Which Comes First, the Church or the Party?
Well, I’ve read and talked more than I ever cared to about Ted Kennedy recently, may he rest in peace. And Darwin has already ably responded to this defense of the late Senator Kennedy from Michael Sean Winters. But something about Mr. Winters response has been ringing in my ears, and I think it’s because it summarizes in a few sentences what I perceive to be the tragedy of Catholic Democrats in the U.S.: they could have taken a stand for unborn life but were unwilling. As a result, faithful Catholics have either been driven into the Republican Party, become independents, or become disconcertingly comfortable with the status quo on abortion. Currently I think both the first and last options are incompatible with Catholic thought – at least without substantial departure from party orthodoxies. Where familiarity (with both parties) should have breed contempt, it has instead yielded unconscionable familiarity and acceptance. And Mr. Winters’ post provides a clear illustration of this reality:
To dismiss his [Senator Kennedy’s] career because of his stance on abortion is to be ignorant of the complicated way the issue of abortion manifested itself in the early 1970s: I think Kennedy got it wrong but I do not find it difficult to understand why and how he got it wrong.
Perhaps I am among those ignorant of the complications Mr. Winters describes, but it appears to me that one can understand easily enough the reasons for Senator Kennedy’s abrupt reversal on abortion. The first is that he was a politician, and when politicians act in ways that are in their political self-interest, it is reasonable to assume that political self-interest entered into their decision-making process. A second is that Senator Kennedy received bad advice from numerous Catholic clergy; it is not clear to what extent the receipt of bad advice was a cause or an effect of his decision to reverse his position on abortion, but let’s assume it was a cause for the sake of charity.
I agree with Mr. Winters that Senator Kennedy’s switch, given this background, was perfectly understandable (i.e. there were rational reasons for it). But I fail to see how this means that only ‘ignorance’ could lead someone to criticize Senator Kennedy. Political self-interest is hardly a moral disinfectant; and the Church’s position, as Senator Kennedy was undoubtedly aware, was similarly clear, regardless of the assurances of dissenting theologians. The real question here is why Mr. Winters thinks that ignorance (rather than awareness) accounts for the criticism Senator Kennedy received for his support for abortion for nearly forty years. And the only answer I can come up with is that Mr. Winters is so accustomed to viewing things from the perspective of a Democratic partisan that he is unable to imagine a Catholic legitimately, rather than simply as a Republican partisan, being appalled by Senator Kennedy’s record on abortion. This becomes even more apparent in his next comment:
If the pro-life leaders would stop ranting for a second and study that history they might become more effective at advancing their cause.
Notice, Mr. Winters, has already said he thinks Senator Kennedy was wrong about abortion. But he then finds it necessary to uncharitably caricature those he agrees with as ‘ranting’ in order to defend Senator Kennedy’s legacy. And again, he suggests that remedying their (alleged) ignorance would somehow help the pro-life movement, and mitigate the criticisms of Senator Kennedy’s record on abortion. This is all very puzzling. Mr. Winters has asserted that 1) Senator Kennedy was wrong; 2) That those who criticize Senator Kennedy for being wrong are wrong to do so; and 3) That they would not criticize Senator Kennedy if they were better informed about why Senator Kennedy was wrong, but that exculpatory reason (known to Mr. Winters) is not shared with the reader. It seems clear that something else is going on here, and I think Mr. Winters’ conclusion makes clear what it is:
Besides, Ted Kennedy got many more things right than he got wrong.
Translation: Ted Kennedy was a Democrat. And Democrats, in Mr. Winters judgment, are more right than wrong. Therefore, to criticize them when they are wrong, is to invite dismissive remarks about ignorance and ‘ranting’ pro-life leaders.
Now, one should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from one blog post. I do not mean to impugn Mr. Winters’ faith, which, for all I know, is far more advanced than my own. Nevertheless, I think this passage highlights one of the chief problems with the Catholic Church in the United States: in the political realm, we sometimes present the Gospel as partisans of a particular party first, and Catholics second. It begins innocently enough: we decide one party is more in line with the Church’s vision of the human person. Then we begin to defend the party on those grounds, and on some other issues where there is room for prudential judgment. And then, as we support the party for a longer period of time – and it captures more of our sympathies – occasionally we find ourselves defending our favorite politicians and parties against the Church’s position. At this point, I think we need to take a step back. It is hard to imagine Mr. Winters describing Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI as ‘ranting’ when they articulate the moral necessity of legal protection for the unborn. And yet he goes out of his way to caricature his fellow pro-lifers in order to defend the record of a particularly problematic Catholic politician. The same thing happens on the right, of course, on issues ranging from immigration to torture to health care.
The Church’s vision of the human person and the relation of the individual to the common good does not line up neatly with one party or the other in the contemporary United States. And, while this is occasionally frustrating, I think on the whole this is a healthy thing. The Gospel is not meant to tell us what we already know; it is meant to challenge us, to bring us out of our comfortable complacency and party orthodoxies. The great tragedy of the late Senator Kennedy’s legacy was that he failed to transcend the limitations of his party. Mr. Winters is right to observe that this is human, but he is wrong to dismiss those who criticize it as ignorant.