Thursday, March 21, 2013

Catholic Rhetoric about Abortion and Serving the Common Good: A Reflection on Bill Tammeus's Recent NCR Article

Yesterday, Bill Tammeus posted an essay at National Catholic Reporter about the issue of abortion and Catholic magisterial teaching. To my mind, at least part of what the essay argues persuasively is that Catholics who refuse to engage those with different mindsets about complex issues re: the ethic of life can hardly expect to persuade others to share the Catholic understanding of life issues. I hear Tammeus arguing that, if Catholics don't intend to engage others with different perspectives in pluralistic secular democracies by means of respectful, dialogic interchange, Catholics shouldn't be surprised that many others in the world around them simply shrug their shoulders at Catholic teachings about life issues.

And here's how a sizable number of Catholics immediately responded to Tammeus's sane, rational, and morally well-grounded proposals:

It's about abortion! Why can't he understand that? 
It's about killing babies!! 
Don't dare try to confuse me with facts. It's about abortion!! for God's sake! It's about killing babies!! for God's sake!! 
You deceiver! You dufus! You liar! Why do you want to change the subject? It's about killing babies! It's about abortion!
God will not be deceived in the end. You'll pay a price for killing babies. 

Yes, the kind of "moral" "argumentation" employed by many Catholics in this NCR thread absolutely proves Tammeus's point. Many of us who are Catholics have long since departed from the realm of rationality when the topic of abortion comes up. We now imagine that simply brandishing the word "abortion" and the phrase "baby killer" in the face of opponents is morally self-justifying discourse that ought to stop any and all rational interchange about the complex issues regarding the topic of abortion. 

What we're interested in, quite simply, is stopping conversation, not facilitating it. We're not interested in convincing others of the rightness of our position. We're interested, instead, in ramming that position down their throats, in bullying and coercing them--and in calling this pre-moral or outright immoral behavior "the" moral position.

We behave this way, in part, because we really don't have a sound moral basis for our position. We haven't given much thought at all to it. We haven't studied the issues. We haven't listened carefully to a variety of well-grounded positions about the issues. 

Why would we have to do this, when it's about killing babies, for God's sake?! How can anyone begin to imagine that killing babies is worth discussing?! What's wrong with you people?! It's about killing babies! It's about abortion!

And this non-discussion in response to Bill Tammeus's NCR essay remains on my mind today as I read Australian Jesuit Frank Brennan's marvelous essay about how the Catholic church can better promote a culture of life, to which the Commonweal blog has just linked. Brennan summarizes the significance of Pope Francis's address to journalists last Saturday as follows:

Respect for the conscience of every person, regardless of their religious beliefs; silence in the face of difference; affirmation of the dignity and blessedness of every person; offering, not coercing; suggesting, not dictating; leaving room for gracious acceptance - these are all good pointers for those of us dedicated to a culture of life.

All of this is precisely the opposite of the behavior modeled by many Catholics who logged in to Bill Tammeus's article yesterday to inform him that as a Presbyterian elder, he has no business at all meddling in their Catholic topic of abortion. Catholics own abortion, after all. They own the rhetoric of condemning baby killers. Presbyterians need to butt out. And NCR is nothing but an anti-Catholic rag for allowing a Presbyterian elder to write about the issue of abortion, and to suggest that if Catholics want to be convincing regarding this issue, they need to explain and reason and discuss--not bully and shout. 

I've been thinking about this peculiar kind of non-moral argumentation which postures as supremely moral discourse since reading Rob Tisani's article two days ago about NOM's latest star, an 11-year-old Minnesota girl named Gracie Evans. Gracie testified against gay marriage before the Minnesota legislature by asking which of her parents--her mother or her father--will be taken away from her when the gays are permitted to marry. Which one should I prepare to do without?, she asked the legislature.

NOM is eager to exploit Gracie Evans, of course, because she fits right into NOM's consistent strategy of trying to depict marriage equality as an assault on innocent children: it's all about the children! The children will be harmed! The gays want to harm our children!

These non-arguments masquerading as eminently moral discourse--It's about killing babies! It's about the children! The gays want to harm our children!--are continuous with each other. At heart, they derive from the same pre-moral place in our culture.

That place is about identifying my comfort zones, my unexamined and unfounded presuppositions, my ignorance and my hostilities toward groups I regard as maleficent outsiders, as good and holy. It's about identifying everything outside my comfort zone as unholy. As a threat to me and to my notions of what is good and right. As an enemy of a god whom I've easily made in my own image.

There's not much about this way of thinking that can legitimately claim to be moral. There's not much about it that does a great deal of good to society at large. There's not much that is designed to convince others. 

When this kind of pre-moral thinking which envisages itself as the only real moral show in town is allowed to gain the upper hand in a society through cookie-cutter legislation crafted by well-funded partisan operatives like the Koch brothers, whose primary goal is to promote one political party at the expense of the good of the entire society, that society is in serious trouble. Because nothing about this moral posturing has much at all to do with authentically moral positions or with building a better society for all of us. To the contrary . . . .

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