- Abortion, Religious Freedom, and Catholic Politics by James Hitchcock
Abortion has been a central public policy issue over the past half century, whose importance has only been reinforced by recent debates over the Affordable Care Act and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hitchcock’s text provides a very perplexing narrative on how both the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right in the United States have downplayed this issue during the very time period that the pro-life movement, by his reckoning, has been a very salient political movement centered on a moral issue.
Hitchcock argues that from the 1930s to the 1960s Catholic moral and social teaching was compatible with the prevailing social and economic policies emerging from the New Deal. Indeed, as he points out pre-1970, the Democratic Party would have been the pro-life party. However, he continues, with the cultural shift to allowing abortions in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Democratic Party embraced the “right-to-choose” [End Page 97] and its leadership became a liberal cultural elite that left behind the party’s working class members.
Although abortion provides the Catholic press an opportunity to critique this growing relativist culture, Hitchcock contends that neither the Catholic Left nor the Catholic Right seize this opportunity. The Catholic Left, which he primarily renders as National Catholic Reporter, wraps itself with the “seamless garment” articulated by Cardinal Bernardin that reduced abortion to being just one issue among many. The Catholic Right, which Hitchcock largely draws from The Wanderer and The Remnant, concludes that since Roe v. Wade cannot be reversed, conservatives should instead focus on opposing to U.S. imperialism (the war on terrorism), promoting economic distributism as opposed to capitalism, and rejecting the U.S. political experiment contaminated by Calvinism. The net consequence of these ideological claims is that abortion is given a free rein.
Stylistically speaking, this text is difficult to read. Besides the introduction and the conclusion, each chapter, in a stream of consciousness fashion, strings together quotations from writers in the above-mentioned Catholic periodicals. The readers can easily get lost “in the weeds,” and has to figure out inductively Hitchcock’s argument. Substantively, other sources such as America, Commonweal, First Things, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor, are also drawn upon by Hitchcock, but by relying primarily on National Catholic Reporter and The Wanderer, his sweeping characterizations of the Catholic Left and Catholic Right are distorted.
The merit of Hitchcock’s arguments would have been much better served by him writing chapters on: 1) the principles of Catholic moral and social teachings that should inform the Catholic approach to public policy, 2) the historical circumstances that has led the prevailing cultural wisdom to shift away from the “New Deal consensus,” 3) how and why both the U.S. Catholic Left and Right post Roe v. Wade have departed from what he sees as authentic Catholic teaching, and 4) the evidence for why the pro-life movement has been in his eyes the authentic pursuit of Catholic teaching on public affairs. Otherwise, at [End Page 98] present, the reader can simply read the introduction and conclusion of the text, get the gist of Hitchcock’s argument, and thus avoid the endless litany of journalistic commentaries that comprise the remaining chapters.
Ironically, as much as Hitchcock despairs at the end of his text that Donald Trump’s pending defeat by Hillary Clinton (this text was written prior to the November 2016 election), would be “a tragic ending indeed to the long and courageous pro-life struggle,” in a prescient fashion he captures that “the Trump movement was in many ways an ecumenical manifestation of the Wanderer Catholic underground of conspiracy theories, old religious and ethnic grudges, economic ignorance, resentment and alienation from the entire modern world” (194). The task before those of us who care deeply about Catholic moral and social teaching is to respond constructively, not polemically, to these conspiracies that indeed are informing President Trump’s initiatives.