Monday, January 6, 2014
On Wednesday of this week, January 8, 2014, we will mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. At the time of his death, many observed that he was irreplaceable. Certainly no one has replaced him. He was the great Christian public intellectual of the second half of the Twentieth Century. In a published tribute to him shortly after his death, I noted that he had begun his career as a liberal and was lionized by the liberal movement. But then something happened:
It became something it had never been before, namely, a contentious issue in American culture and politics. Neuhaus opposed abortion for the same reasons he had fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. At the root of his thinking was the conviction that human beings, as creatures fashioned in the image and likeness of God, possess a profound, inherent, and equal dignity. This dignity must be respected by all and protected by law. That, so far as Neuhaus was concerned, was not only a biblical mandate but also the bedrock principle of the American constitutional order. Respect for the dignity of human beings meant, among other things, not subjecting them to a system of racial oppression; not wasting their lives in futile wars; not slaughtering them in the womb.
It is important to remember that in those days it was not yet clear whether support for “abortion rights” would be a litmus test for standing as a “liberal.” After all, the early movement for abortion included many conservatives, such as James J. Kilpatrick, who viewed abortion not only as a solution for the private difficulties of a “girl in trouble,” but also as a way of dealing with the public problem of impoverished (and often unmarried) women giving birth to children who would increase welfare costs to taxpayers.
At the same time, more than a few notable liberals were outspokenly pro-life. In the early 1970s, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, for example, replied to constituents’ inquiries about his position on abortion by saying that it was a form of “violence” incompatible with his vision of an America generous enough to care for and protect all its children, born and unborn. Some of the most eloquent and passionate pro-life speeches of the time were given by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In condemning abortion, Jackson never failed to note that he himself was born to an unwed mother who would likely have been tempted to abort him had abortion been legal and easily available at the time.
The liberal argument against abortion was straightforward and powerful. “We liberals believe in the inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family. We believe that the role of government is to protect all members of the community against brutality and oppression, especially the weakest and most vulnerable. We do not believe in solving personal or social problems by means of violence. We seek a fairer, nobler, more humane way. The personal and social problems created by unwanted pregnancy should not be solved by offering women the ‘choice’ of destroying their children in utero; rather, as a society we should reach out in love and compassion to mother and child alike.”
So it was that Pastor Neuhaus and many like him saw no contradiction between their commitment to liberalism and their devotion to the pro-life cause. On the contrary, they understood their pro-life convictions to be part and parcel of what it meant to be a liberal. They were “for the little guy”—and the unborn child was “the littlest guy of all.”
In the period from 1972 to 1980, however, the liberal movement steadily embraced the cause of abortion—on demand, at any point in gestation, funded with taxpayer dollars. The conservative movement went in precisely the opposite direction. In 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its decisions in Roe v. Wade and its companion case of Doe v. Bolton, effectively wiping out state laws forbidding the killing of unborn children by abortion. Ironically, several of the justices responsible for these decisions were regarded (and regarded themselves) as conservatives. Evidently, they were conservatives in the mold of James J. Kilpatrick. But the larger conservative movement did not accept Roe and Doe. The movement rejected these decisions for two reasons: first, they represented an unconstitutional (and, indeed, anti-constitutional) usurpation by the judiciary of the powers placed or left by the Constitution in the hands of legislatures; second, they constituted a grave injustice against abortion’s tiny victims. By contrast, the liberal movement circled the wagons around Roe and Doe, celebrating these decisions as victories for women’s rights and individual liberties.
By 1980, when Ronald Reagan (who as governor of California in the 1960s had signed an abortion liberalization bill) sought the presidency as a staunchly pro-life conservative and Edward Kennedy, having switched sides on abortion, challenged the wishy-washy President Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries as a doctrinaire “abortion rights” liberal, things had pretty much sorted themselves out. “Pro-choice” conservatives were gradually becoming rarer, and “pro-life” liberals were nearly an endangered species. (Jesse Jackson was still hanging on to his pro-life convictions, but he too yielded to the liberal movement’s pro-abortion orthodoxy when he decided to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1984.)
Richard Neuhaus, however, stood by his convictions and refused to yield. If the pro-life position is to be counted as the “conservative” position on the question of abortion, then fidelity to the cause of the unborn is how Neuhaus became the conservative that he was. He didn’t change. His principles didn’t change. He believed in 1984 and beyond what he had believed in 1974 and 1964. For him, justice, love, and compassion all pointed to protecting every member of the human family, however young, small, and dependent. What society owed to pregnant women in need was not the ghoulish compassion of the abortionist’s knife, but the love, moral and spiritual support, and practical assistance they needed to take care of themselves and their children. As Fr. Neuhaus’s great friend, and fellow Lutheran convert to Catholicism, Fr. Leonard Klein, put it in a beautiful tribute, “Richard’s politics changed precisely because his principles did not change.”
The complete text of the tribute (published at First Things under the title "He Threw It All Away") is available here: