Camosy v. Garnett

by Michael Sean Winters

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My smackdown of George Weigel has given birth to a very interesting and important exchange between two professors I greatly admire, Notre Dame’s Rick Garnett and Fordham’s Charles Camosy. At issue is the relationship between agreed-upon Catholic doctrine and the exercise of prudential judgment by politicians. This is a critical discussion and I hope that all three of us can help perfect the arguments of each of us.

Camosy wrote:

It would also be interesting to see if Weigel (and Garnett) would accept the same doctrine/policy distinction when it comes to life issues. Suppose a Catholic politician says that she supports all of the Church’s doctrines on the sanctity of human life, the prohibition against killing persons, and duties to aid vulnerable populations. But then let us suppose she has a broadly pro-choice voting record because she believes the Church, in calling for legal protection of our prenatal children, is speaking about a technical area of public policy about which it has no expertise or authority. Suppose she believes that laws against abortion would be virtually unenforceable and harm women. Suppose she argued that the kind of big government necessary to monitor women’s reproductive choices poses a serious danger for the common good. Suppose she thought that the best way to save prenatal life was by creating the social conditions in which women would be more likely to freely choose to keep their child. On this basis, then, could she vote for pro-choice legislation, against pro-life justices, etc., without publicly dissenting from Catholic teaching?

Garnett responded:

So, Charlie asks, "It would also be interesting to see if Weigel (and Garnett) would accept the same doctrine/policy distinction when it comes to life issues." I would not accept it, and don't think that I should, and I wouldn't have thought Charlie would, either. It's not, in my view, the "same doctrine / policy distinction." Certainly, I agree, to identify a moral truth is not to identify the best, let alone the morally required, policy or law. The Church does not purport to teach what is the best way to structure, all things considered, a taxation regime. It does teach, though, that it is fundamentally unjust to discriminate, in the way that our abortion laws do, against one class of human persons. It's an old argument, I realize -- it's one that we kicked around a lot during the run-up to the last election, when then-Sen. Obama was characterized by some as the pro-life candidate. But, in my view, to be "pro-life" is not only to think we should hope for, and try to find strategies for, reducing the number of abortions; it is also -- I believe it has to be -- about rejecting the anti-Catholic premises about human dignity and equality that our abortion laws reflect. (This is a different question from the "for which candidate, given all the givens, should we vote?" question.)

Both Garnett and Camosy are right, but how can that be? And both men are wrong too.

They have each updated their discussion as of this morning. Garnett’s update is at the end of the item linked above and Camosy’s uldate is at the end of his post linked to above.

Garnett is right to argue that our current abortion laws are “fundamentally unjust” and the adverb is important. The problem with our nation’s abortion laws is not only that they conflict with Catholic doctrine, but that they make a mockery of the exalted ideas of the rights of the human person which serve as the foundation of our democracy. Our current abortion laws say that some people can be excluded from legal protection, provided those people are very tiny and still largely reliant upon their mother to continue living. Of course, an infant is still very tiny and largely reliant upon its mother too. So, our abortion laws attack not only our sense of justice, but betray the opening three words of the Constitution, “We the People,” by saying some people are not included.

Camosy is right, however, to insist that recognizing the almost uniquely regrettable moral failings that our nation’s abortion laws represent does not tell us very much about how to redress those laws. Part of politics is calculating the strength of the opposition and anticipating blowback. Americans are largely ambivalent about abortion. They don’t much like it, but they are skittish about denying a woman access to it. Why? Because some are old enough to remember the days of back alley abortions, and others can more easily empathize with the circumstance of a young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant more than they can empathize with an unborn, unseen child. The endurance of the Hyde Amendment, year after year, despite changes in almost every other aspect of national policy, testifies to the persistence of discomfort, the willingness to recognize that abortion is not like other issues. The concern to which I think Charlie is pointing is this: Is there really any doubt that if Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, within a matter of weeks, most states would adopt statutes that continue the broad outlines of Roe? Say, of the sake of argument, most states did not do so, that they criminalized elective abortion. Would that criminalization survive long if even a few women were to die from obtaining illegal abortions?

In short, I don’t think Garnett and Camosy are really arguing about the relative moral weight of abortion versus, say, tax policy. I think they are arguing about how to change our democracy. If we in the pro-life movement do not do a better job convincing our fellow Americans to see the issue as we do, we will fail to achieve what we seek, legal protection for all people including the unborn. I would add that as long as some of the more prominent leaders in the pro-life movement are attacking CCHD and CRS, our moral witness is profoundly compromised. I would add, too, that this difficulty in persuading our fellow citizens flows from the same Enlightenment premises, in this case that government is legitimate only when it rests on the consent of the governed, that have tied our nation up in knots over the HHS mandate. In the latter case, no matter how many times we point out that religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment, there is no escaping the fact that many of the founders understood religion, conscience and rights differently from the way we Catholics understand them.

A final thought. I do not want to let tax policy, and economic policies more generally, off the hook by suggesting it falls so far into the category of “prudential judgment” that we conclude that Catholics can essentially think whatever they want on these subjects. My most basic criticism of Garnett, and Weigel, is that they are too quick to accept as a “given” modern ideas about the economy. Surely one of the benefits of being a Catholic is the ability to take the long view, to recognize that there were many centuries of Christian witness before the advent of modern capitalism and there will someday be many centuries of Christian witness after the demise of modern capitalism. But, while we are living in this capitalistic age, we must be just as critical of its anti-Christian precepts as we are critical of the idea that a woman’s choice trumps the right to life of her unborn child. Here I would turn to Gaudium et Spes:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (GS, 27)

Here is the consistent ethic of life. Gaudium et Spes does not say that abortion and disgraceful working conditions are the same thing but it does insist that both violate our core Catholic beliefs about human dignity. Enlightenment ideas that exalt human choice may be responsible for our nation’s mistaken laws on abortion and other Enlightenment ideas that exalt human choice have given us an economic system that, quite obviously, fails to hear the cries of the poor. And, make no mistake about it - while abortion may present a more foundational and fundamental threat to human dignity, bad economic policy is a more pervasive threat. The loss of a human life may be more morally foundational than an unjust economic policy, but Americans and American culture are more determined by people's self-awareness as homo economicus than it is as potential parents.

Any Catholic in America today who takes Gaudium et Spes seriously must understand themselves to be politically homeless. The debate between Garnett and Camosy is useful, and it is edifying insofar as it is being conducted with such civility and with both intellectual integrity and intellectual heft. But, I hope the disagreement leads not only to a meeting of the minds, but a meeting of the wills, and that both men may become part of an urgent discussion all politically engaged Catholics need to have. If we are politically homeless, perhaps it is time we create our own home.

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