Sunday, October 5, 2008

Reason is the need for the Infinite...

As I was doing some research for another project, I stumbled on an interesting article, "My Catholic Faith Pushes Me to Obama," by Kari Lundgren.

In her article, Kari provides a quick sketch of her college experience "as a conservative Catholic single-issue voter":
I quickly joined Students for Life, the campus pro-life group, and began spending Saturday mornings with 6 am mass and an hour drive to Pittsburgh to pray in front of the abortion clinic. That first year I was a bus captain on the trip to Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, as well as head of the Students for Life Prayer Team. I was interviewed on the conservative Catholic TV station EWTN as a young pro-life leader.

...I also volunteered at the local crisis pregnancy center, where we offered free pregnancy tests, infant formula, children's clothing, and other services to help women who were pregnant and needed extra support. I went to daily mass and weekly confession, as I had since high school. I marched in the occasional local abortion protest. I read theology in my free time.

I was, in other words, the perfect Steubenville Catholic student: devoted to my prayer life, diligent in my studies, involved in student life, and passionate about the pro-life cause.

Later, Lundgren experienced a kind of conversion:

...While I prayed for an end to abortion and the conversion of souls, I also saw the depressed ex-steel town in which the university resided, and I felt a disconnect between the spiritual fervency on campus and the poverty surrounding it. I was ashamed to have the money to be a full-time student when the neighborhoods next door to the university were filled with dilapidated houses and people forced out of work when the steel mills closed. Big questions started plaguing me: Was it really enough to make these people observant Catholics, as the general thinking on campus went? Were all of their socioeconomic problems really caused by the fact that they used birth control? Would overturning Roe v. Wade really be enough to solve the poverty, under-education, and chronic unemployment rampant in the town and the world?

These questions led her to reject what we might quickly (if inaccurately) refer to the "Steubenville solution." She found "better" answers to her questions in the rhetoric of the political left.

There are, as of this writing, 168 comments following her article. The commenters split rather cleanly into two camps: Catholics who disapprove of Lundgren's conversion on the one hand and on the other hand, supporters of Obama who cheer her on. Meanwhile, not one person posed the questions that most interest me:

Why, as an undergraduate, did she do all the things she describes herself doing? And why does proclaim the views that she now proclaims?

I am particularly curious about why she was so ardently pro-life as a college student. Because we can work very hard at many righteous and important tasks, but if we lack adequate reasons for doing them, they will eventually exhaust and paralyze us. Do we do them because we feel our efforts will make a positive impact and thus give our lives meaning? Do we do them in order to appear morally or religiously consistent in the eyes of our neighbors? Do we wish to please an authority? Or do we do them in order to find self-fulfillment?

It is the task of educators to propose a positive hypothesis that explains the meaning of everything. The Church provides just such a hypothesis, one that accounts for the questions that Lundgren asks. This hypothesis does not include the explanations that Lundgren lists in her article (that the answer to poverty is to make the unemployed into "ardent Catholics," that socioeconomic problems are caused by people using birth control, that overturning Roe v. Wade is all that is needed" to solve the poverty, under-education, and chronic unemployment rampant in the town and the world"). So, where did she get these inadequate answers to her questions? Why do they remain the only reasons she can give for the Catholic concern for the sanctity of life?

These questions are troubling, especially in light of Lundgren's assertion:

I went to daily Mass and weekly confession, as I had since high school. I marched in the occasional local abortion protest. I read theology in my free time.

In all those daily homilies, in her encounters with priests in the confessional, in the theology she read, did she never encounter reasons other than the ones she listed as the "Catholic" (and unsatisfying) response to poverty and injustice? It is possible. And the fact that it is possible should give us pause.

We can train young people to engage in "correct" behaviors without ever providing them with an education that will adequately give meaning to the whole of life. We can avoid probing their motives when we find ourselves approving of their behavior.

So, now my second question: why does Lundgren write her article? In her opening paragraph, she says, "I'm writing this for my sisters and brothers who still are those kinds of Catholic voters" (that is: "conservative Catholic single-issue voters"). Does she really hope to convince anyone who might disagree with her? In the whole of her article, she never addresses whether there exist Catholic voters who appreciate being called "single-issue" voters (it's actually perceived as an epithet by most ardently pro-life Catholics). And what steps does she take to speak with them about their true concern, that is, the destruction of innocent life?

The assertion that better services for the poor and marginalized will reduce the number of abortions has not been documented with evidence. I can imagine that some anecdotal evidence exists, but there is no hard data to support this claim. It remains on the level of pure speculation and supposition. In fact, abortion cuts across socioeconomic class. It is not merely the desperate choice of the impoverished.

The most intelligent and succint argument in response to the charge that pro-life Catholics are "single-issue" voters appeared in The Herald Star, our local newspaper, in a letter to the editor by Patrick Lee, professor of bioethics at (coincidence?) Franciscan University:

To the editor:

Some suggest pro-lifers should consider life as just one issue among others and not engage in single-issue voting.

But this makes no sense. The differences between the two presidential tickets on taxes, health care, etc., concern means to the same ends (neither side advocates solving such problems by killing poor or sick people). By contrast, the difference between them on abortion is a difference about basic ends.

At stake in this debate is the principle of the fundamental equal dignity of every human being, regardless of inessential differences, the same principle at stake in the 19th century regarding slavery. It was intrinsically unjust to reduce black human beings to the status of mere things for use. Likewise, it is inherently unjust to reduce unborn human beings to the status of mere inconvenient burdens that can be ripped to pieces or disposed of in trash cans.

It is unjust to vote for, or promote, a pro-abortion candidate if another candidate who is not worse on fundamental life issues, is an option - even if that candidate is inferior on other issues. This violates the basic moral principle of the Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If a candidate was in favor of killing professors, I would expect my fellow citizens to vote against him even if his positions on health care or economics were superior to those of his rival candidate. Likewise, it is unjust to vote for those who promote killing unborn human beings - indeed, energetically, even to the point of advocating the clearly barbarous practices of partial-birth abortion and killing babies born alive from botched abortions (as Obama has done) - when their rivals do not.

Some object that Obama does not actually endorse abortion because he promises to work to decrease there number. But this argument is fallacious. Obama has consistently supported funding for abortions, and his governmental health care plan would mandate such funding. Since in political office, Obama has done everything he could possibly do to assist the abortion industry, and has even proclaimed his defense of the alleged right to abortion a priority in his presidency.

If a politician in the 19th century took an analogous position on slavery, his claim that he is "pro-choice" would not fly. Imagine a candidate saying, "I do not endorse slavery. Rather, I am pro-choice. But I have been a consistent champion of the right to slavery for the last 10 years. And I will make defense of that fundamental right a priority in my presidency. Of course, I hope fewer people will feel the need to resort to that choice, and so as president I will introduce measures aimed at keeping slavery safe, legal and rare. But, to ensure that slavery remains an option for white men who should, after all, control their own property, I am in favor of funding slavery for those poor whites who cannot afford it." (Patrick Lee, Steubenville)

Lundgren should be crafting an argument to respond to Lee's position, not working to knock down straw men she herself has invented.

So, I'm still left with a question. Why did she write her article? I suspect, in the end, it was for the same reason she went to daily Mass and worked so ardently to put an end to abortion while in college. Perhaps she has a strong desire for justice? If so, she could begin her quest by accurately understanding and representing the Catholic understanding of social justice and the sanctity of life. This exercise would represent a great step toward justice.

Or, perhaps she has other reasons.

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