Pro-Life or Pro-Birth?

Have you seen the latest attempt to provide cover for “personally opposed but” Catholic politicians and those who vote for them? No surprise: Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, who has made a career out of championing “progressive” Catholic causes, came up with it. In a recent appearance on Meet the Press, she made the case that it would make more sense to call pro-life Catholics “pro-birth.”

Her point was that most pro-life Catholics tend to oppose the government programs promoted by liberal Democrats to care for human life after birth, and so are undeserving of the title “pro-life.” Fr. Richard McBrien listed some of these programs in a recent column: “child care, health insurance, education, housing, safety standards in employment, a clean environment, immigration, non-discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the right to unionize, equitable tax policies, capital punishment, war and peace.”

It is supposed to be bad form to resort to the “I told you so” retort. But what else can one say in this case? McBrien and Chittister have spilled the beans: The critics of Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” proposition were right on the button. Joseph Sobran said it well. What Bernardin had done, he wrote, was turn “life” into “a checklist, in which abortion was only one of many items, and not necessarily the most urgent. You could be ‘pro-life,’ according to the Bernardin standard, merely by supporting the welfare state. Well, of course life is, in some sense, a seamless garment. We should oppose abortion on the same principle that we should oppose the bombing of cities. But according to Bernardin’s way of thinking, you mustn’t oppose bombing Hiroshima unless you also favor setting up an anti-poverty program there.” Bull’s eye!

You could hear McBrien’s logic at work on the talk shows during the last presidential campaign, when Catholic callers supporting John Kerry would argue he was more pro-life than George W. Bush, even though Kerry favored legalized abortion, because Kerry favored more spending than Bush on education, health care and affirmative action programs. The corollary was that Catholic voters who intended to vote for Kerry could do so with a clear conscience.

One could counter Chittister’s and McBrien’s position on this question by arguing that the right to life is far more important in the scheme of things than providing for the social needs of members of our society. After all, food stamps and good schools will not be of much use to you if you have been killed in the womb. But taking that position comes close to being flippant. McBrien and Chittister have a point. What should a Catholic voter do, for example, if faced with a politician who is opposed to legal abortion, but morally abhorrent in every other way, a crook, a liar, racist, a cheat, and outright Social Darwinist, for example?

The first question we must deal with is whether McBrien and Chittister are sincere, or if they are using the Church’s teachings to further the agenda of the Democratic Party. We can test them. What do you think they would say to a Catholic who agreed with them that a Catholic has a responsibility to seek social justice on the very issues that concern them, but proposed the following ways to achieve that goal?

What if our imaginary Catholic contended that his goal was to improve our society’s child-care and educational systems by promoting vouchers so that parents could escape the public school monopoly? What if his answer to the housing needs of our people was to end rent control and union work rules that increase construction costs? If his efforts to provide quality health care for the small number of uninsured in our country started with the premise that we should not tamper with the essentials of the employer-provided, private insurance system that has made quality health care such a great bargain for over 80 percent of the American people? Do you think Chittister and McBrien would be nodding in approval at his way of grappling with the issues?

What if his preferred method of dealing with racial injustice was to end the reverse discrimination against working-class white students implicit in affirmative action programs? What if he was convinced on the basis of his reading of Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman that the only socially just approach to taxation was to repeal the current loophole-ridden tax code in favor of a flat tax? What if his analysis of the world scene convinced him that a vigorous application of American military force was the only realistic way to deal with the threat of world terrorism? Do you think McBrien and Chittister would invite him to their next symposium as an example of a Catholic who was dedicated to seeking social justice? I don’t think so.

What if our imaginary Catholic took up McBrien’s challenge to deal with the issue of “sexual orientation” from a Catholic perspective by applying the Church’s teaching that homosexual actions are either sins or a manifestation of a severe psychological disorder; and if he insisted that we keep this in mind when considering the questions of homosexual marriage, adoption and hiring practices in schools and other child-care facilities? Do you think McBrien would pat him on the back for his concern for issues of life that arise after birth?

Come on — it is obvious. McBrien’s and Chittister’s use of the term “pro-birth” for pro-life Catholics is not meant to prod Catholics into focusing on questions of social justice from a Catholic perspective. It is meant to nudge Catholics into thinking that it is necessary for them to support the big-government social programs favored by liberal Democrats as an example of what they call a “consistent ethic of life.” Which is humbug. McBrien and Chittister are acting as political partisans, not teachers of the Faith or the Magisterium.

Which they have every right to do, of course. Being a member of the clergy does not mean you cannot involve yourself in the give-and-take through which public policy is made. But when clerics do that, they should tell the folks in the pews what they are up to. They should not use their clerical garb to give their political activism more weight than it deserves.

Catholics are not free to disregard the teachings of the Church on issues of social justice, but they are free to respond to those who call for greater government spending and expanded social programs directed at the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged by noting that that approach is what has given us the current conditions in Detroit and New Orleans — and Cuba. And to contend that we must come up with a better way of doing things.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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