Monday, September 8, 2008

A few items...

  • Over at Sightings, Heather Hartel comments on the recent revision of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Normally contributions to Sightings have more of a religion & culture or political focus, but Hartel's thoughts and overview of some translation issues are a nice change of pace.
  • Ignatius Insight has been reporting on the strong reactions to Nancy Pelosi over her naive comments on abortion and Catholic morality. Her comments on Meet the Press in late August have instigated a huge response by Catholic leaders in the U.S. Here are some of the initial reactions, some more, some more, comments by Biden, and a tally of Catholic bishops who have responded to Pelosi. There's even more on the blog- Pelosi's interview is pretty much what has been commented on for the last two weeks. Now, I'm all for discussing with those of differing opinions how to handle the abortion problem- it is an issue of the public good even for those who are pro-choice, and I've been supportive of Obama's work here even if I don't agree with all of his thoughts on the matter. But to so blatantly and ignorantly defend oneself and one's views as a Catholic Christian the way that Pelosi and Biden have done deserves this sort of sharp response. Biden at least offers some more nuance, distinguishing his own views from those of others in a pluralist society (never mind whether the argument is made very well- at least he's going somewhere with his justification!). Both, however, are using Catholic identity for their own purposes and disregarding the teachings of the Church that they claim for themselves.

7 comments:

  1. I'm worried I'm not going to express this clearly enough on the Pelosi thing, but here it goes:

    1. Biden obviously did a much better job explaining his position than Pelosi. That's clear, and I think his point is really the most important point to consider here. When we talk about abortion as a policy matter, it is perfectly legitimate and consistent to say that "I oppose abortion for moral reasons", and also to say "I support a woman's right to choose." It's legitimate to do this precisely because there is so little public agreement on the matter, and because a reasonable person could think that abortion is perfectly morally acceptable. It's the same thing with war, I think. I think a lot of the wars we fight are entirely immoral - but I would never consider removing the government's right to wage war because (1.) I think it can be moral sometimes, and (2.) I know a lot of people disagree on when it's moral. Adultery is another good example which demonstrates how you can legitimately be anti-abortion and pro-choice at the same time (although the adultery metaphor takes it at a slightly different angle). I think adultery is morally wrong. But I don't think it's the government's job to punish people for committing adultery - I think it's none of the government's legitimate business. Maybe these metaphors aren't acceptable for everyone, but they begin to illustrate why it's wrong for these bishops to presume that their morality should always line up with the law. It's also wrong for these bishops to presume that it's impossible for someone to share their morality and still be pro-choice when it comes to the law. Which brings me to...

    2. I HATE HATE HATE it when people say that you can't be a Catholic and pro-choice at the same time. Granted, Pelosi may have overstated the degree of ambivalence in the Catholic hierarchy on the matter, but that doesn't mean there isn't ambivalence in the Catholic Church. There's certainly ambivalence in the church over this issue! How in the world does that ambivalence make people illegitimate catholics? Granted, a pro-life stance is in the catechism but do "good Catholics" really believe everything in the catechism?

    That's what I never understood about Catholicism - there is this underlying assumption that everyone has to agree with the Church on every single issue or else they're not "good Catholics". That word "good" is ALWAYS heard preceeding the word "Catholic". Nobody ever talks about a "good Protestant", because Protestants don't have this hang up. Protestants are comfortable with the idea that there will be disagreements on different issues in the church - sometimes very important issues too! So this just really bothers me when the bishops talk like their own parishioners are illegitimate if they don't follow in lock step with them. Bishop Egan's statement was slanderous in this regard: "No one with the slightest measure of integrity or honor could fail to know what these marvelous beings manifestly, clearly, and obviously are, as they smile and wave into the world outside the womb." Is he saying that I don't have "the slightest measure of integrity or honor"?!?!? Who the hell is he to say that? I have a moral opposition to most abortion, but early in a pregnancy, all the pictures and videos in the world aren't definitive proof to me that the fetus is an independent living creature yet. I just don't know - I'm particularly ambivalent/unsure on that first trimester. Does my uncertainty mean I'm lacking in "honor" and "integrity"?!?!? The bravado with which Egan makes these statements is truly disturbing.

    3. I think clearly Pelosi should have stuck with her beliefs as a "good" Catholic rather than making generalizations about what the "church doctors" believe. That's what Biden did and that's much more sensible. now Biden also mentions Aquinas as questioning whether life starts at conception - I was curious about that. that's a pretty big name. What did Aquinas say and what are the implications of that?

    4. I guess this is rehashing # 1, but I can't help but emphasize that morality is not policy. You can have a set of morals and be opposed to codifying them in policy. So you can even buy everything that Egan says but still disagree with his statement that Congress must outlaw abortion. We cannot make the state the lapdog of the church (or vice versa). You have to have a more compelling reason to pass a law that restricts people's rights than "I think it's morally wrong", ESPECIALLY when a lot of your fellow citizens disagree with your statement on morality.

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  2. I figured I'd get a lengthy response from you. I think it's important that you bring up the fact that morality is not policy... most of the controversy over Pelosi, however, involves morality rather than policy. The question where she and Biden cite church fathers is about the beginning of life and its dignity- this is where she wants to suggest ambiguity in the Catholic tradition. I think this link clears up your questions about church teachings from Aquinas or Augustine.

    When the line is crossed from morality to policy, it's perfectly legitimate to recognize that things become more complex. But the equation of Catholic teaching with a pro-life policy is rather clearly laid out in various documents over the past few decades- I don't know where else you would look for a statement of policy, Daniel. This is like saying that the "preferential option for the poor" is not a required moral belief for one to be a "good" Catholic. You're reading into an institution with very clear statements about morality your own understanding of how religion and religious belonging works.

    My general sense of Catholic responses to legalized abortion has been that there is a firm opposition, justified through Catholic social teaching, to politicians who support pro-choice legislation. Where the issue becomes more complex is in the case of voters... here one might legitimately decide that amongst a number of candidates, a pro-choice candidate may be the lesser of two evils- someone can vote for that person without themselves being in agreement about every position of that candidate. I could also see this logic being employed for politicians themselves... if a politician is pro-life but votes for compromise legislation that is pro-choice but at least moving in the right direction in recognizing human dignity, then this seems (to me) to be defensible under Catholic social teaching.

    Bishop Egan certainly makes an emotional appeal when talking about the beginning of life, and it seems a bit manipulative. I'd direct you to the USCCB statement for something more scientifically justified.

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  3. On Biden's comments, what I hate, hate, hate is when people get to a question of moral and religious significance and suddenly think they can punt to mystery and go on their merry way talking about the public, pluralist good.

    Since when did something like the beginning of human life as a scientific question, or the matter of human dignity and right as a moral question, become issues that someone like Obama (or the Roe v. Wade Court) can dismiss as "above his pay grade"? In Biden's interview he talks about the matter "for me" and then sheepishly leaves it to a pluralist public to follow their own moral intuition.

    This, I think, is one of the lamest responses available. When a question of morality is nontransferable to public discourse or policy, there needs to be justification for the fact, and better justification than a shoulder shrug. We don't use this sort of logic for war despite strong pacifist ethical arguments on the matter, or for child abuse despite varying understandings of the role of parenthood in different cultures and religions. The idea that ethical discourse is suspended as hopelessly tied up in religious commitment for the case of the unborn is just nonsense, and this claim is thrown out there with no gesture as to why such a claim would be at all plausible. Thank God we didn't make such claims regarding other matters of human rights (well, I suppose a lot of people did make those claims... but moral progressives thankfully won the day).

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  4. ...and do note, my last comment on "punting to mystery" isn't a pro-life argument. I'm happy to hear a real justification for the claim that abortion should in certain instances be a legal possibility. But punting to mystery is simply not a real justification for the dismissal of pro-life insistence that the moral question of human life and dignity should be fully recognized in policy on related matters, such as abortion (or the death penalty, or euthanasia, etc.)

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  5. I'm gonna take this piecemeal, because I liked a lot of what you had to say but have some thoughts on a few fine points:

    RE: "I think this link clears up your questions about church teachings from Aquinas or Augustine."

    It does and it doesn't. The link makes much of the fact that "science in the last 150 years" cleared up the primitive understanding of earlier theologians. But science did nothing of the sort. Yes - earlier theologians misunderstood embryology, but our position on when a human is endowed with a soul, when it is morally justified to take a human life, etc. has nothing to do with our knowledge of embryology. There is no experiment or lab test that can tell you the answer to that question, so I think if Aquinas had reservations centuries ago there's nothing that science has taught us that makes those questions any less relevant today.

    RE: "But the equation of Catholic teaching with a pro-life policy is rather clearly laid out in various documents over the past few decades"

    Yes, and this is why I say that Pelosi was wrong to make such a strong statement about what she calls "the doctors of the church". But that doesn't mean there aren't disagreements in the church itself - there are, especially recently! There just hasn't been much disagreements among church leaders and in press releases. So I agree - Pelosi should not have been so declarative about church leaders.

    RE: "I could also see this logic being employed for politicians themselves..."

    I would give politicians even a little more wiggle room than you do here. Isn't it conceivable for a politician to say "I'm morally opposed to abortion but the Constitution of the United States does not give me the authority to legislate against it". I don't see the problem with that. They recognized that on slavery too - abolitionists realized they had to pass an amendment, not rely on court rulings or legislation. It doesn't mean you're not pro-life... it means that you recognize that legislators, judges, or even presidents are not all-powerful.

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  6. RE: "what I hate, hate, hate is when people get to a question of moral and religious significance and suddenly think they can punt to mystery and go on their merry way talking about the public, pluralist good."

    Lots of people use their brainwaves for lots of different stuff. There are many theological issues that I "punt" because I spend a lot of my brainwaves on regression discontinuity designs and skill mismatches. These are things that you tend to "punt". I wouldn't be so quick to judge him on this. If we all spent our time carefully working through all these issues there's other important work that wouldn't get done. It's called the division of labor (see Smith, 1776).

    RE: "Since when did something like the beginning of human life as a scientific question, or the matter of human dignity and right as a moral question, become issues that someone like Obama (or the Roe v. Wade Court) can dismiss as "above his pay grade"?"

    It was a very poorly chosen (albeit clever) phrase that Obama used at Saddleback. But I think it had some important truth to it. How exactly do you know the relative dignity and value of an embryo vs. a full grown human being? Let's face it, it's a combination of faith, some guidance from "church doctors", and an over-interpreted poetic turn of phrase in Jeremiah. Some people aren't convinced by that combo, and are more comfortable saying "wow - that's a REALLY tough question" then they are with making a declarative statement that could be wrong.

    RE: "In Biden's interview he talks about the matter "for me" and then sheepishly leaves it to a pluralist public to follow their own moral intuition."

    That's one interpretation. I think what he did was confidently place the law of the land in the moral intuition of the people, rather than in one man's moral interpretation of the issue. Any questions directed at any individual politician on this question are completely misguided. Laws need to be made by and for the people, regardless of an individual legislators sentiments. If there is stark disagreement on the issue among the people of Delaware, I think it's perfectly appropriate for Biden to say "I think it's wrong but a lot of people disagree so I can't necessarily legislate what I think." See below for further discussion of this point.

    RE: "We don't use this sort of logic for war despite strong pacifist ethical arguments on the matter, or for child abuse despite varying understandings of the role of parenthood in different cultures and religions."

    I think these are inappropriate comparisons. A very small minority of the population is opposed to war in all circumstances - so we give the government war powers, and the PUBLIC DEBATE comes in when it's time to use those war powers and there is more disagreement. A very small minority of the population is fine with child abuse - so we pass laws against child abuse, and the PUBLIC DEBATE comes in when it comes to defining exactly what constitutes abuse and what doesn't. You also mention human rights in general - well, a very small minority of the population supports euthanasia - so we have a law against it. A very small minority of the population supports genocide - so we passed laws against it. But it becomes a PUBLIC DEBATE when there in issues of genocide where there is more disagreement, such as how we should interact with other governments that do commit genocide. You see where I'm going with this. It is not true that "a very small minority of the population are not morally opposed to abortion". In fact, a large portion of the population do not think it is morally wrong, and a large portion of the population do think it is morally wrong. So it is reasonable to have the position that there should be PUBLIC DEBATE on the issue until there is more of a consensus, and that until there is a consensus the government should back off. Right now, Roe v. Wade prevents this public debate as much as right-wing proposals to outlaw abortion do. That's why I've always supported the idea of a more federal solution to this - put abortion law in the states' hands with some general federal guidelines about "life of the mother", rape, and partial-birth issues (I'd like to see the first two be legal and the third one illegal - except in a case of the first two, obviously).

    In a democracy, the "strength of the argument" is not as important as the prevalence of an argument. Pacifist positions can be as strong as they want - but they're not nearly as prevalent as the position that abortion is not morally wrong. As long as this position remains prevalent, don't expect to impose one portion of the population's beliefs on another.

    RE: "moral progressives won the day"

    Nice turn of phrase. Just remember that two groups claim the "moral progressive" mantle here - and there are a lot of middle of the road positions on abortion (like my own) that also like to think of themselves as "morally progressive".

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  7. As a "closing salvo" I just want to say that you made a lot of good points, and I acknowledge that. It's easy for language to get heated on this issue, and when it does get heated, I think it's important to remember that "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are policy positions that may or may not coincide with differences in underlying moral values.

    I'd also note that it would be very unfortunate for this election to turn on abortion. Roe v. Wade is not going to be overturned on either of these's candidates' watch and even if it is, it won't end the debate - if anything it will increase the level of debate and back and forth. So, in other words, neither candidate has any hope of brining finality to this issue.

    What they could bring finality to includes:

    - the Iraq war
    - the prevalence of international Islamic terrorism
    - budget deficits
    - the Bush tax cuts
    - the recession
    - health care costs
    - the employer sponsored health care system as we know it
    - funding for higher education, which Obama has mentioned every single time I've heard him speak but that somehow isn't getting as much press as other issues

    The abortion debate will go on precisely because it is not as cut and dry as you suggest. There is still disagreement among moral, religious, intelligent, progressive people - and as long as there is disagreement there will be a debate. It would diminish both that debate and the presidential election to conflate the two right now. The election is about other things that are important in their own right, and the abortion issue is very important independent of any coverage it's received associated with the election.

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