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Abortion, the Poisoning of Social Justice, and the Rush to Judgment

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 08, 2011

I have a theory. I cannot provide statistical evidence to support it, but I still think it explains a good deal about why contemporary social services and anti-poverty initiatives, even in the Catholic Church herself, so often seem to be tainted by the culture of death. My theory is that the legalization of abortion has created an almost intolerable tension between those who have made life issues their first priority and those who may be interested in pursuing other social goods. This tension has several direct results, none of them good.

Two recent news stories highlight the problem in the United States (though it afflicts all Western societies). First, criticism of the bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development continues despite recent efforts of the USCCB to weed out grant recipients who involve themselves in social programs which violate Catholic moral teaching (such as abortion, contraception, adoption by gay couples, gay marriage, euthanasia, assisted suicide and the like). Now the CCHD is starting to rather vehemently criticize the critics.

Social Complexity Creates Moral Dilemmas

While I have been very sympathetic to the efforts to reduce the CCHD’s connections to groups that do not fully embrace Catholic moral teaching, I have always been aware that there are two sides to this story. Some connections are more tenuous than others, and one must also assume that some kinds of connections are extraordinarily difficult to avoid in today’s world.

Consider, first, that those of us who are (rightly) strongly pro-life typically commit to working against abortion and its related evils as the first priority of any campaign for social justice. Consider, second, that abortion is legal and taken for granted in the larger culture. It is not difficult to see two related results: First, a great many strong Catholics who would otherwise commit themselves elsewhere end up in pro-life work outside the mainstream; a corollary is that most of these people, given mainstream prejudices, would not be able to get or keep jobs in leadership positions in other social services. Second, those who prefer to work in other areas of social improvement are almost inevitably less deeply-committed to the pro-life cause on average; and a corollary is that they are more comfortable and/or successful in working in what we might call the normal atmosphere, structure and interconnectedness of other social services.

My main point here is that this network of services is still very much a mainstream network. It is not counter-cultural, at least not in a specifically Catholic way, and so it is permeated with both people and programs operating within the skewed moral parameters of the mainstream culture. This is so true that all it takes to become known as a pro-life organization is to pursue any social good in such a way that rules out all possible participation in the endemic infrastructures of the culture of death. Very few organizations, even those with many excellent staff members, are willing to risk their programs in this way. In most cases they cannot do so without being tagged as an essentially different type of organization, namely a pro-life group.

As the culture worsens, and especially if social services of every kind are divorced from public funding and become once again works of sacrificial love, the number of organizations committed to the culture of life will increase. We can certainly see pro-life pregnancy centers as a model for what might eventually be done in other spheres. But the great problem in today’s atmosphere is that to expect too much often makes it impossible to accomplish anything at all. These things must be carefully weighed.

The Problem of Rash Judgment

The problem is nicely illustrated by the recent argument between the bishops of Illinois and governor Pat Quinn. The bishops, including Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, criticized Governor Quinn for participating in a Pro-Choice Leadership award ceremony. Later, Cardinal George backed away from the criticism somewhat when he learned that the purpose of the award in this case was to honor someone who worked with victims of rape.

Now if I were a governor, I could not participate in the conferring of any award whatsoever under the rubric of “Pro-Choice Leadership”, because this suggests support for abortion. To do otherwise certainly merits an episcopal caution or criticism, one which is all too seldom offered. And yet the caution or criticism must be shaped not by assumptions and frustration, but by the facts and even the complexities of the case. It must also identify those prudential areas in which good men might choose different courses of action.

Meanwhile, observe how easily the pro-abortion establishment is associated with support for rape victims. To attempt to support rape victims while closing off their access to abortion and abortifacient contraception, both of which are standard features of the mainstream, is to become known as a very different kind of organization, a pro-life organization, with the suspicion that the organization is not supportive of rape victims at all. I am not suggesting that it is moral to provide such access. What I am suggesting is that the well is poisoned by mainstream expectations. It is very difficult to support those who have been raped in our culture without increasing one’s exposure to, and association with, the culture of death (of which rape, of course, is a growing manifestation), or without being publicly dismissed as a front group with an entirely different agenda.

Fine lines tend to breed undesirable connections of the looser sort. Now please do not get me wrong. The social justice apparatus of the USCCB has, at least until relatively recently, shown itself insufficiently sensitive to the problematic associations involved in social justice work today. Moreover, the vast majority of Catholic politicians act as if they are not even aware any such problem exists. But if it is true that the associations and their resulting tensions are both real and important, it is also true that they are not necessarily the fault of those who are attempting to do genuine good in those areas of social justice not directly concerned with ending abortion.

Mental Caution and the Law of Charity

We can learn from a deeper reflection on this problem. Those who offer criticism have an obligation not only to ascertain the facts but to understand their significance within the overall complexity of the case. This is a minimum requirement of justice that is frequently lost in the rush to gain press points, but there are other things that flow from the law of charity as well, such as the initial assumption, not to be easily abandoned, that everyone involved is operating at a disadvantage. The legalization of abortion has not only created a pro-life subculture; it has also inevitably poisoned the dominant culture so that it is now inexpressibly more difficult to pursue other legitimate social goals without the risk of collateral damage.

The current quarrel between the American Life League and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development might be modified by a recognition of this enormous social complexity, no matter how hard it has been over the years to get the CCHD to take pro-life concerns seriously. And certainly Cardinal George is correct that the bishops of Illinois should have learned the facts before they offered criticism of the Governor, not to eliminate criticism necessarily, but at least to make it more useful—and perhaps more just.

But as things are, our very discourse is poisoned by this horrible cancer of abortion, and by the fundamental retreat from the natural law it signifies. The overall trend seems to precipitate a rush to judgment in nearly every case, and on all sides. You could say that this shows how great the poison is, and you would be right. But you could also say that it should put us on our guard. At the very least we ought to refrain from the assumption that another’s efforts to do good are somehow simpler than our own, so simple that we need not parse their moral dilemmas carefully in light of all the data, so simple that the smallest slip merits the loudest public censure.

We must never forget how difficult things are, and how easy it is to be a critic, complete with a critic’s tongue. This warning is especially apt for cause-oriented organizations, of which is certainly one. Organizations which exist to promote key ideas profit in direct proportion to the size of the enemies they can denounce. I have had occasion to offer this warning before, just as others have offered it to me. But the tendency to precipitous judgment, however financially beneficial to non-profits and politicians, is also a sign of self-righteousness in all of us. How our little tongues burn with denunciation! And “how great a forest,” lamented St. James, “is set ablaze by a small fire!” (3:5)

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 10, 2011 10:04 PM ET USA

    I agree with the caution about tendencies in a variety of areas to precipitous judgment. Nonetheless, there are some pretty clear-cut principles to follow, and we must always remember that the end does not justify the means. Dr. Mirus, I would go with your gut on that hypothetical. I wouldn't want to explain to St. Peter what I was thinking when I attended a Pro-Choice Leadership Award ceremony. The road to hell just might be paved with "facts and complexities" as well as those good intentions.

  • Posted by: Polycarp - Nov. 09, 2011 9:30 PM ET USA

    Pope Paul VI, in his Evangelium Nuntiandi and Pope Benedict XVI comment (July 4,2011)on Authentic Catholic Charity. They note that true catholic Charity tends to the physical needs & the spiritual needs of people. Pope Benedict goes on to say that charity that is strictly horzontal in nature "perverts" the true meaning of Catholic charity. Regarding CCHD, I would ask, Are funds being doled out with an eye toward the spiritual needs of people or are they addressing physical needs?

  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Nov. 09, 2011 6:08 PM ET USA

    Perhaps what Quinn could have done (tho it wd have cost him politically) is use that ceremony to speak about how even pregnant rape victims should consider the innocent life in them, take courage, and have their babies. It really bothers me that there are so many women with children...but no man to help support them. I would give awards to all those women bearing & rearing children despite horrible circumstances--seduction, rape, abandonment. They are the champions of the world!

  • Posted by: - Nov. 08, 2011 11:35 PM ET USA

    Dr Mirus, I cannot agree with you. Cardinal George, the USCCB, and CCHD have erred seriously with their efforts. Public misperceptions of poverty, rape victims, and certainly the Catholic faith will not be allayed by short-term partnerships with pro-choice groups. People have only grown only in mis-casting Catholic faith since 1973. No, moral virtue only rules when we're sticky about use of funds. Pro-choice efforts have exploited our best intentions a VERY long time.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 08, 2011 11:24 PM ET USA

    You miss the greater point in the SJ equation. Dissident Catholics gravitate to SJ so they can feel good and so fall into the activist Americanism condemned by Leo XIII. You're way off on the CCHD. Authentic Catholic action directly serves the afflicted out of love of God to save souls. CCHD is fundamentally flawed with progressive philosophy. The CCHD wouldn't have washed the dying in Calcutta, they would have organized protests. The CCHD needs to be shut down altogether.

  • Posted by: JP810 - Nov. 08, 2011 9:25 PM ET USA

    Great piece! In reflection, I have to admit, that when one examines all the facts, it takes "courage" to follow through in offering criticisms while in the same vein, offer constructive avenues of exit, in trying to solve what appears to a faithful catholic, a social problem with a fork in the road. However, "courage" is precisely that gift to follow through and not to leave hanging for the faithful a confused environment of "acceptance" of abortion but praising in helping rape victims.