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Letters & Op-Eds - 2016

Catholic politicians are following their conscience on abortion

John Lesch

23 August 2016

Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, implores Catholic politicians to disregard the will of their constituents and toe the hierarchy’s line on abortion policy (“Catholic politicians should follow conscience, consensus on abortion,” 17 August). Anderson cites Catholic and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who, in 1984, remained personally opposed to abortion but refused to ban it. Anderson asks how Catholic politicians like Cuomo who express a personal opposition to abortion can continue to support abortion being legal. Anderson also wrongly lumps all Catholic politicians together and presumes that they oppose abortion rights.

In law, we call this a straw man argument: build up a straw man and it’s easy to burn him down. Anderson’s straw man is built from a long-since discarded Potomac two-step. The political generation after Roe v. Wade began to embrace women’s bodily autonomy, but it still respected the Catholic hierarchy’s heartburn over its declining influence in American society.

This straw man is also built from a sad contemporary trend of Catholic bishops discarding individual conscience in favor of religious hegemony. Mr. Anderson, individuals have consciences. Institutions do not. I came of age in a time when we learned to respect a woman’s conscience-based decisions, and we were more cautious of the institutional church’s use of secular government to impose religious adherence on the family and in the bedroom.

For years, Catholic politicians like me have endured 1980s rhetoric on abortion with growing chagrin. Some folks are all too eager to employ universally recognized historical human struggles, careening recklessly down a political path toward absurdity. To wit, see Anderson’s comparison of the current abortion debate to racism and Auschwitz. It’s not just in poor taste, but also shows that he is dependent on an inconsistent philosophy. Anderson clings to the idea that the church doctrine has always declared personhood begins at conception. It hasn’t.

In fact, the development of this doctrine spans less than 9 percent of the church’s nearly 2,000-year history. Even then, church doctrine has followed St. Thomas Aquinas’s assertion that personhood developed 40 days after conception for male fetuses, and after 90 days for female fetuses. (This has never been repudiated by the church. Awkward.) Science, as any Catholic theologian would tell Mr. Anderson, cannot prove ensoulment, and so we must take it as a matter of faith. That is still a far cry from saying Catholic politicians are obligated to impose this faith on others. Most Catholic theologians, if forced to choose between Aquinas or Anderson, would choose Aquinas. I have no science to back that up, but I take it as a matter of faith.

Still, Anderson maintains that in light of new polling data released by the Knights of Columbus, bowing to the hierarchy’s opinions on policy is not only the right thing, but also the electorally prudent thing for Catholic politicians to do. Yet, decades of Catholic public opinion polling, including most recently from Belden and Russonello in 2014, show that the vast majority of Catholic voters reject the idea that Catholic politicians have an obligation to vote the way a bishop recommends. Anderson cites new polling data and, through a series of contortions that would make Simone Biles wince, asserts, “‘Pro-Choice’ politicians now impose on the country a view only held by a tiny minority.”

Where did Anderson get his data? Well, the Knights of Columbus paid Marist University, a Catholic religious school responsible for the matriculation of Bill O’Reilly, to produce it.

Anderson also cites these polling results as proof that moral objections to abortion demand its legal prohibition—a logic that falls flat. And it’s also untrue when compared to numerous other polling.

Every year since 1996, the Gallup organization has asked Americans, “Do you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” These results and decades of other polling show that the majority of politicians and citizens support legal abortion regardless of their personal views. The view that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances has never had the support of more than 22 percent of any sample, and has consistently had less than 15 percent support among US Catholic voters.

Anderson closes by quoting America’s preeminent Catholic politician, John F. Kennedy. He quotes Kennedy correctly but, ironically, he inverts the message. As the first Catholic of a major party nominated for president, Kennedy was routinely subjected to accusations that he would “bow to Rome.” In response, Kennedy sought to assure the public that he served the American people and would not, as a Catholic, subject his constituents to the dictates of a foreign religion. Anderson fails to understand Kennedy’s statement about conscience and believes Catholic politicians should take their cues from bishops instead of from their own conscience and constituencies.

I think all Catholics can be grateful that Kennedy—like Galileo and Copernicus—rejected such follies and followed his conscience. We Catholic politicians are right to do the same.

John Lesch represents District 66B in the Minnesota House of Representatives and is on the Board of Directors at Catholics for Choice.

This letter was originally published by The Hill.