Personally Opposed?

There is a reason why we are told that it is out of bounds to “impute motives” to those who disagree with us: We can’t read minds. It is wrong to assume that people do not mean what they say and are motivated by dishonest motives or a hidden agenda, absent some evidence to the contrary.

Which is why we shouldn’t, for example, reach for labels such as “appeaser,” “war-monger” and “racist” just because someone takes the other side in a discussion of current events.

That said, there are times when we have no choice but to consider the possibility that we are dealing with a huckster looking to pull the wool over our eyes. If we did not, we would end up falling for every miracle cure for baldness and nearsightedness that they push in the infomercials on late night radio.

So, bad form or not, I am going to engage in a bit of “motive imputing” in regard to the “personally opposed, but” crop of Catholic politicians and commentators who have been supporting “pro-choice” Catholic politicians for the past 25 years. Here goes: I don’t believe them any longer. Sorry: I don’t think they are as “personally opposed” to abortion as they say. I am convinced that they harbor serious doubts about the Church’s teaching on abortion, but, for a variety of reasons (mainly, but not exclusively, political), do not want to admit it in public. The favorable reaction of Mario Cuomo and Fr. Richard McBrien to an op-ed column in the New York Times in mid June by former Sen. John Danforth, now an ordained Episcopalian minister, was the clincher for me. The “personally opposed but” crowd is conning us.

What did Danforth say that Cuomo and McBrien liked so much? He objected to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who “present themselves as representing the one authentic Christian perspective on politics.” Danforth’s central concern was stem-cell research. He contends that there are many “moderate” Christians who see stem-cell research as an “opportunity to save our neighbors’ lives” and who “believe it is our duty to pursue that research, and to oppose legislation that would impede us from doing so.” He assured his readers that moderate Christians like him “strongly support the separation of church and state” in this matter, “both because that principle is essential to holding together a diverse country, and because the policies of the state always fall short of the demands of faith.”

That last sentence was all that Cuomo and McBrien had to hear. They came running, with bells on. They used Danforth’s column to push the case they have been making for years about “pro-choice” Catholic politicians. Just days after Danforth’s column appeared, the Times printed an op-ed piece by Cuomo entitled “Not on Faith Alone.” In it, Cuomo argued that the belief that human life begins with fertilization “remains a minority view” and that in a democratic society no one whose conscience dictates otherwise is required to have an abortion: “So far,” Cuomo writes, “neither President Bush nor religious believers who agree with him have convinced a majority of Americans” that embryonic stem-cell research or abortion “entails the murder of a human being.” This, he argues, is why it is wrong to demand that elected Catholic politicians push for laws to outlaw these practices.

McBrien applauded Cuomo’s logic a week or so later in his syndicated column: “If science cannot provide the proof that human life begins at conception, then the only argument against” abortion and embryonic stem-cell research “is religious. Laws, however, should not be made on the basis of religious belief alone, particularly when those beliefs are not shared even by those within the same religious tradition.”

On one level McBrien and Cuomo are correct. It would be unfair and unreasonable for us to seek to make illegal everything we consider immoral. But, come on: Christians know that. I can’t think of any organized effort worth mentioning these days to make divorce, gambling, drinking or the sale of contraceptives illegal in the United States. Catholics and the evangelicals aren’t calling for bombing raids on Las Vegas. It is not true that Christians are looking to have their beliefs “translated into statutory form,” as McBrien phrases it. They know that sin exists and that in a democratic society some of their fellow citizens will disagree with them on where to draw the line on acceptable moral behavior.

But there are sins and there are sins. Let’s test the Danforth-Cuomo-McBrien thesis to make the point. Would Cuomo agree that our society should be tolerant toward a modern American who shares the religious beliefs of the preachers of the antebellum South about the propriety of slavery? Should we look the other way if this man wants to hold a slave or two on his hog farm in North Carolina? Would McBrien have us refrain from imposing our religious beliefs on immigrants from Africa eager to retain their tribal practices in regard to female circumcision? I don’t think so. He wants to throw the book at corporate executives who cook the books.

Would they have us promote tolerance toward men who interpret St. Paul’s injunction that “wives must be submissive to their husbands” as an authorization to beat their wives when they think it necessary? I’d bet the ranch that McBrien would be in favor “translating our beliefs into statutory form” in that case. What standard would Cuomo and McBrien use to uphold laws against the sexual abuse of children, if they were confronted by NAMBLA members convinced that our current laws on pedophilia are narrow-minded relics of a Christian heritage that they reject?

McBrien tells us that “science cannot provide the proof that life begins at conception.” Well, science cannot prove that slavery, pedophilia and wife-beating should be prohibited by law. Our laws against these behaviors are rooted in moral and religious convictions about the dignity of the individual. They are “translations of our moral beliefs into statutory form.” It would not matter to McBrien and Cuomo what the majority thought on these matters.

So, what is the rule of thumb? Why should some sins be made illegal and others not? We all know the answer. We seek laws against truly egregious behaviors. It is hard to put into words when that line is reached. But we know it when it happens. None of us feels any obligation to explain why murder, slavery, theft, child and spousal abuse are in that category. We see it as common sense. They are not the same as drinking and gambling and divorce.

Neither is abortion. Killing an unborn infant is egregious behavior. If you are convinced that that is what takes place during an abortion, you will not be willing to permit those who disagree with you to “terminate a pregnancy,” any more than you would be willing to look the other way in regard to a wife-beater or child molester who is able to string together a paragraph or two in defense of his behavior. There is only one justification for tolerating what takes place during an abortion, for being “personally opposed, but”: a doubt that the procedure results in the taking of the life of an unborn child, a rejection of the Church’s teaching in this matter.

If you are convinced that an abortion takes the life of an unborn child, you will not be “personally opposed, but.” You will be opposed, period.

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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