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From the October, 2004
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Show Us! by William Murchison

Show Us!

William Murchison on What “Personally Opposed” Politicians Need to Do

May a self-confessed Episcopalian gingerly butt into a Catholic family dispute? The nub of the dispute: what to do when Catholic politicians who depict themselves as “personally opposed” to abortion won’t lift a political finger to impede the exercise of the right to abortion.

“Personally opposed” is not exactly the oldest dodge in politics, but it requires rigorous challenge. Only recently has that challenge been forthcoming, in the form of notices from certain Catholic prelates that Catholic politicians with pro-choice voting records stand to forfeit Communion.

Eliza’s Approach

This seems all very well and proper, not to mention overdue. But a complementary recourse, it seems to me, could do with some exploration. There are more ways than one to hold the “personally opposed” accountable for what they do and say. I myself favor the Eliza Doolittle approach, voiced to Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Anglicans both, I expect): “Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme! Don’t waste my time, show me!”

It’s show time.

Consider how the “personally opposed” politician—John Kerry, for instance—commonly frames his objection to doing anything that might be conceived as suppressing the right to abort a pregnancy. “I don’t tell church officials what to do,” Kerry declares, “and church officials shouldn’t tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life.”

So much, if with more elegance, the “personally pro-life” Mario Cuomo said in his much-acclaimed 1984 address on the topic at Notre Dame University: “Catholic public officials,” Cuomo reflected, “take an oath to preserve the Constitution that guarantees . . . freedom . . . not because they love what others do with their freedom, but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for all, they guarantee our right to be Catholics.” Which sounds gloriously high-minded. Reduce abortion to a church-state question and, these days, you’re halfway home, given the breadth of secular concerns over clerical “interference” in public matters.

Cuomo adorned his rhetoric with expressions—if not outstandingly fervent ones—of support for unborn life. Twenty years later, the rhetoric is coarser, angrier, as befitting a coarser, angrier time. Thus Kerry. Thus New Jersey Congressman, Fordham graduate, and lifelong Catholic Bill Pascrell, vexed at Archbishop John Myers’s call for Catholic politicians to get right with the church’s position on life. Pascrell denies vigorously that he has been “sent to Congress to follow the dictates of the Catholic Church.” He continues: “I have to represent everybody in my district. That’s what democracy is all about.”

Oh, yeah? What about pro-life voters, a numerous constituency, who get the back of Rep. Pascrell’s hand each time he yields to the abortion lobby? How in the world does a congressman vote everybody’s interest all the time? Pascrell is full of beans. (To his credit, he voted for the ban on partial-birth abortion.) Moreover, when did one ever, prior to Roe v. Wade, hear of a law or judicial enactment immunized against the possibility of challenge?

For the moment, however, let law and the Constitution go. Let us assume the utter sincerity of the “personally opposed” politician and the poignancy of the wish to combat abortion while respecting the present state of the law. Eliza has it right all right: Show me! Show us all.

Why not? You’re “personally opposed,” Senator? What are you doing, within the constraints of your self-described obligations to “democracy,” to further the ultimate triumph of your convictions?

What To Do

In fact, there’s a lot that a politician can do, given the necessary will. Some not-unattractive possibilities for the “personally opposed”:

1. Pray daily that the culture’s—not to mention the electorate’s—respect for unborn life might be deepened and quickened. No constitutional cavils forbid regular application to the Throne of Grace. Truth to tell, no other measure seems better tailored to the purpose.

2. Refuse, at the very least, to vote against bans on egregious practices like partial-birth abortion or against qualified jurists who might—might—entertain scruples concerning the legitimacy of Roe v. Wade. If this means principled abstention on the vote, far better that than a “no” vote. A “no” vote, cast in accordance with the church-state principles enunciated by Candidate Kerry, less resembles a moral action than it does a tugging of the forelock in the presence of the pro-abortion left.

Where a politician is “personally opposed,” does it follow that he will never find merit in measures that cast in doubt the sacredness of the right to abort? “Personal” opposition that doesn’t avidly seek outlets for the exercise of conscience isn’t opposition, it’s moral default.

3. Deliver speeches whose focus isn’t the necessity of “the right to choose” but rather the need for heightened public sensitivity to the worth of unborn life. Seek occasions to address both pro-life and pro-choice organizations to this effect. So you sometimes get jeered, accused of opportunism. Do you care? So long, I mean, as your main aim isn’t mere electoral victory but instead the tenderizing of the public conscience.

4. Make annual, and generous, donations—out of personal funds—to local organizations working to help single mothers bring their babies to full term. Promote these organizations’ godly endeavors whenever and wherever possible.

5. Seek a “Sister Souljah moment” to rebuke the disproportionate zeal of a fairly well-known spokesman for the pro-choice viewpoint; perhaps, if occasion affords, Kate Michelman herself. Thus, Bill Clinton, by criticizing a black entertainer, struck a kind of blow for a more moderate view of civil rights than was common in his party at the time.

Well, that’s enough of that, perhaps. Do I think many “personally opposed” Catholic politicians likely to adopt such suggestions? That would be their own business, I expect. What their constituents might do, however, is set out some markers for evaluation, some measurement by which to judge sincerity. Ah, you say you’re “personally opposed.” Then what about . . . ? And on from there.

Vice’s Tribute

Hypocrisy may be, as La Rochefoucauld observed, the tribute vice pays to virtue, yet it’s hard to see what political or moral interest is served by society’s failure to call a thing by its right name. All that such a failure leads to in politics is the election and reelection of hypocrites, with consequent damage to commodities like public faith and trust.

The Catholic prelate who takes aim at the problem, employing his own unique weapons, hardly exhausts the possibilities for action. If I’m not wholly mistaken, looking in from the outside, these faithful prelates remind the faithful in the pews how much a well-formed conscience truly demands. And that would be? By the church’s own reckoning: everything.


William Murchison a syndicated columnist, is author of Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (Encounter Books).

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