John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
Last week’s vice-presidential debate was less cringe-worthy than the VP match-up in 2008. In fact, there was one moment where substance won out, and a vast, yawning canyon opened between the candidates and their parties. That was when the moderator noted that each of the candidates is a Catholic, and asked them about abortion.
Their answers contained every point you might predict: Biden stood behind the Democrats’ even-further-expanded commitment to taxpayer funded abortion on demand without apology, while Ryan reiterated the Republican platform’s promise to try to outlaw most abortions.
Biden made matters starkly clear, promising almost explicitly that support for Roe v. Wade will be a litmus test for Democratic appointees to the Supreme Court. He warned that if Romney wins, the court might face more appointees like Antonin Scalia — and Ryan said nothing to contradict him. Ryan even defended his previous statement that he holds abortion wrong in cases of rape and incest — but bowed to the governing virtue of prudence in seeking the best pro-life law that’s possible.
What stuck with me — apart from a sick, gut sense of shame that his local bishop (unlike those in Colorado Springs and Scranton) permits a man like Biden to receive Communion — was the line of argument Biden used. Ryan made clear that his opposition to abortion is based not first on faith, but on “reason and science,” which tell him the same person you see on the ultrasound is the one who pops out of the womb. Here he invoked natural law — the only proper ground for public discourse in a pluralist country.
But Biden took refuge in a lie. He said that as a Catholic, he knows that opposition to abortion is de fide — and hence a matter of faith, inaccessible to natural reason. But he humbly declines to “impose” his faith on others who haven’t been granted this infused virtue by the Holy Spirit. Hence, anyone who would tyrannize others’ consciences is implicitly an inquisitor. So outlawing abortion would be the same as locking up Protestants until they accepted Mary’s Assumption or pinning yellow stars on Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.
This intellectual subterfuge began, as Hadley Arkes and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia rightly point out, with candidate John Kennedy — whose infamous speech to Protestant pastors marked off an intellectual kill zone around religion. This kill zone has proved a handy refuge for pro-abortion (they want it legal, they don’t even want to discourage it, and they expect taxpayers to pay for it) Catholics from Mario Cuomo to Nancy Pelosi and Sonia Sotomayor.
If Biden’s premise were correct, it sure would be immoral for Catholics to try to outlaw abortion. If the humanity of the unborn were de fide like the Hypostatic Union, Catholics who tried to impose it via the police would be like those Muslim busdrivers in Britain who ban seeing-eye dogs from public buses. (The Quran disapproves of pooches.) Islam is radically unlike Christianity in that it denies all recourse to reason and natural law; all truths are known by faith — their faith.
If this is what the Obama administration really believes about faithful Catholics, no wonder they’re trying to close down all our hospitals. (Our schools will be next — just wait.) They see us as just like Islamists who promise to impose Islamic law on everyone, at the point of a sword. If they give way to us on abortion, it’s just one step down the slippery slope that leads to a totalitarian theocracy. If that were the hidden agenda of the Catholic Church, I would persecute it myself.
If you want a president who thinks you’re an Islamist, who promises to appoint judges whose decisions are based on that same view of the Catholic Church, now you know how to vote.