The Church's Abortion Mistake

By focusing exclusively on the abortion issue in the health-care debate, James Carroll says the Catholic Church is sabotaging its broader moral mission.

What happens when a mainstream institution is taken over by its fringe? One answer plays itself out in the Republican Party, where lunatic rhetoric now defines politics. Another shows itself in the Catholic Church, whose leadership has fallen into the trap of single-issue moralism. That the aggressively lobbying Catholic bishops were prepared to kill the health-care reform bill in the House last week over abortion shows how far they have come from the broad tradition of Catholic social teaching that sees the common good as involving multiple values. Negotiation and compromise are essential to solidarity. When values conflict, as they inevitably do in legislation, ethical reasoning assumes a delicate balance, weighing one issue against another. Abortion represents one such moral question that carries special gravity for Catholics. Despite the bishops’ assertions, however, there are others—notably, a universal right to quality health care, which the bishops have supported for years, but which they were prepared last week to throw overboard rather than accept a compromise that would have covered abortions by patient co-payments instead of government funds.

Slash-and-burn single-mindedness is fanatic. Hence the excluding absolutism on the abortion question. Hence the dangerous exacerbation of the worst trends in American public life.

Because the American Catholic drumbeat on abortion has been so loud and unrelenting in recent years, it is easy to forget that the Catholic Church has long had a complex and nuanced approach to moral questions. That is reflected in Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical “Love in Truth,” which offers timely reflections on globalization, development, the economic crisis, and threats to the environment—all based on a broadly defined “common good” that has tremendous relevance for the debate unfolding in Washington. But Benedict gives marching orders to the bishops, which came last week from a different book. His complex vision of the common good was nowhere in evidence as the health-care bill was reduced to one question, defined in its most parochial terms, a dreadful narrowing of concern. Where, for example, was Catholic institutional weight early in the legislative process when undocumented immigrants were excluded from the health-care benefits?

Peter Beinart: Why Democrats Were Smart to Bail on AbortionDana Goldstein: How Abortion Splits the Reform CoalitionBenjamin Sarlin: 6 Senators Stalling Health CareAmy Siskind: Obama Sells Out Women Again The ethical ideal of “common good” has its secular equivalent in the political idea of “commonwealth,” but in America that has yielded to a new organizing image—the casino. The world is divided between the lucky few and the miserable many, with everyone agreeing that there simply isn’t enough to go around. Therefore, it’s me, myself, and I. Our traditional faith (evident as recently as during the civil-rights movement) that a commonwealth can actually be achieved and protected has been eroded, with the Republican Party as the chief exemplar and advocate of this radical individualism. But that’s not all: Our self-aggrandizing polarization is driven also by contempt for out-groups like dark-skinned newcomers, gay people, and the very poor. We know who we are by whom we hate. Alas, Catholic leaders talk like that now, too—about their opponents in debate.

Here is where the health-care legislation comes in—as nothing less than an attempt to rescue some semblance of common-good politics, for the benefit of all. That is why the readiness of the Catholic bishops to sell out the reform bill was so disturbing. Single-issue politics always distorts the larger picture—and today’s larger picture threatens the transformation of the commonwealth into an unjust and uncivil gambling den.

Against those who argue that the U.S. Catholic bishops have no business intruding into politics as they did last week, I argue that they should be lobbying the hell out of the entire economic-recovery process. If abortion were among numerous concerns, each of which deserves attention, bishops might rise to the challenge, say, of figures that show unemployment skyrocketing among young people between 16 and 24, even as student-aid cuts are forcing them out of school. And, by the way, what will that do to pregnancy rates? How many “unwanted children,” for that matter, are not actually “unwanted” at all? What if their parents have simply been made to feel, in the casino economy, that they will never have the resources to care for children? What are the bishops doing for them? Why is the U.S. Catholic Conference not excoriating corporations and banks for their failure to protect jobs instead of top salaries and bonuses? Why, that is, has Catholic ethical concern been so allowed to narrow as to have become shriveled?

We hear little or nothing from Catholic leaders on such questions because, just as extreme voices have made American politics toxic, so extreme voices have poisoned the teaching authority of the church. Slash-and-burn single-mindedness is fanatic. Hence the excluding absolutism on the abortion question. Hence the dangerous exacerbation of the worst trends in American public life. “There cannot be holistic development and universal common good,” Pope Benedict warned in his encyclical, “unless peoples’ spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul.” Precisely.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.