Friday, October 17, 2008

Obama, Abortion, and the Common Good

A friend of mine recently read Cardinal George's letter to his faithful, and asked the following:

Would you please, in as many words as it takes, synthesize the following two ideas for me, please: "One cannot favor the legal status quo on abortion and also be working for the common good." and "The teaching, which covers intrinsic evils such as abortion and many other issues that are matters of prudential judgment, could not be clearer; the practice often falls short because we are all sinners." Or, to phrase my question differently, why is George "Unnecessary War" Bush pursuing the common good with his spate of misguided policies but Obama with his misguided views on abortion is not? I am assuming you're going to tell me about what it means to be intrinsically evil etc., but I'm really having some trouble with this idea. At a very practical level, how is pursuing an end to war not pursuing the common good, irrespective of one's views on abortion?

And here's my tome of a response!

I'll begin with the GW vs. Obama question and move to the more general principles. There are kind of two questions, there, I think. One is about GW's pursuit of the war: is it just or not? Another is about voting for Obama, who has promised to end the war: isn't he pursuing the common good in that way, even if not with regard to abortion? In other words, how does one's view on abortion disqualify you from pursuing the common good absolutely speaking?

GW: He may very well not have been pursuing the common good when he (and most of Congress) decided to pursue this war in Iraq. History may or may not tell (I assume we will know at the End of All Things!). Warfare against other nations, however, is not an intrinsic evil. It is always tragic and ugly, but it can in the context of human sinfulness be "just." The criteria for a just war are four: the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; and the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. (The power of modern weapons weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.)

This teaching does not and does not profess to pass judgment on any particular war in history. Catholics of good will can accept these criteria while disagreeing on their particular application. War is in some cases a just weapon to use in pursuit of the common good. If, in this particular instance, you do not believe the war in Iraq to be just, you can deplore the war but still recognize the possibility of your own error in judgment as well as the fact that, in spite of waging an unjust war, GW's fundamental political philosophy is not intrinsically inimical to the common good of the nation's citizens (even if he's a clutz in trying to promote it!).

Likewise, Catholics of good will can disagree on Obama's proposed measures to end the war. It's an issue of pragmatic strategy, opinion, and our limited access to facts. I would, personally, wonder whether pulling out at this juncture (however wrong it was to leap in) would only make an unjust situation more unjust.

Abortion, however, unlike war, is never a just weapon to use in pursuit of the common good. It is not a defensive measure taken against an aggressor, real or imagined. There is no end or circumstance that justifies the taking of an infant's life. Barack Obama is committed to the idea that an entire class of human beings--which includes some infants separated from their mothers' bodies--is not worthy of the protection of the law. Human beings have no rights until after birth, and some not even then. (Per Robert George, I would describe him as pro-abortion, more than pro-choice, because of his repeated promises to sign into law the Freedom of Choice Act, to re-instate the Mexico City Policy, and his opposition to the Hyde policy and the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. He is actively against this class of human persons.)

Does this mean he is incapable of pursuing the common good in areas such as housing, the economy, and the war? Yes. You cannot support an intrinsic evil--deliberate killing of the unborn--and be pursuing the common good.

Here's why.

The good society is one ordered by its laws, culture, customs, to the common good of its members. The "common good" in Catholic understanding means those goods which are realized only in the individual members of society but not without the support and fellowship of other members. The common good does not diminish because it is distributed, but increases because it is protected and shared by all. Good multiplies; it is fruitful.

That is why we come together naturally in society--to enjoy those goods which, without the society of others, we could never attain. Now, because we are both Christians, I can speak in this way: The most basic and common good of all is the good of human life. "And, behold, God saw that it was very good..." All our confidence in our own salvation and in salvation history rests on this trust: that God sees life as an absolute good. Human life is a common good: it is enjoyed by the individual members of the human race, but we cannot enjoy it in isolation. We depend first on sexual intercourse, then the family, and then on society for this good. The infant, the disabled, and the elderly are simply stark reminders that, without society, we would all either be dead or even never have come to live in the first place. They are most at the mercy of the good society; therefore, the good society's ability to foster and increase the common good is in large part measured in how well it will vouchsafe that most basic good for its weakest members.

Any law-giver who orders the laws of a society against the lives of its own members cannot, de facto, order that society to the true common good (that is, according to God's justice). Aquinas writes:

"If the intention of the law-giver tends toward the true good, which is the common good regulated according to divine justice, it follows that by the law men become good in an unqualified sense. If the intention of the law-giver tends to something which is not good in an unqualified sense, but is a useful good, or something that is pleasurable to him, or something that goes against divine justice; then the law does not make men good in an unqualified sense, but in a qualified sense, that is, in the order to such a rule." Summa Theologica I-II, q. 92, a. 1, c.

Taking members of our society and saying that they are non-members and therefore may be killed by the most brutal means imaginable (saline burning, dismemberment while alive, brains sucked out while alive, etc...) is inconsonant, to say the least, with "good order." Obama may be able to bring about some housing for poor people or lower the deficit (doubtful), but his law-making and ordering of our society will never be good in any sense but an absolutely relativistic one: the common good belongs only to those of a certain size or viability. There's no justice guiding his justice beyond his own sense of expediency. There's no absolute good ordering all his various goods. And we know from history what happens to a society that judges itself based on its own opinion of right and wrong: cf. the genocides of the 20th-century.

Now, what's the difference between the lives of the unborn and the lives taken in an imprudent war (and I use the word "imprudent" because it is a matter of prudential judgment, not absolute good)? Before God, nothing--except perhaps a measure of innocence and defenselessness. But, as Augustine points out, the City of God is not the City of Man. As long as human societies exist (and they will until the Four Last Things, eh?), the common good will be pursued within the particular societies and poli. The burden of protection for the President of the United States lies in the human lives within the scope of his polity. Those lives are his first responsibility; the measure with which he saves and blesses the lives of those existing within his polity is the measure by which he is judged a good law-maker. Again, a war with another nation may or may not be just; war on your own members is never just. The common good is lost when one citizen takes another's life with the blessing of the country's laws and law-givers.

I'll leave you with Obama's speech on the floor of the IL Senate the day he opposed the BAIPA. They are, I believe, most telling: ''As I understand it,'' Obama said during the floor debate, ''this puts the burden on the attending physician who has determined, since they were performing this procedure, that, in fact, this is a nonviable fetus; that if that fetus, or child - however way you want to describe it - is now outside the mother's womb and the doctor continues to think that it's nonviable but there's, let's say, movement or some indication that, in fact, they're not just coming out limp and dead, that, in fact, they would then have to call a second physician to monitor and check off and make sure that this is not a live child that could be saved.''


J.C. said...

That was a fun read. What was your friend's response? The disparity between war (particularly this low-casualty war), and abortion (especially on this massive scale), seems so obvious, but it is helpful to remember that most people's thinking nowadays is seldom based on logical constructs and reasoning, and without this foundation, they are easily swayed on the basis of emotion and rhetoric. (Please don't think I am referring to your friend, who obviously wished to engage in genuine discussion!) I enjoyed having the familiar general arguments filled in with specific references and broken down, maybe not to first prinicples, but at least Christian commonalities. Thanks, Erica.

earthie said...

Thank you! I'm putting this one in the memory bank for discussion at work-- although it's always a dangerous place for political conversation.

SarahLee08 said...

I just stumbled upon your blog while reading the blog of a friend of mine who is a Catholic Mom as well.

I appreciate your discussion of this topic so much. Thank you for writing this with such insight and clarity. And to imagine there are those who assume that a woman who chooses to be at home with her children has no brain!

I hope you will not mind if I link to your blog from my own page;