give the annual Bob Casey lecture at the archdiocese. In talking with him, I learned that he is as much of a strong pro-life Democrat as Casey himself. As a young seminarian, he worked as an “active volunteer” for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He supported Jimmy Carter’s presidential bids in 1976. He opposed the Iraq war and some of the GOP’s attempts at cracking down on illegal immigration.

Chaput has offered encouragement to Catholics who oppose abortion but don’t seek to criminalize the procedure. But his position, as well as that of Casey, is that overturning Roe is foundational.

This makes sense to me. Consider the issue of slavery. In 1857, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott declared that black Americans were the property of their masters. Was it really possible to oppose slavery but favor Dred Scott?

This is a question that I think that progressive pro-lifers need to ask.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the pro-life committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement Tuesday that criticized the notion that seeking to reduce the abortion rate was a sufficient pro-life strategy.

Mark Stricherz


Michael Bindner said...

As important as the moral implications of Roe are its practical implications. Restoring the pre-Roe status quo would, in reality, permit states to impose fines on doctors.

Granted, fining doctors would also allow the padlocking of abortion clinics - which would lead to self-induced and back alley abortions, as well as the nullification of much of 14th Amendment law.

Given the limited nature of the Right to Life movements objectives and the possible fall-out, this can hardly be considered issue one.

Estimated Prophet said...

I have indeed been surprised to read some of Archbishop Chaput's writings which make it clear that while he cannot justify voting for a pro-choice candidate he respects those of faith who choose to do so "despite" the pro-choice position. It is heavily nuanced, but much more in unity with "Faithful Citizenship" than the statements of others which do not offer any possibility of an Obama vote or those Catholics who would try to justify acceptance of abortion.