It will probably shock many a Republican to learn that there are such a thing as pro-life Democrats — but they exist (and in numbers). As of right now, the DNC is doing everything in their power to show them the door, per Catholic News Agency:
On Friday, Perez said that there was no place for pro-life politicians in the party. “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” he said. “This is not negotiable and should not chance city by city or state by state.”
NARAL then issued a statement praising him for his defense of the “core values” of the Democratic Party.
“It was stunning,” Day said of Perez’s about-face. “He goes out, and the DNC is behind this pro-life candidate, which is necessary to be a big tent party if we’re going to win. So they rally behind this guy (Mello), and then less than 24 hours later he (Perez) puts a statement out saying ‘just kidding. We don’t want you in the party at all.’”
Of course, I am not in the least bit surprised… though I am incredibly saddened that such barbarism thrives in any corner of American politics.
Most of these pro-life Democrats are Catholic in persuasion. I would know because in my youth, I used to be one of them… before I was shown the door by the more progressive leaning folks for being “too Catholic” (shorthand for pro-life and pro-family).
Of course, this was Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Just as I never shed my orthodoxy on Catholic moral teaching as a Democrat, so too as a Republican I have never shed my orthodoxy on Catholic social teaching.
I have found it far easier to reconcile my Catholic faith within the boundaries of the Republican Party — at least until recently, but nevertheless maintain a quiet optimism about the conservative movement under the Trump presidency, if for no other reason than fellow #NeverTrump types have found their underpinnings to be in such a world: rule law over force of will, process over personality, etc.
What pro-life Democrats struggle with inside the Republican Party is how a conservative ethic — at least, as described by leftists — could possibly arrive at a just society as outlined in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and edged out by Catholic thinkers such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton (or in their more frilly extremes, Fr. Berrigan).
The solution, I believe, is far easier to digest than absorbing the social justice plank would be for a pro-life Republican, because at root all Republicans believe in the ends of Catholic social justice teaching. Where Republicans and Democrats differ — and where conservatives and liberals have traditionally cavitated within our classical liberal tradition in the United States — is the means at which we achieve such ends.
The short answer runs as follows: though imperfect in its abuse, the free market and free enterprise system remains the most effective and moral distributor of human need and economic justice. At core, a virtuous people makes the free enterprise system moral, and that laws are created to protect the virtuous and punish the vicious in the protection of a free and open public marketplace of goods, values, and ideas.
1. Dignity of the Human Person
Without the dignity of human life, there is no social justice. This is ironclad, and there is no compromise or settlement on this issue. On this, pro-life Catholics of every persuasion agree with a full heart. The challenge comes with the challenge of two invectives — “social justice begins in the womb” vs. “pro-birth, but not pro-life.”
If Catholics have settled the first among pro-life Democrats who are now being ostracized within their own party, it falls to pro-life Republicans to demonstrate that our values really do play out in the public square — or at the very least, that the hill to climb on questions of a just and moral society is easier than the volcanic efforts within the DNC to drive out pro-life Catholics.
2. Call to Family, Community and Participation
In this, Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium remains instructive and a tremendous resource for Catholic parish life. Family remains the building block of society, and even if broken, all family involves the right of three actors: father, mother, and child. All three have rights within that compact, as every child has a right to their biological mother and father. These families interact with one another in a community, and have a duty to participate in parish life as part of that community.
3. Rights and Responsibilities
These families also participate in another form of community — the polity. From this community we derive an understanding of the human law from the natural law. While the positive law of parish life creates the non-coercive “thou shalls” from which we derive our customs, it is the negative law within polity that holds the power of the state — one that admonishes “thou shall nots” in order to protect lawabiders and punish lawbreakers. Each citizen has inherent rights derived not from civil law but from natural law, given by God to every person that cannot be legitimately broken or violated by this polity.
4. Preferential Option for and with People who are Poor
Within this polity lies strength. This strength cannot be morally leveraged against the powerless, even if deemed by the powerful to be in their best interests. In all cases, those who arrange the laws should take maximum care to consider and conserve the interests of those who are materially poor and disadvantaged, while maximizing at every length the opportunities to lift themselves and their fellow citizens out of material poverty.
5. Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Work is good — ora et labora (prayer and labor) is as old as the Benedictine tradition in the West, and shares in the development of active virtue a co-equal status with prayer, a faith without works being dead (1 James 2:14-26). Because work has dignity, and because workers have intrinsic rights, the right to every worker to maintain a living wage is sacrosanct.
Now here is where things get tricky for our pro-life Democrats who have — to this point — perhaps nodded at what should be familiar Thomistic norms for the organization of both parish life and political societies. This talk of “conserving the interests” and systems of economy touch on three methods of provision: capitalism, distributism, and socialism.
Capitalism places the means of production in the hands of private individuals over the state. Socialism places the means of production in the hands of the state over private individuals. Distributism seeks to put the means of production into the hands of the productive — the German social market being the best modern example of such a system.
Yet what is core about this is the ideal of human freedom — a radical (radix, Lat. root) bet placed not by us as a polity or a parish, but by God Himself when we were created in an act of love by our own parents and having miraculously chosen to exist instead of literally millions of potential brothers and sisters — and how that operates within a free society.
Human beings are born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains. Where Rousseau got it wrong was he taught humanity how to love the chains. What American thinkers such as Thomas Paine got correct was that human beings surrender their freedom to achieve liberty — liberty to read a book, to attend college, to pay taxes and maintain roads, schools, bridges, and a military — and that this liberty hangs as a golden mean between two polar extremes: tyranny and centralization on the behalf of an other, or license and centralization on behalf of the self.
What maintains this balance is not a shortcut to centralization, but rather the long slog (slow work of God?) of trusting our fellow citizens and parishioners — imperfectly, yes, but freely — work by the means of their own enterprise to work for their own betterment and production.
In short: I have the right to determine for myself where my vocation as a worker lies and where my rights are under such conditions. One might frown upon someone working in a coal mine as undignified in the same token that someone else would frown upon being chained to a cubicle under a fluorescent sky… but our own vocations as workers are between us and God, conditional on the sense that they do not violate two principles: solidarity and subsidiarity.
6. Solidarity and Subsidiarity
In a modern era where the lines between economic systems are blurred (i.e. state capitalism, Red Toryism, the American confab of capitalist forms financing the social welfare state) and questions of taking advantage of labor vs. the responsibilities of capital (both socialist and corporatist), what is at core in how these are approached from the perspective of the Catholic are two principles within Catholic social teaching: (1) a decentralization of power to the best and most productive means at the most intensive and intimate level possible — subsidiarity, and (2) the unity of the community against threats presented to any or all of us — solidarity.
If there is inequality in the world, then it remains to us as a polity to create the means to which one may achieve equal status. Vice, too, is a form of inequality — one of the most pernicious and pervasive forms there is — because of all the inequalities of the world it is rooted in the evils of pride, greed, envy, gluttony, etc.
Note how the Church handles such inequality — not through proscription and determinist ends, but by prescriptive and indeterminate means.
The Church extends a membership card (Baptism), an assent to our common creed (Confirmation), forgiveness (Confession), and communion (Eucharist). The means… and in an oikonomia (economy) that is inherently free and dependent not on your own enterprise, but the grace of God and one’s willingness (work) to accept that grace.
If this works for the governance of God, surely it is a template for the governance of man. Bear in mind that inequality isn’t the enemy at all, but rather the eradication of its negative forms. Vice/poverty is the inequality we should fight against; virtue/success is the inequality we should all strive for. Ora et labora are the two tried and tested means of alleviating the latter and inculcating the former.
7. Care for God’s Creation
It is here — perhaps — that our pro-life Democrat friends have the most to teach us within the Republican Party.
One might notice that Catholics have a strong bent towards environmentalism that, in perhaps an odd juxtaposition to most secular political observers, seems to come just after or before admonishments against transsexualism or gender fluidity (what Pope Francis has condemned as a “colonialism of the mind”).
There’s a good reason for that. In short, one does not have the right to change your nature. Ability should not be confused with right. Just as we may have the ability (but not the right) to involve ourselves in the immoral or profane, so too do we have the ability (but not the right) to radically alter our environment.
In a postmodern era with screaming advances in technology, the ability to radically transform the earth is starting to take shape — whether that’s bulldozing rainforests, draining swamps (not Washington — that’s a myth), or yes that old saw of anthropogenic climate change.
Of course, it is very difficult to preach “save the whales!” when America can’t seem to save the babies… but as before, if one concedes the whole life ethic that Pope John Paul II so eloquently and forcefully defended in Centesimus Annus, then all of these points of Catholic social teaching become much more clear.
Pro-Life Democrats have a very difficult decision ahead of them. One will caution that Catholic values in the Republican Party aren’t exactly enjoying a heyday — it is no picnic on the opposite side of the fence.
One might suggest though that it is far easier to find leaders such as Jack Kemp, Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio and others within the GOP than it is to find FDR, JFK, and RFK in the Democratic Party today.
In my office, I have an old Kennedy (Robert) picture on the wall — tucked away next to my bookshelf, but next to my desk. One truly has to ask whether, if RFK or his successor were alive today, that person would have a better chance among Catholic Democrats or Catholic Republicans?
For my part? Welcome to the Republican Party.