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.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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