More people should know about University Faculty for Life. The proceedings of the fifteenth annual conference is now out, and it is packed with some of the sharpest thinking about the theory, practice, and prospects of the pro-life cause.

There are articles on abortion and international law, on why the political rhetoric about abortion is unique, and on the experiences of nurses working with women who have crisis pregnancies. And the story of Father James Morrow, who successfully challenged the pusillanimity of the bishops of Britain. It’s a big, thick volume chock-full of good stuff.

I was taken by an article by Clark Forsythe of Americans for Life. He and his organization have for years been doing the heavy lifting in advancing an "incremental" approach to protecting unborn children on a state-by-state basis. Forsythe is a great defender of prudence, as in prudential judgments and strategies. He admires the strategy of Lincoln with respect to the abolition of slavery, as that strategy is described by Harry Jaffa in Crisis of the House Divided .

The point is that it was prudent—as in wise and crafty—for Lincoln to let himself be associated with those who opposed social and political equality between the races. Had he not done so, he would have been dismissed as a radical and his work for the containment and ultimate elimination of slavery would have been politically doomed.

In response to Forsythe’s argument, William Mathie of Brock University in Ontario takes note of this passage in John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae :

[73.3] A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on . . . . When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known , could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.

Mathie goes on to say:

The words to which I have added emphasis might seem to require Lincoln’s condemnation, at least on Jaffa’s analysis. Accordingly, Forsythe may be right to deflect our attention from the issue that this poses, and this commentator may be wrong to draw attention to this question. To defend myself against this objection, I would advance the following considerations. In the instance here under examination, Lincoln did not merely associate himself with the all but universal white feeling that opposed racial equality when he spoke against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; he simultaneously set in motion an argument within his listeners’ minds that might finally undermine that feeling. At the state level in the U.S., those who have fought popular and powerful pro-life political efforts have sometimes succeeded by attributing to the sponsors of those measures the ultimate intention to forbid abortion under all circumstances, including rape. And I would ask two questions about the statement to which Forsythe appeals: Why must the elected official who votes for a law partially restricting abortion make clear his "absolute personal opposition to procured abortion"? And is the question that I have just posed one for prudence to answer? To say and to ask this much is not to say what ought to be done, or even what following the path of Lincoln, if that were acceptable, might mean, in our case.

Were I to intervene in this exchange between Forsythe and Mathie, I would note that John Paul spoke of officials "whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known." I have heard that passage cited by Catholic public figures who take the position "I am personally opposed, but . . . " That personal opposition is typically made incoherent by their saying, at the same time, that they support an unlimited right to abortion. The "absolute personal opposition" of which John Paul spoke is an opposition made evident in striving for the greatest possible protection of the unborn.

The proposed analogy with Lincoln on social equality between the races is not apt, however. His prudential judgment was that he had to reject publicly the goal of racial equality. There is no comparable political requirement for the pro-life politician who declares that his goal is "every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life." The politician knows, and everybody else knows, that that goal will never be achieved perfectly. In a fallen world, there will always be some abortions, as there will always be rapes, burglaries, bribery, and other forms of homicide. And there may still be some abortions countenanced by law, at least for a time, until political will is joined to the moral truth that it is always wrong to take an innocent human life.

The statement of the pro-life goal is clear and unambiguous; prudential judgment is determining how best to move toward that goal. Always keeping in mind that politics is not only the art of the possible but also the art of exploring what might be possible.

Well, that is only one of the many debates worth having that are engaged by University Faculty for Life. To find out more about this group, check out www.uffl.org or contact Father Joseph Koterski at koterski@fordham.edu .


In addition to which :

In the 164th edition of the ever-popular section called “The Public Square,” Father Richard John Neuhaus offers lively comment on, inter alia , why non-Christian intellectuals are blind to the social force of Christianity in America, the significance of the passing of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the pity of Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation , the surprising impromptu catechesis of Benedict XVI, Notre Dame’s problems with being Catholic, the dubious friends of Israel, how commentators are skewing the message of the encyclical Deus caritas est , flawed “scientific” measures of the effectiveness of prayer, what Catholic bishops got right and wrong on immigration policy, how to understand the hysteria of Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy , Orthodox challenges to Catholic piety surrounding the Real Presence, the wrong arguments about capital punishment, the crackup of the Anglican communion, the mischief in the term “theocon,” and what Paul Hollander has taught us about “political pilgrims.” As Father Neuhaus is fond of saying, “when a magazine defines its scope as ‘religion, culture, and public life,’ there is almost nothing of interest that is not fair game.” Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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