Archbishop Charles Chaput to Douglas Kmiec: Saying Obama Pro-Life is Wrong
by Charles J. Chaput
October 19, 2008
LifeNews.com Note: 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. This article previously appeared in Public Discourse.
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.
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