Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a luncheon address to the New York State Catholic Conference in Albany on January 14.
It is probably fair to say that we Catholics, being more or less of immigrant and peasant background, have been a little slower than some others to show our capacity to associate together and to organize ourselves for an active role in our nation’s public and civic life. Of course, Catholics have never been absent from the American public square. Still, we cannot say that we are the best organized of the nation’s many social and religious groups. We have far too few scholars who study the presuppositions of the American Constitution and the American experiment. We have not done so well in the law schools in combating the weak and distorted perceptions of the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment, which now have such currency in our elite law schools and in the ranks of lawyers and judges. We have not done all the intellectual homework we should have.
Neither have we organized ourselves as well on the local level as we should have. The Catholics of America need to show a greater and more highly organized sense of civic responsibility, and greater initiative in the public square.
Our task is to make the public square alive with argument, so that American pluralism does not become the mere mush of the lowest common denominator. Pluralism does not mean settling for too little. It means engaging one another, the whole citizenry, in public argument, so that the best arguments will win out. Our role, then, the specifically Catholic role, is to set an example of civil argument, to appeal to the reasonableness our tradition commends to us.
In the recent pastoral letter of the Catholic bishops on “Political Responsibility,” a set of “priorities” is listed from “A” to “Q.” As priorities, that is far too many. In politics, at any given time, one is quite lucky to achieve one great thing, let alone 15 or 16 different things. Moreover, a great many of the priorities listed in this letter have only an inferential relationship to morality. In a number of the priorities mentioned, the positions recommended say more about the political partisanship of the letter’s author than about moral principles per se, or even about the alternatives supplied by prudential reasoning. One cannot deny that a moral principle is involved. But to pursue that principle, several alternative courses of practical action might recommend themselves to a highly moral people.
On this list of priorities presented by the bishops there is one overwhelmingly clear moral issue. That is the issue of abortion. No one denies that on this issue the great question, the primary question, is a moral one: Whom shall we include among those whose human dignity is to be recognized in law? Who shall be protected by American law? The answer to that question is in the nature of the case moral. That answer does not spring only from science or medicine, or human eyesight. The question concerns how we shall value the one whose abortion is under consideration.
Today abortion is the preeminent question on which Catholics need to set an example of civil, public argument. We must argue from reason. We must argue civilly. We must argue in public.
As George Weigel instructs us in Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy (Paulist, 1987), the argument we wish to make is, in substance, quite simple. In its best moments, and in its most progressive moments, the United States of America has always been an increasingly hospitable society. We have constantly become more inclusive regarding those whom we are willing to draw into the circle of “Americans like us, whose rights are to be protected.” That is how the country brought an end to slavery. That is how non-property owners and later, women, were recognized as having the right to vote. That is what inspired the civil rights movement of our own time. Progress in this country has always meant becoming more inclusive, reaching outward, making our society more hospitable.
That is what we are asking America to do today: To become its progressive best. To become a more hospitable society. Perhaps more than any other nation, to protect the rights of those who have been conceived and are now growing within, but who as yet are unborn.
Our aim in this discussion is not, and must not be, to force the consciences of others, but to raise the level of conscience. We ask others to help form their own consciences by reasoned argument, and to make choices concerning life, not from reasons of convenience or by inadvertence or by desire, but from substantial and reasoned argument. We are not opposed to free choice. We are in favor of free choice. But what we mean by free choice is a reasoned, deliberate, and intellectually well-defended choice.
What we want to ask our fellow citizens, in a phrase, is: “THINK before you choose.” “No more evasion.” “No more euphemism.” Tell us directly what you are aborting. Tell us about it. Tell us you are willing to abort it freely, conscientiously, reflectively, deliberately. And then answer in the public square: What are the consequences of killing upwards of 16 million unborn human beings each decade? By the end of this year, more than 30 million will have been aborted since 1973. What are the consequences for the country that these vulnerable ones were not allowed to live, to go to grammar school, to graduate from high school, to take up jobs and become taxpayers? What are the consequences for the sense of progress and well-being in this country?
This is our case: PEOPLE WHO THINK CHOOSE LIFE. Even those who oppose us sometimes seem to concede this point, at least indirectly. Those who are in favor of abortion are able to be in favor of it only by hiding from themselves what they do; only by hiding from the public what they do; only by evasion and euphemism. One bit of evidence to support this: few of those who oppose us dare to call themselves “pro-abortion.” They dare not speak the name of what it is they ask people to do. Quite often they say in public that they are not pro-abortion, only pro-choice. That indicates to us that, more than they are willing to say, they are rather ashamed of abortion, and shrink from it. They find it hard to face the full reality of abortion and its consequences. In the dread they feel, they agree with us concerning the substance of what is at stake. They call themselves “pro-choice,” therefore, to disguise their secret concurrence.
That is why I think we are going to win this debate, long and slow as the process may be. For our aim is not so much to change the law. It is, rather, to change minds, to stir consciences. We are addressing the willingness of our fellow citizens to present sound arguments. No less than they are we “pro-choice.” We too are in favor of free, reflective, deliberate, and reasoned choice. But it is not enough to be in favor of choice. We are all in favor of choice. No one is opposed to free choice. The question before us is, Which choice? Which is the choice that is hospitable? Which is the choice that is inclusive? Which is the choice that is progressive, in the main line of America’s growing inclusiveness? Which is the choice that can be made without evasion or euphemism?
It is true, of course, that the law is often a teacher of morals. Progressive forces often appeal to a change in the law, in order to instruct consciences in what is impermissible. But perhaps because our own tradition of reason is so old, older than many of the extant systems of law in the world today, we Catholics tend to stress the importance of reaching the human reason, reaching human conscience, both before framing and after framing the law. The written law is no stronger than the willing sacrifice of liberty to law. Before citizens will sacrifice their liberty to law, they will want to be convinced that the law is right. Much deeper than changing the law, then, our task is to change minds.
I think we are going to win this debate because reason—and life itself—and American tradition—all three are on our side. The progressive nature of the American people is on our side. Ours is the culture with the largest pro-life movement in the world. Ours is a culture with a tradition of growing inclusiveness and growing hospitality.
In conducting a civil, reasoned argument in the public square, we fulfill our duties as American citizens. In taking up our public moral responsibilities, we help to bring into existence the reality behind the phrase, “We the people of the United States.” That is a proud vocation.