Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By

10/18/2008 (5 years ago)

Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good (www.thepublicdiscourse.com/)

People who claim that supporting an outspoken defender of legal abortion is somehow "prolife" are just wrong.

Highlights

By

Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good (www.thepublicdiscourse.com/)

10/18/2008 (5 years ago)

Published in Politics & Policy


DENVER, Colorado (Witherspoon Institute) - In an address delivered on October 17, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput stated that ''Prof. Douglas Kmiec has a strong record of service to the Church and the nation in his past. But I think his activism for Senator Barack Obama, and the work of Democratic-friendly groups like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, have done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn.''

The following is condensed and adapted from an address Charles J. Chaput delivered at an ENDOW (''Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women'') dinner, October 17.

***

"Before I begin, I need to say what a friend of mine calls my ''Litany to the IRS.'' Here it is. I'm not here to tell you how to vote. I don't want to do that, I won't do that, and I don't use code language - so you don't need to spend any time looking for secret political endorsements.I plan to speak candidly, but I can only do that if you remember that I'm here as an author and private citizen. I'm not speaking for the Holy See, or the American bishops, or any other bishop, or even officially for the Archdiocese of Denver. So the things I say are my personal views, nothing more. I think they're pretty solidly grounded in Catholic teaching and the heart of the Church, but it's your task as Catholics and citizens to listen, evaluate and then act as you judge best.

As adults, each of us needs to form a strong Catholic conscience. Then we need to follow that conscience when we vote. And then we need to take responsibility for the consequences of the vote we cast. Nobody can do that for us. That's why really knowing and living our Catholic faith is so important. It's the only reliable guide we have for acting in the public square as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Render Unto Caesar

So let's talk for a few minutes about my recent book Render Unto Caesar. When people ask me about the book, the questions usually fall into three categories. Why did I write it? What does the book say? And what does the book mean for each of us as individual Catholics? Why did I write this book, now? One answer is simple. A friend asked me to do it. Back in 2004, a young attorney I know ran for public office as a prolife Democrat. He nearly won in a heavily Republican district. But he also discovered how hard it can be to raise money, run a campaign and stay true to your Catholic convictions, all at the same time. After the election he asked me to put my thoughts about faith and politics into a form that other young Catholics could use who were thinking about a political vocation - and it really is a ''vocation.''

That's where the idea started. But I also had another reason for doing the book. Frankly, I just got tired of hearing outsiders and insiders tell Catholics to keep quiet about our religious and moral views in the big public debates that involve all of us as a society. That's a kind of bullying, and I don't think Catholics should accept it.Another reason for writing the book is that when I looked around for a single source that explains the Catholic political vocation in an easy, authentic and engaging way, it just didn't exist. So I thought I might as well try to write it, because a friend told me it would ''practically write itself.''

So what does the book say? I think the message of Render Unto Caesar can be condensed into a few basic points.

Here's the first point. For many years, studies have shown that Americans have a very poor sense of history, and that's very dangerous, because as Thucydides and Machiavelli and Thomas Jefferson have all said, history matters. It matters because the past shapes the present, and the present shapes the future. If American Catholics don't know history, and especially their own history as Catholics, then somebody else - and usually somebody not very friendly - will create their history for them.

Here's the second point. America is not a secular state. As historian Paul Johnson once said, America was ''born Protestant.'' It has uniquely and deeply religious roots. Obviously it has no established Church, and it has non-sectarian public institutions. It also has plenty of room for both believers and non-believers. But the United States was never intended to be a ''secular'' country in the radical modern sense. Nearly all the Founders were either Christian or at least religion-friendly. And all of our public institutions and all of our ideas about the human person are based in a religiously shaped vocabulary. So if we cut God out of our public life, we cut the foundation out from under our national ideals.

Here's the third point. We need to be very forceful in defending what the words in our political vocabulary really mean. Words are important because they shape our thinking, and our thinking drives our actions. When we subvert the meaning of words like ''the common good'' or ''conscience'' or ''community'' or ''family,'' we undermine the language that sustains our thinking about the law. Dishonest language leads to dishonest debate and bad laws.

Here's an example. We need to remember that tolerance is not a Christian virtue, and it's never an end in itself. In fact, tolerating grave evil within a society is itself a form of evil. Likewise, democratic pluralism does not mean that Catholics should be quiet in public about serious moral issues because of some misguided sense of good manners. A healthy democracy requires vigorous moral debate to survive. Real pluralism demands that people of strong beliefs will advance their convictions in the public square - peacefully, legally and respectfully, but energetically and without embarrassment. Anything less is bad citizenship and a form of theft from the public conversation.

Here's the fourth point. When Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians in the Gospel of Matthew (22:21) to ''render unto the Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's,'' he sets the framework for how we should think about religion and the state even today. Caesar does have rights. We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience. But that obedience is limited by what belongs to God. Caesar is not God. Only God is God, and the state is subordinate and accountable to God for its treatment of human persons, all of whom were created by God. Our job as believers is to figure out what things belong to Caesar, and what things belong to God - and then to put those things in right order in our own lives, and in our relations with others.

So having said all this, what does the book mean, in practice, for each of us as individual Catholics? It means that we each have a duty to study and grow in our faith, guided by the teaching of the Church. It also means that we have a duty to be politically engaged. Why? Because politics is the exercise of power, and the use of power always has moral content and human consequences.

As Christians, we can't claim to love God and then ignore the needs of our neighbors. Loving God is like loving a spouse. A husband may tell his wife that he loves her, and of course that's very beautiful. But she'll still want to see the evidence in his actions. Likewise if we claim to be ''Catholic,'' we need to prove it by our behavior. And serving other people by working for justice and charity in our nation's political life is one of the very important ways we do that.

The ''separation of Church and state'' does not mean - and it can never mean - separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions. That kind of separation would require Christians to deny who we are; to repudiate Jesus when he commands us to be ''leaven in the world'' and to ''make disciples of all nations.'' That kind of separation steals the moral content of a society. It's the equivalent of telling a married man that he can't act married in public. Of course, he can certainly do that, but he won't stay married for long.

Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama

I began work on Render Unto Caesar in July 2006. I made the final changes to the text in November 2007. That's a long time before anyone was nominated for president, and it was Doubleday, not I, that set the book's release date for August 2008. So - unlike Prof. Douglas Kmiec's recent book, Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama, which argues a Catholic case for Senator Obama - I wrote Render Unto Caesar with no interest in supporting or attacking any candidate or any political party.The goal of Render Unto Caesar was simply to describe what an authentic Catholic approach to political life looks like, and then to encourage Americans Catholics to live it.

Prof. Kmiec has a strong record of service to the Church and the nation in his past. He served in the Reagan administration, and he supported Mitt Romney's campaign for president before switching in a very public way to Barack Obama earlier this year. In his own book he quotes from Render Unto Caesar at some length. In fact, he suggests that his reasoning and mine are ''not far distant on the moral inquiry necessary in the election of 2008.'' Unfortunately, he either misunderstands or misuses my words, and he couldn't be more mistaken.

I believe that Senator Obama, whatever his other talents, is the most committed ''abortion-rights'' presidential candidate of either major party since the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973. Despite what Prof. Kmiec suggests, the party platform Senator Obama runs on this year is not only aggressively ''pro-choice;'' it has also removed any suggestion that killing an unborn child might be a regrettable thing. On the question of homicide against the unborn child - and let's remember that the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer explicitly called abortion ''murder'' - the Democratic platform that emerged from Denver in August 2008 is clearly anti-life.

Prof. Kmiec argues that there are defensible motives to support Senator Obama. Speaking for myself, I do not know any proportionate reason that could outweigh more than 40 million unborn children killed by abortion and the many millions of women deeply wounded by the loss and regret abortion creates.To suggest - as some Catholics do - that Senator Obama is this year's ''real'' prolife candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or moral confusion, or worse. To portray the 2008 Democratic Party presidential ticket as the preferred ''prolife'' option is to subvert what the word ''prolife'' means. Anyone interested in Senator Obama's record on abortion and related issues should simply read Prof. Robert P. George's Public Discourse essay from earlier this week, ''Obama's Abortion Extremism,'' and his follow-up article, ''Obama and Infanticide.'' They say everything that needs to be said.

Of course, these are simply my personal views as an author and private citizen. But I'm grateful to Prof. Kmiec for quoting me in his book and giving me the reason to speak so clearly about our differences. I think his activism for Senator Obama, and the work of Democratic-friendly groups like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, have done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress prolifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn.

And here's the irony. None of the Catholic arguments advanced in favor of Senator Obama are new. They've been around, in one form or another, for more than 25 years. All of them seek to ''get beyond'' abortion, or economically reduce the number of abortions, or create a better society where abortion won't be necessary. All of them involve a misuse of the seamless garment imagery in Catholic social teaching. And all of them, in practice, seek to contextualize, demote and then counterbalance the evil of abortion with other important but less foundational social issues.This is a great sadness. As Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said recently, too many Americans have ''no recognition of the fact that children continue to be killed [by abortion], and we live therefore, in a country drenched in blood. This can't be something you start playing off pragmatically against other issues.''

Meanwhile, the basic human rights violation at the heart of abortion - the intentional destruction of an innocent, developing human life - is wordsmithed away as a terrible crime that just can't be fixed by the law. I don't believe that. I think that argument is a fraud. And I don't think any serious believer can accept that argument without damaging his or her credibility. We still have more than a million abortions a year, and we can't blame them all on Republican social policies. After all, it was a Democratic president, not a Republican, who vetoed the partial birth abortion ban - twice.

The truth is that for some Catholics, the abortion issue has never been a comfortable cause. It's embarrassing. It's not the kind of social justice they like to talk about. It interferes with their natural political alliances. And because the homicides involved in abortion are ''little murders'' - the kind of private, legally protected murders that kill conveniently unseen lives - it's easy to look the other way.

The one genuinely new quality to Catholic arguments for Senator Obama is their packaging. Just as the abortion lobby fostered ''Catholics for a Free Choice'' to challenge Catholic teaching on abortion more than two decades ago, so supporters of Senator Obama have done something similar in seeking to neutralize the witness of bishops and the pro-life movement by offering a ''Catholic'' alternative to the Church's priority on sanctity of life issues. I think it's an intelligent strategy. I also think it's wrong and often dishonest.

It's curious that nobody seems to worry about the ''separation of Church and state,'' or religious interference in the public square, when the religious voices that speak up support a certain kind of candidate. In his book, Prof. Kmiec complains about the agenda and influence of what he terms RFPs - Republican Faith Partisans. But he also seems to pay them the highest kind of compliment: imitation. If RFPs are bad, is it unreasonable to assume that DFPs - Democratic Faith Partisans - are equally dangerous?

As I suggest throughout Render Unto Caesar, it's important for Catholics to be people of faith who pursue politics to achieve justice; not people of politics who use and misuse faith to achieve power. I have no doubt that Prof. Kmiec belongs to the former group. But I believe his arguments finally serve the latter.

For 35 years I've watched thousands of good Catholic laypeople, clergy and religious struggle to recover some form of legal protection for the unborn child. The abortion lobby has fought every compromise and every legal restriction on abortion, every step of the way. Apparently they believe in their convictions more than some of us Catholics believe in ours. And I think that's an indictment of an entire generation of American Catholic leadership.The abortion conflict has never simply been about repealing Roe v. Wade. And the many pro-lifers I know live a much deeper kind of discipleship than ''single issue'' politics. But they do understand that the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is protecting human life from conception to natural death. They do understand that every other human right depends on the right to life. They did not and do not and will not give up - and they won't be lied to.

So I think that people who claim that the abortion struggle is ''lost'' as a matter of law, or that supporting an outspoken defender of legal abortion is somehow ''prolife,'' are not just wrong; they're betraying the witness of every person who continues the work of defending the unborn child. And I hope they know how to explain that, because someday they'll be required to.

Before I conclude and we go to questions, let me say just a couple of things about ENDOW. Betsy Considine, Marilyn Coors, Terry Polakovic and the other women who founded ENDOW are extraordinary leaders. The success of ENDOW is a testimony not just to their enthusiasm and hard work, but to yours. ENDOW succeeds because its message for women is true.

These are difficult times for our country. Even within our Church, the economy, the Iraq War, the life issues in general, and this election in particular, have created a deep spirit of conflict and anxiety. But I do believe Scripture when it tells us not to be afraid. God uses each of us to renew the world if we let him. The genius of women is their capacity to love; to blend talent, intelligence and energy with patience, understanding, respect for the sacredness of life and compassion for others.

That's the kind of leadership we need, in our communities of faith, in our public service and throughout our country. Whatever happens next month and in the years ahead, ENDOW will have a hand in sustaining and refreshing the heart of the Church. That's not a bad achievement for an organization so young. I'm proud of your witness, proud of what you've accomplished and very, very grateful for your service to the Church. God bless you."

***

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday, 2008). The views expressed here are his own, and do not represent those of the Archdiocese of Denver.

---

Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.This article is used with permission.



Comments


More Politics & Policy

From the Values Voter Summit: Values, Citizenship and Hope Watch

Image of The birth certificate of this nation was called a Declaration of Independence because it declared independence from an unjust civil ruler. It did not declare independence from a just God.

By Keith A. Fournier

I write from Washington DC where I have been participating in the Values Voter Summit cosponsored by numerous organizations, associations and alliances dedicated to the moral values which ensure a truly free society. I was invited to participate by my friend, a ... continue reading


As the Election Season Begins, Time for a New Christian Social Movement Watch

Image of

By Deacon Keith A Fournier

As the political season in the United States of America moves into full gear with the midterm elections opening up into the 2016 presidential campaign, my mind turns again to political and social participation. I will attend the Values Voter Summit this weekend ... continue reading


Too hot in the kitchen? Eric Holder resigns Watch

Image of Eric Holder may be fleeing the heat he's feeling for his refusal to cooperate with Congress.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Eric Holder is preparing to announce his resignation as attorney general, following a five-and-a-half year stint fraught with controversy. WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Eric Holder, 63, will be announcing his resignation as attorney general after more than five ... continue reading


'The alarm bells keep ringing' says Obama at climate change summit in New York Watch

Image of Actor Leonardo DiCaprio was among the hundreds of international leaders and spokespeople who attended the global climate change summit held in New York.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

During the United Nations Climate Summit meeting in New York on September 23, President Obama appealed to the international community to make greater strides towards creating and enforcing carbon caps, explaining that climate change is happening at a faster pace ... continue reading


Rockefellers to sell investments in fossil fuel to switch to 'clean energy' Watch

Image of From left to right: Stephen Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Valerie Rockefeller Wayne, the chair of the fund, and Steven Rockefeller, a son of Nelson Rockefeller and a trustee of the fund, in New York, Sept. 16, 2014.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

In a bold move that illustrates just how far climate change has reached the public's consciousness, heirs to the Rockefeller family have announced that they intend to sell investments in fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy. The announcement is a ... continue reading


CAN'T KEEP UP: So many employees leaving Department of Homeland Security, it poses risk to U.S. Watch

Image of The vacating of those in top management positions in the Department of Homeland Security has helped slow the rollout of key cybersecurity initiatives.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS has seen an exodus of employees over the past four years. According to officials, this is leaving the United States open to potential terrorist strikes and cyber-attacks. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Employees ... continue reading


Shell game in Kansas - why Democrats don't have to win Kansas to win the Senate Watch

Image of Independent investor Greg Orman seems to have the advantage in the newly-reshaped senate race.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The race for Senate in Kansas may suddenly be the most crucial contest in the nation as Republicans scramble to protect their longtime incumbent, Bob Dole is back on the campaign trail, Democrats are being as quiet as possible about not having a candidate, and a ... continue reading


Are they on to something? Judicial Watch says terrorists are operating in Mexico Watch

Image of Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat who represents El Paso in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the area offices of various government agencies in response to a report that Middle Eastern terrorists were operating across the border in Mexico.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Judicial Watch, a controversial Web site that maintains that Middle Eastern terrorists are operating just cross the border from the United States from Mexico is evidently stirring up waves. Federal law enforcement sources in El Paso, Texas say that a United ... continue reading


CLOTHES HORSE: Wasserman Schultz losing confidence among Democrats Watch

Image of Stylish  Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman has alienated members of her own party by reportedly demanding that the party pick up the tab for her wardrobe!

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Two "faux pas" have alienated Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz from her party. Her criticism of the White House's handling of the border crisis and comparing tea party members to abusive husbands have alienated her constituency at ... continue reading


Supreme Court justice Sotomayor warns about drones encroaching on American way of life Watch

Image of Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that she's particularly troubled by the potential for commercial and government drones to compromise personal privacy.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Unmanned surveillance planes called drones pose a threat to the privacy of American citizens, warns Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. Speaking to students at Oklahoma City University's law school, Sotomayor says that frightening changes in technology ... continue reading


All Politics & Policy News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Job 3:1-3, 11-17, 20-23
1 In the end it was Job who broke the silence and ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 88:2-3, 4-5, 6, 7-8
2 may my prayer reach your presence, hear my cry for ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 9:51-56
51 Now it happened that as the time drew near for him ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 30th, 2014 Image

St. Jerome
September 30: St. Jerome, who was born Eusebius Hieronymous Sophronius, was ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter