James Hitchcock on “Abortion and the Catholic Right”

“Abortion and the Catholic Right” by James Hitchcock. Human Life Review Spring 2007 — a study of how the Catholic (re: “traditionalist”) Right — as represented by Joseph Sobran, Paul Likoudis and contributors to The Wanderer & The Remnant — have been obsessed with their opposition to democratic-capitalism, “neoconservatives” and the Bush administration, to such an immense degree that they now hold the aformentioned issues as being “more pressing” than abortion — even to the point of, in the case of The Wanderer, celebrating the defeat of Republican candidates.

Some food for thought / discussion:

The opposition of these conservative Catholics to the Bush administration has also led some of them to reject important pro-life allies. In their fierce denunciations of “neo-conservatives,” Sobran and Likoudis ignore the fact that neo-conservatives, especially in the pages of their leading publication, The Weekly Standard, are among the few secular people enrolled in the prolife cause. TWS regularly publishes strong and highly intelligent articles against abortion, fetal-stem-cell research, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other life issues, as well as against radical feminism and the homosexual movement. It is a moral conservatism that is not accidental, since “neoconservatives” are usually defined as people who became disillusioned with traditional liberalism on a variety of issues.

Similarly, Likoudis’s dismissal of Santorum as merely a puppet of the White House and of a neo-conservative conspiracy impugned the integrity of a man who had been regarded as one of the most principled and effective Senate champions of traditional moral causes, and it is not at all clear whether Santorum was opposed primarily for his lapse in supporting Specter or for his heresy on other issues. Since his opponent was also pro-life, opposition to Santorum could be justified, but some of his Catholic critics implied that he had to be turned out of office without regard for the life issues.

Economics appears to be the engine that is now driving The Wanderer’s stand on public issues, and establishing its priorities. Neither liberals nor conservatives, as those terms are understood in the U.S. today, represent classical Catholic social teachings. But since the U.S. is a predominantly capitalist country, the teachings criticizing capitalism appear more pertinent to our condition than do the teachings against socialism; so, to the degree that the Republican Party champions the free market, some Catholics draw the conclusion that it is in effect immoral to support Republican candidates.

While this is usually considered a liberal idea, in the pages of The Wanderer it has a conservative counterpart that is in many ways almost indistinguishable from the liberal position. The paper stops short of advising readers precisely how to vote in order to achieve true social justice, but its economic ideas seem logically to lead to the conclusion that only strong state action can overcome the plutocratic exploitation of the people, something that has been the premise of left-wing American politics since the 1890s. . . .

* * *

. . . Many, perhaps most, committed pro-lifers are former Democrats who were rejected by their party and found themselves welcomed by the Republicans. Most of those converts are probably not conservatives in a principled ideological way, so that their presence in the Republican ranks has the effect of helping facilitate the “betrayal” of conservative principles that Sobran and others decry.

Hard-core conservatives tend now to hearken back nostalgically to the days of Barry Goldwater, ignoring the fact the Goldwater turned out to be fanatically pro-abortion, as well as very liberal on most other social issues, something that gives pro-lifers little reason to want to be “true” conservatives. Sobran’s way of dealing with the life issues can then be seen as the conservative counterpart to the liberals’ “seamless garment”-an attempt to persuade pro-lifers to transcend their “narrow” outlook and support a wider agenda.

The widely held, apparently self-evident, assumption that the pro-life movement is the creature of the “religious Right” has blinded even most informed observers to the unexpected and intriguing fact that, for some on the Catholic part of “the Right,” the life issues are no longer paramount, if they ever were.

James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University, is the author of The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004).

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