Monday, May 24, 2004
Victoria Reggie Kennedy (who is Senator Kennedy's wife), in an editorial piece published in Sunday's Washington Post, writes the following, in defense of pro-abortion-rights Catholic politicians and citizens:
"Pro-choice politicians -- or pro-choice citizens, for that matter -- do not support legislation to require or even encourage women to have abortions; they simply refuse to make abortion a crime punishable under non-church law. The pro-choice position recognizes that the United States is a diverse, pluralistic society where a woman has the constitutional right to make a decision based upon her own conscience, religious beliefs and medical needs. Would those who are trying to force non-Catholics by law to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church be willing to accept the governmental imposition of the laws of another faith on them?"
I'd like to put aside the specific controversies (which Ms. Kennedy was addressing) of (a) denying communion to pro-choice politicians and (b) urging Catholics not to vote for pro-choice politicians. Instead, I'd like to focus briefly on what appears to be Ms. Kennedy's (Dworkinian?) premise that laws restricting abortion, in effect, "force non-Catholics by law to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church."
Now, as many contemporary and traditional Catholic writers have reminded us, a just society need not prohibit every vice. Catholic citizens and politicians are certainly not required to insist that all wrongs and sins be criminalized -- indeed, this Catholic citizen would not want to live in a polity that did so insist. And, I suspect we all agree that it would be unjust to "force non-Catholics by law" to, say, abstain from meat on Good Friday, or affirm the divinity of Christ.
That said, I would think that Catholic citizens and politicians -- like all citizens and politicians are (if possible) required to support, and seek the enactment of, just laws, and to oppose and seek the repeal of unjust laws. That is, while it would be wrong for Catholics in public life to seek to "force non-Catholics by law to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church," it is hard to see why it is wrong for Catholics in public life to seek to require themselves and their fellow citizens to enact and live under just laws.
A law that removes a class of persons -- here, unborn children -- from the protection of otherwise-generally-applicable homicide laws is, in my view, an unjust law. Even if we resign ourselves to the impossibility of consensus on the question whether "personhood" begins at conception, or later, it is not clear to me that pegging the requirements of justice to a claim that "personhood" inheres in every human being from conception, or very shortly thereafter, is "forcing non-Catholics to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church". What pro-choice politicians and citizens are doing wrong, then, is not failing to impose Catholicism on their fellow citizens, but failing to pursue and promote justice in the political realm.
Ms. Kennedy is mistaken, then, to frame the message of some Catholic bishops -- i.e., that Catholics in public life need to be pro-life -- as an instance of "singl[ing] out an elected official who allows a woman -- and not the government -- to make a private decision." The target of pro-life political activism is not so much "private decisions" as it is the very public decision to deny to some human beings legal protections against lethal violence.
Ms. Kennedy is, as a general matter, right to observe -- quoting the Second Vatican Council -- that we "must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods." (Catholics can certainly disagree about whether the common good is better served by, for example, raising or lowering the interest rate; or by legalizing or criminalizing drug use). However, she is mistaken, in my judgment, in framing the abortion question in terms of "private decisions" and "different opinions with regard to temporal solutions." Abortion, it seems to me, is appropriately regarded by Catholics as an issue of basic justice.
Again -- these thoughts are not directed at the question whether Catholics "may vote for Kerry" or "may vote for Bush." I'm only expressing doubts about Ms. Kennedy's way of framing what is at stake.