September 17, 2012
Worthen's "Power of Political Communion" gets Murray (and Biden) wrong
Molly Worthen's NYT piece, "The Power of Political Communion," is attracting (as it should) some notice and comment, and I think it makes a number of powerful and important points. But, it goes wrong in a few places, too.
First, the piece takes as true an unfair and inaccurate characterization of the social-welfare, spending, and taxation policies that are actually likely to be pursued and enacted by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Republican President. ("[T]he Republican mission to slash the social safety net and deregulate Wall Street will worsen structural inequalities in a way that is radical and even anti-Christian.")
Next (and, for present purposes, more important), I think Ms. Worthen gets both Joe Biden and John Courtney Murray wrong:
Plenty of Catholic politicians still make their home in the Democratic Party, but most have learned not to rock the Roe boat or speak too loudly in the name of their religion: Mr. Biden has said that he is opposed to abortion but supports the Supreme Court decision as the product of consensus.
Mr. Biden is not a “cafeteria Catholic” who chooses his beliefs according to convenience. He stands in the tradition of the Rev. John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit theologian who asserted that the foundation of modern pluralist society is not perfect agreement but continuing “public argument” based on shared values. The laws that frame this evolving conversation cannot always align with religious teachings. “It is not the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong,” he wrote in a 1965 memo advising the church to support the decriminalization of artificial contraception.
The link that's provided regarding Joe Biden's asserted view that Roe is the "product of consensus" actually characterizes Biden's position as "Roe v. Wade is as close to a consensus as we can get." This is a very different position. Roe was certainly not the "product of consensus", but a radical and overreaching judicial imposition of the policy views of a few on the legislatures of nearly every state. What's more, the Roe position does not actually represent (and the Democratic platform certainly does not represent) what would be the "consensus" view in the United States.
Second, I believe it is wrong to move from Murray's intervention in the contraception debate of the 1960s to a conclusion that he would have supported the Roe regime. It was quite important, if I understand his writing correctly, to his view on the contraception question that it did not involve a question of public morality or basic justice (as the abortion debate -- he would certainly have thought -- does).
Our own Susan Stabile has written at length on this question, and I think Ms. Worthen's piece would have been better if it had taken Susan's paper into consideration.
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