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Steinfels, McKenna & Commonweal

George McKenna, then a political scientist at the City College of New York, wrote a terrific piece for the Atlantic in 1995, “On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position.” I recommended it to friends, both defenders and opponents of Roe, and quoted from it on occasion in talks. McKenna argued that Lincoln, although firmly opposed to slavery as a great moral evil, knew that it was politically impossible to abolish the practice where it already existed. The only tenable political position for those seeking to end slavery was to oppose its establishment in new territories and states. Once cabined in that fashion, slavery would eventually collapse on its own. McKenna drew a strong parallel between Lincoln’s position on slavery and the prolife cause. It was a long essay and a subtle argument, but McKenna summarized his proposed prolife strategy in the following phrase: “permit, restrict, discourage.” That position made a lot of sense to me, especially McKenna’s observation that “we must remember that [Lincoln] intended to conduct his argument before the American people. Lincoln knew that in the final analysis durable judicial rulings on major issues must be rooted in the soil of American opinion. ‘Public sentiment,’ he said, ‘is everything’ in this country.’”

Given my familiarity with McKenna’s Atlantic article, you can imagine my surprise when I read his criticism in the current issue of the Human Life Review of Peter Steinfels’s Commonweal essay on abortion, “Beyond the Stalemate.” Peter hardly needs me or anyone else to defend him, and he may respond to McKenna’s “A Bad Bargain” essay here at dotCommonweal or elsewhere at some point in the near future. But I will comment on what McKenna has to say about Commonweal and what he presumes motivates the “liberal or progressive” Catholic audience for which Peter is writing.

McKenna uses the term “ecumenism” to describe Commonweal’s supposedly worshipful relationship to secular liberalism. He characterizes the magazine’s political project thus: “By 1970 it appeared that the entire agenda of the American left, from black liberation to environmentalism, could be fitted into a framework of orthodox Catholicism. Nihil obstat!”

That is a canard. I can assure McKenna that '70s-style advocates of black liberation and identity politics would be surprised to learn they had an uncritical ally in Commonweal. That characterization of Commonweal is a bit like accusing First Things of embracing the Lefebvrists. Perhaps some Commonweal contributors have imagined there might be a seamless fit between secular left-wing politics and Catholicism, but I know that Peter Steinfels was never under such an illusion. Nor do the current editors sit around pining for approval from the intellectual champions of secular liberalism or prochoice leaders within the Democratic Party. Many prolife Catholic intellectuals are active within the Republican Party. Commonweal, by contrast, has almost no contact with prochoice Democratic politicians. I’ve been an editor at Commonweal for more than twenty years, and the idea that the agenda of the (almost nonexistent) American left is no different from that of Commonweal strikes me as laughable, although I know many of our conservative coreligionists take it as an article of faith. Most people who read Commonweal have a serious investment in things Catholic. And a good many of those Catholic things, whether it be the rejection of abortion rights or concerns about consumerism or biotechnology, let alone a serious engagement with traditional Christian belief, do not fit comfortably into the larger “liberal” culture. What the magazine does aspire to do is give expression to the tension that inevitably characterizes the lives of Catholics living in what Charles Taylor has rightly called “a secular age.” On most issues, we think it necessary to hear both sides of the argument.

In his attempt to pigeonhole Commonweal, McKenna confesses that he himself once embraced “Commonweal Catholicism.” Eventually enlightenment dawned and he left that failed faith behind. Why? “Because I have come to believe that it trusts too much in big government,” McKenna writes.

Now, how much government is “too much” very much depends on the issue at hand. Still, McKenna’s new found distrust of government is curious given the fact that both he and Commonweal believe government should “restrict” and “discourage” abortion, as does Peter Steinfels. It is even stranger coming from someone who wrote in his Atlantic essay that the Republican Party is more committed to “possessive individualism” than to the sort of communitarian principles that best serve the prolife cause. In fact, in 1995 McKenna argued that the Democratic Party was the “proper philosophical home for prolifers” because it believes in “the role of government as a moral leader that seeks to realize public goals unrealizable in the private sphere.” Republicans, he lamented, were on too much of “a laissez-faire roll.”

Clearly, McKenna no longer thinks that is true of the Democratic Party. Fair enough. Yet, despite McKenna’s efforts to defend the alliance between the prolife movement and the Republican Party, it would be impossible to argue that the “laissez-faire roll” within that party hasn’t continued and even gathered steam. Peter Steinfels argued, in fact, that neither political party is well disposed to advance the prolife cause. That is why he urged the church to focus its prolife “energies primarily on changing the culture rather than the law.” For as McKenna correctly noted in 1995, in this country “public sentiment” is everything when it comes to correcting great wrongs such as slavery or current abortion practice. Here the lacuna in McKenna’s Human Life Review piece, and one of the strengths of Peter’s essay, stands out starkly. McKenna studiously avoids discussing the most vexing moral and political aspect of abortion, and that is what Peter calls the sui generis nature of pregnancy, namely that “one dependent but distinct human being develops within the very body of another. This fact strains the analogies to which we resort in trying to analyze when or why protection is or is not extended to human lives.” This is why when it comes to public sentiment abortion is not only a human-rights issue but also a women’s issue.

McKenna ends his criticism of Peter’s article in a very un-Lincolnian way by calling for a renewed commitment to “moral absolutism.” That, I’m afraid, only confers an imprimatur on continuing stalemate.

About the Author

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.



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(In Lincoln's day, when the front pages of newspapers carried ads, among the ads were those for abortionists, including the famous Madame Restell.  She lived and worked in New York and had branch offices in other cities.)

Once cabined in that fashion, slavery would eventually collapse on its own.

On its own?   Seriously?   Half a million dead might beg to differ.


Commonweal, by contrast, has almost no contact with prochoice Democratic politicians.

Almost?   Seriously?   Grant Gallicho and Cathleen Kaveny might beg to differ.


No question that Mckenna is wrong in his assessment of Commonweal. Perhaps it is because you once admired Mckenna and feel betrayed by him. But I see no reason for your being so defensive about it. The issues raised can be discussed in more reasoned terms. Although, abortion tends to incite irrationality on both sides. This is why putting people in boxes is never a good idea.  There is nothing wrong with being in contact with pro choice polticians as there  is nothing wrong with being in contact with pro life politicians. We should criticize both when we disagree with their opinions. What seems to me as ill advised is to let Mckenna put you in a box where you feel you feel the need to defend something outside reasonable rules of engagment. 


Pope Francis is now encouraging Catholics to speak respectfully with those with whom we disagree, including agnostics and atheists.  But, true, he disn't mentioned Democrats.   Perhaps Democrats are absolutely beyond the pale?

As does McKenna It might be helpful to consider the source.  I believe McKenna article appears in a publication proudly listing its gratitude to William F. Buckley, Jr, a fellow I followed intently on Firing LIne years ago.  Until I realized his need to be right utterly crippled his ability to reach the higher ground he so clearly sought.  As an example, here he was being taken to task by Noam Chomsky while consistenly attempting to rationalize his inablity to admit he was mistaken not merely in motives but in facts.

As for pro-life, I do so wish the term anti-abortion would be used in its place.  It has the advantage of being accurate.  IMHO it seems literally impossible a person would consider useful a debate on the reality or unreality of a "just war" and expect anyone to consider them pro-life.    The incomprehensible notion of a "just war" is the very debate Buckley is losing in the debate referenced above.

I never find the negative comparisons  to "the 70s" very compelling.  It was 40 years ago, might as well compare it to the 1920s.  People who use that as a criticism that  are living in a past most of us don't even share.

Paul Bauman writes:

Most people who read Commonweal have a serious investment in things Catholic. And a good many of those Catholic things, whether it be the rejection of abortion rights or concerns about consumerism or biotechnology, let alone a serious engagement with traditional Christian belief, do not fit comfortably into the larger “liberal” culture.


So telling that the first recipient of the Mckenna group "Defender of Life Award" went to Henry Hyde that great two faced Congressman who got into intense righteous indignation over Bill Clinton's encounter with Lewinsky. An affair which lasted a few months. Meanwhile Hyde, who was married, "kept" a woman in a paid Washington apartment for twenty years. When confronted with his long term adultery he played it down calling it a "youthful indiscretion."  As Hyde's "youthful indiscretion" was well known to this anti-abortion group in 2003 it shows its hubris in its obsession with one issue. Incredible.

As a reward he was named a Papal Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 in recognition of his longtime support for political issues important to the Roman Catholic Church. Go figure.

Nice try, Peter Sienfels, to draw a false equilvalence "between Lincoln’s position on slavery and the prolife cause."

If my remember my US history correctly, Lincoln's primary motivating principle was to "save the Union" not end slavery.  While being a good politician who would never waste a political opportunity to throw-off an odious, repugnant institution like slavery, Lincoln insisted his chief reason for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was to military weaken the rebellious South. 

A more apt comparison for Lincoln may be Bill Clinton's approach [i.e., "abortion should be safe, legal and rare"].  Clinton effectively took the political fire from the so-called pro-life folks by forcing them to consequently be against contraception as well as abortion.

That is why when the time came, President Obama was able to extend essentially free contraceptive health care to practically all women through the reforms of the Affordable Care Act.  

The only loud objections to that expansion of contraception services turned out to be the easily politically co-opted ideologues in the Catholic hierarchy.

I hope I am not misreading Paul here, but are you saying that the "rejection of abortion rights" is a Catholic thing? If so, how does that square with the majority of Catholics who do not favor repealing Roe v Wade? To be opposed to abortion is not the same thing as being opposed to abortion rights.


But let me come to Paul's defense. As a fairly leftist kind of Catholic I can testify that CW is not all that far to the left. I love most of it but I occasionally find myself squirming at how mild-mannered it can be. I think "unequivocally centrist" is the best I can come up with to describe CW's place, and that is no bad place to be in these days of political and religious ideological blocs.

@ Paul Lakeland:  "A fairly leftist kind of Catholic"!  I like that.  Maybe under an Argentinian moon in ascendency, maybe we can come off of the baracades for awhile?

The "unequivocally centrist" bent of CW is not a virtue, but has become a real problem - especially when radical, revolutionary change is indicated if the church is to even survive.

My sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, faced with such careful, timid intellectual and political posturing was prone to quote Revelations:

So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 

I regret only just encountering Steinfels piece; I much admire his effort to embrace the ambiguity and the tendency toward the end to bring forward the importance of Witness - in my lifelong search for an authentic Catholic stance, it has most often led me to ponder the Witness stories of Christ's life and legacy.

Peter noted: "But witnessing to that cosmic and ultimate reality is less likely to begin with metaphysical argument than with a compassionate word, a shared crust of bread, a warm embrace."

If we must go for some satisfycing basis for action, if not entirely satisfying in the bright line sense (as failed so miserably on the subject of contraception), then perhaps we should note that Peter's suggestions of Witness necessarily apply to the human creature outside the womb.

It seems to me that no convincing argument from biology will every resolve the moral ambiguity - I believe there is one condition regading the onset of human life that, if not absolutely universal, has considerable virtue in placing the matter in the hearts and minds of those who are truly independent enough to make a fundamental choice:

Is the budding example of humanity welcome into the real concrete world of those who must provide for it - welcome with sufficient generousity to commit to protecting and nuturing it for many years to come once borne alive?

Such protection might be offered by family, adoptive parents, social groups and many other mechanisms - but concurrence with live birth must include the willingness of the mother to know that such added responsibility among the already living is sensibly available. Otherwise, there is ample evidence that gross injustice acrews to children who are left at the untender mercy of persons who are utterly indifferent to their actuality - bring a human fetus to live birth under such likelihood of gervious harm can hardly be seen as morally insignificant.

All the talk of attaching moral significance to new life only makes sense in the context of anticipated witness throughout the fullness of the individuals life cycle. Lets focus on the witness of those empowered by physical and psychological autonomy to make judgments regarding any limits upon the extent of such witness.

Leave moral status to the live borne; it respects nature as we experience it and stops the present practice of shifting the burden of choosing from the already legal autonomous to some easily disupted and imperceptable biological "moment."

The Human Life Review knew all of these facts when giving the Congressman honor after honor. This includes the  leading bishops and cardinals in the US. We are not talking minor crimes either. 


Didn't Lincoln oversee a brutal and bloody war in order to end slavery once and for all?  Certainly the abortionist hordes are waging a bloody and brutal war, where the fallen are tiny, innocent martyrs to the religion of the inverted pentagram, the upside-down cross, the stinking pits of Hell...

Irene - forgive my ignorance but I do no understand your remarks.  Is all history of no use or merely that 40 years ago?

Robert - we mortals have spent the last half century all but destroying the usefulness of the words "conservatism" and "liberalism". Leaving us with what?  Meism?  As for being pro-life I hardly think it is a conservative or liberal position.  Having adament defenders of both persuasion in my life I believe both would agree to the following: Non ci e' permesso di scegliere quale vita salvare.


Forgot to mention.  I do not know William P Mullins but by golly that fellow (assuming not a pen name) can write!  I am hoping I understood most of his remarks above.

MIghtBe- As a  housing advocate, I have had on more than one occasion the charge leveled at me that I wanted "to go back to the seventies" when we put forward various proposals.    "Trying to get back to the 70s" is code for an unrealistic person trying to put forward failed policies of a more liberal yesteryear.  Its just a cheap away for someone to undermine an endeavor they consider too liberal.


@Jim Jenkins. Whoa, that's a bit brutal don't you think? Anyway, the unequivocally centrist bent of Commonweal doesn't seem to me to be a product of an editorial decision to sit in the middle, but rather one of a commitment to be as thorough and honest as possible. Yes, they sometimes get things wrong and I certainly don't always agree, but I have never found reason to question CW's integrity or moral courage. Quite the contrary.

@Paul Lakeland. Wow. We're on the same page now!

You mean speak respectfully to ourselves? Reading the editorials and the readers' comments on Commonweal gives the impression that everybody here IS a democrat (without being professional politicians, of course). Let's cut throught he hypocrisy.


To me that is the real problem. In this day and age no intellectually serious Catholic should accept to identify himself/herself with any of the major secular political groups, including the Democratic and Republican parties. The fact that everybody does is yet another sign of our incapacity to develop an original Catholic political culture.

Are Catholics to reject abortion rights, or abortion? One is founded on the rule of law and the other on what some feel is, at best, a desperate choice in an even more desperate situation.

Carlo: rest assured that no one here will mistake you for being a democrat. No one.

Moral absolutism can be a very comfortable position. No agonized struggle with ambiguity, no irritable reaching after certainties, need trouble the mind any longer. But does it offer an appropriate approach to the complexities of the subject under discussion? At least the Commonweal has not thrown in its hand, prematurely. I can understand Paul Lakeland's occasional impatience, but have nothing but respect for the editors' willingness to continue studying the issue at their own pace.  


In this day and age no intellectually serious Catholic should accept to identify himself/herself with any of the major secular political groups, including the Democratic and Republican parties. The fact that everybody does . . . .

Are you serious?

How could you say such a thing?

@ Paul Lakeland:  Fair enough.  What I would like to know is when does "uniequivocal centrist bent of Commonweal" become little more than if you want to get along go along?  

In relation to the Catholic hierarchy, to be a centrist or moderate would have greater moral force if for the last 40 years the corporate hierarchy in its ideological mania hadn't flirted politically with right-wing and fascist dictators, persecuted theologians and religious women, played footsie with conservative politics, celebrated its anti-feminine ideology as somehow divinely inspired, weren't complicit with child sexual predators, run an international money-laundering operation out of the Vatican servicing its Mafia friends, and in the process driven the church over the cliff of "moral relativism" to the point that as a church we are looking at our possible extinction.  Just saying ...

@  Carlo Lancellotti:  You right!  You've outed me.  I'm am no Republican - Mainly because, I learned how to read when I was five years old.

Irene - did I mention the part about my ignorance?  On a note related to your comment, my first job in IT was working with a group supporting Section 8 housing.

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