Observations: Propaganda, Mon Amour

If I ever decide to overthrow the government, I want the Catholic Committee on Pluralism and Abortion to write the ads. They do write nice copy. Their first try, headed “A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists Among Committed Catholics,” ran conveniently enough in The New York Times in the middle of a public debate in which a Roman Catholic governor from New York seemed to be lecturing the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York on what did and what did not constitute “monolithic” Church teaching. By their own account, the 15-member committee managed to get 156 people to agree with their statement, “A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion,” although 75 were anonymous “priests, religious and theologians” who could not sign because they feared for their jobs.

What the 75 knew, and the 81 signers did not seem to know, is that Canon Law does not have a First Amendment. Recent newspaper accounts of the reactions of religious who have been ordered to retract their agreement with the statement and its declarations have reacted with a general and probably heartfelt “Whaddisthis? Russia?” Well, not quite. But the Pope who sees the teaching role of all publicly committed Catholics, public witnesses by means of their ordination, vows, or professional status in a canonically Catholic institution, could not be expected to look aside when four score and seven such teachers attempted to rewrite doctrine.

This is part of what the committee wrote: “Statements of recent Popes and of the Catholic hierarchy have condemned the direct termination of pre-natal life as morally wrong in all instances. There is the mistaken belief in American society that this is the only legitimate Catholic position. In fact, a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics.” The ad then recounts its major building blocks: a “large” but unspecified number of “Catholic theologians” approve of the possibility of direct abortion as a “moral choice” and only 11% of Catholics surveyed by the National Opinion Research Center “disapprove of abortion in all circumstances.” We are not told what “all circumstances” consist of—so we might even be counted among the approving 79% if asked whether abortion in the case of an ectopic pregnancy or a diseased (usually cancerous) womb is included in “all circumstances.” The “large number” of theologians is probably found within the ranks of the 156 full and full-but-silent partners to the statement itself, lending it a circularity of its own.

The crux of the argument, if there is an argument, for abortion in this ad is the fact that the Church has never settled its own wandering quandry about ensoulment. If one is not sure whether this particular body has a soul, the argument runs, then it need not be treated with any more respect than any other animate but merely animal entity. The response is that whether or not a soul exists at that moment, the possibility of such clearly exists, and to ignore the potentiality for the human is as serious as ignoring the human. This discussion will continue, and the opponents will continue to decry it along with what they term “slippery slope” arguments regarding line-drawing when it comes to determining what constitutes human life.

This is clearly the stuff of which propaganda is made. There is the whisper of truth, the appeal to the public sense of decency and fair play, and a little flag waving on behalf of intellectual freedom. Add a typesetter, a few thousand dollars, and a very large newspaper in the opposing team’s home court, and you have the beginning of a propaganda war in which everybody loses.

The ad itself has already set the terms: anyone who dissents from “hierarchical statements” on abortion, which is named “the abortion question,” should not be penalized. After all, it need not add, this is America. The following paragraph, just in case anyone might think that anti-nuke pro-homosexual rights, or liberation theologians are meddling in areas reserved for the intellectual freedom of committed Catholics, supports “the legitimate role of the hierarchy in providing Catholics with moral guidance on political and social issues and in seeking legislative remedies to social injustices… not… the kind of legislation that curtails the legitimate exercise of the freedom of religion and conscience or discriminates against poor women.” God forbid we forget that poor women deserve abortions too. Probably for free, with Federal funding, but that will be the next ad.

Meanwhile, the firebomb has been thrown, and the propaganda war has been begun in earnest. The Vatican, too, will lose, because no one remembers, or even saw, that ad in The New York Times on October 7, 1984. And all anyone will remember is that a bunch of Catholic professors and nuns claimed intellectual freedom and a Roman candle erupted all over them.

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When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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