Hudson, Kmiec, and Abortion Politics
[This is a revised and somewhat shortened version of a letter I wrote to Deal Hudson last week; he has posted his own summary of the letter on the InsideCatholic website and promises to respond.]
I just read your latest response to Douglas Kmiec’s article in Slate about the possible appeal of Barack Obama to Catholics. You argue that Obama’s position on abortion should keep all faithful prolife Catholics from supporting his candidacy, even if they agree with other parts of his platform. You write that it is a mistake for Kmiec to suggest that voting for Obama is even an option.
I agree with you that the church’s position on the morality of abortion is non-negotiable, and that this fact should have some bearing on every Catholic voter’s deliberations. But in your rebuke of Kmiec–and more generally in your dogged defense of the Republican party–I think you are making a serious category mistake. If this were merely a matter of logic, I wouldn’t mention it, but I think it has important consequences for the way we think and talk about politics.
You lean hard on the legitimate distinction between the church’s non-prudential, non-optional teachings, and prudential political judgments. This is a real and important distinction, which has been invoked and helpfully developed by many Catholic theorists and pundits.
But those who insist on this distinction need to be very careful about it; they should not push it further than it really goes. The distinction between non-prudential and prudential is the distinction between what is simple and unconditional and what is complicated and contingent. It is not the distinction between the more important and the less important. Clarity and gravity are not the same thing. This is why the predicament of Catholic voters in the U.S. is not as easy to resolve as you seem to think. One can make a strong (but not unanswerable) argument that a Catholic should not vote for a prochoice Presidential candidate–at least not now, when the reversal of Roe v. Wade seems to be within reach. (For what it’s worth, I don’t plan to vote for a prochoice candidate until Roe v. Wade is reversed, or until there seems no immediate chance of its being reversed.)
You write as if the priority of the abortion issue should mean the same thing for all Catholics no matter what they think about other issues. Your easy confidence on this point would be more persuasive if you did not happen to agree with the Republican Party on most other issues as well. This is not a trivial coincidence. If your only options were, say, a rigidly prochoice Republican and a prolife socialist who believed that the United States should give up its national sovereignty and join a world government, I suspect your abortion-trumps-all rhetoric would change somewhat. As it is, your position involves few trade-offs. This is not the way it is for many, perhaps most American Catholics. If you believe, as I do, that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake and also a grave injustice, and that universal, state-sponsored health care is not only the most efficient and rational medical system but also an obligation for a society as rich as ours, then you will not find it so easy to settle for a Republican presidential candidate just because he says he is prolife. (Here, too, we face prudential questions, questions that require us to calculate consequences. We must ask ourselves how prolife a self-described prolife politician really is–how willing is he to invest real political capital in this cause? We must also ask ourselves about circumstances: What possible–or likely–effect will a politician have on abortion law now? His opinion, merely as an opinion, is of little political consequence until it is translated into legislation or judicial appointments. And these may have no consequence, or the wrong consequence, in a democratic society that refuses to accept the prolife premise. Kick it back to the states. Good. Then what?)
Of course the church has no non-prudential teaching about the details of health-care reform or this or that particular war, but that tells us nothing about the importance of the Iraq war or health-care reform as political issues. The church says nothing about the priority of the U.S. Constitution or the viability of nation states in the twenty-first century, but I doubt you consider these things to be of marginal importance.
Since both of us consider ourselves prolife, and since both of us acknowledge that the profile cause is, among other things, an important political movement, you may think the rest is hair-splitting. It is not. Your position–or, at least, the rhetoric in which it is couched–entails a terrible constriction of the political imagination. And it gives American Catholics a way to let themselves off the hook: they do not have to question the GOP’s economic and foreign-policy positions because the church offers no official pronouncement on these positions–those issues are up for grabs and therefore relatively unimportant. That kind of sectarian minimalism is really not a very Catholic way to think about politics. If the church’s social teachings are about any one thing, they’re about solidarity: solidarity between the born and the unborn, but also between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the powerful and the powerless. Not every part of the “seamless garment” is of equal importance, and not every stitch is clear, but we make a terrible mistake in clutching at one sleeve and forgetting about the rest. Prohibiting abortion is an important goal of the pro-life movement, but it is not the only goal. We want to prevent as many abortions as possible. To do this we will have to persuade our non-Catholic neighbors, people whose opinions are not changed by appeals to the church’s authority, and that will mean persuading them to think differently about what we owe the most vulnerable members of our community.