Abortion and American Catholic culture


Altnerate commencement at Notre Dame, 2009

Via Religion in American History, I found this brilliant essay by Georgetown political theorist Patrick Deneen, “Abortion and Catholic Culture.”  He argues that the fracas at Notre Dame over President Barack Obama’s appearance at graduation yesterday because of his position on abortion is a rear-guard action which,  “along with the opposition to gay marriage – this issue represents the last stand, the inner-most wall barely keeping the hordes from overrunning the sanctum.”  He continues:

The ferocity over [abortion] – and this issue almost to the exclusion of nearly every other issue that might be part of a rich fabric of Catholic culture – suggests to me that Catholic culture, where it existed, has been largely routed. And, in fact, it suggests further that it is precisely for this reason that this issue has become largely defined politically – and not culturally – with an emphasis on the way that the battle over abortion must be won or lost at the ballot box (and, by extension, Supreme Court appointments).

Why does Deneen think that abortion politics represents an end-game for conservative Catholics?  Because there is no such thing as a Catholic culture in the United States, and American Catholics are full participants in late capitalism’s culture of “choice” writ large:  materialism, individualism, hedonism, and mobility.  In other words, “American Catholics have largely assimilated into mainstream American society, and come to seek success and approval from that culture on its terms.”

A culture – Catholic or otherwise – that regarded abortion as well-nigh unthinkable would be profoundly different than the one we inhabit. First, such a culture would foster a strong sense of place. This is one of the central features of Catholicism, in strong distinction to Protestantism: we are members of parishes, which are located where one lives, and not according to the choice of minister or music or fellow churchgoers. . . .

Did you catch that dig at Protestantism?  Well, much of the scholarship on (in the words of one scholar) “the Democratization of American Christianity” supports Keenan’s thesis:

Catholicism is a religion of memory and tradition. . . . Most of us, however, are in living arrangements where the dead are kept distant and apart from us – just as we separate all of the various aspects of life, disaggregating shopping from work from recreation from home. And even in the home, we are likely to be texting or emailing Facebook “friends” or hanging on the edge of our seats to see who gets kicked off American Idol. Much of the time, we are not even home when we are home.

A Catholic culture would inculcate a certain kind of character: one of respect, self-restraint, responsibility, humility, thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice. Courtship and marriage would be encouraged among the young. Divorce would be well-nigh non-existent. Such a culture would not valorize materialism, but understand that things of this world is not to be wholly embraced. At the heart of our culture would not be – as Jody suggests – opposition to abortion – which is, after all, negative – but rather the things that abortion is not: family, Church, community, memory, tradition, continuity of past, present and future. Culture is affirmation, not simply denial.

A good friend of mine who is a historian of American religion used to make the same argument about protestant evangelicals.  His point was that it wasn’t feminism, homosexuality, or abortion rights that threaten the “American family” (in the fervid imaginations of the late Jerry Fallwell and the still-living Pat Robertson)–it’s the materialism and the shallowness of American culture.  But–their homes have cable TV, their children are subjected to the same pornified trash culture, two things that have more to do with advanced capitalism than with any authentic feminist or progressive ideals. 

Our culture is driven by a different ethic altogether: mobility, markers of material or political success, a fetish for technological innovation and distraction, a media that is almost wholly visual and which portrays no past and no future (Read Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, especially his chapter “Now, this…”), a valorization of choice in ALL things hourly reinforced by advertising that is ubiquitous and insidious. Our culture is one in which previous generations are forgotten – an acceptable price of progress – and even the relationship of parents to children is either chummy friendliness or marked by the knowing sarcasm and irony of youth toward obsolescence (just watch an hour of the Disney channel for confirmation). The abortion of children is to be expected as a consequence of THIS culture: in a culture in which I define my own future in accordance with will and desire, and in which that which is personally inconvenient to me is as disposable as most everything else I use for my convenience everyday, sex is a consumer product and abortion is the trash. Disenchantment and utility defines my relationship to ALL things, in the end.

Yes, yes, and an extra “hells” to the “yes” on the Disney Channel!  I understand and respect Deneen’s perspective in the last half of the paragraph, although I disagree in the end with his judgment about abortion.  I’m adamantly pro-choice on the basis of other values, namely, the Fourth, Ninth, and Thirteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Catholics and others who oppose abortion can create a true “culture of life” without the coercive arm of the state.  Moreover, I’m reflexively skeptical of religions that don’t expect the same denial of individualism among men that they do among women.  (Perhaps Keenan would agree with me on this point–I’m not singling out Catholicism here.  I think this is true of the vast majority of organized world religions.) 

Besides–campaigning against the rights of other Americans is not a winning political strategy–look at what happened to proslavery advocates, to supporters of Jim Crow, and those who opposed women’s suffrage:  they’re neverthe heroes in the history books–they’re seen as the embarrassing obstacles to history itself.  The broad theme of American history is the expansion of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, not their restriction.

0 thoughts on “Abortion and American Catholic culture

  1. “A culture … that regarded abortion as well-nigh unthinkable would be profoundly different than the one we inhabit.” Not really, no.

    When I was in Catholic high school, our religion teacher once questioned each student on what their position on abortion was. (Religion class was sex-ed class, of course.) I was 13, didn’t know much about it, hadn’t thought about it, didn’t particularly care at the time, and said “pro-life” like all the other students did one after another. And then Sarah said “pro-choice.” And the teacher proceeded to argue with her for five minutes — Sarah, how could you, why would you, what about the babies (etc., etc.) and she stood her ground. It took guts, and I was awed… unfortunately, not brave enough at the time to stand up and say, “She’s got a good point, and I’d like to change my answer,” which would have made this a much more fun story. Sarah was not a deranged, amoral person, but it’s much easier to paint pro-choice advocates as heartless baby killers, isn’t it?

    (The same school, some years after I’d graduated, suppressed publication of a school paper poll which indicated about 50% of the students were pro-choice. It was probably a bad idea, because none of the alumna would have heard anything about it if they’d just printed the poll. I still mention that when they call and ask for donations.)


  2. Reading just the excerpts you have here, the argument seems to be “The past was different from the present”, filled out with lists of virtues of the past and defects of the present, all at a high level of abstraction (apart from some tasty details like the Disney Channel). Is there more, like an analytical approach to some individual virtues and defects?


  3. Tim–wow, what a bonehead I am this morning! Thanks for catching that error, and I’ve corrected the misspellings elsewhere.

    Vance–I don’t think that Deneen’s critique of modern American culture necessarily posits that the past was in all cases better. (Personally, as someone who writes about early American Catholicism and anti-Catholicism, I think that’s an extremely difficult argument to make for American Catholics! But Deneen’s milage may vary.) I think we can be skeptical about the present without romanticizing the past. (But you’re free to think that’s what Deneen’s doing–I just don’t see it in this essay, although I am unfamiliar with his other work.)

    And Erica–I think a truly pro-life culture would be very different. Women wouldn’t be on their own when they have their children, as so many are these days who don’t fit the American ideal of who “should” be having children. (They’re not married/too young/too old/too disabled/too poor, etc.)


  4. I agree that a pro-life culture would be very different: girls wouldn’t be transferred to different schools for pregnant teens or encouraged to drop out. There would be universal day care and universal health care. Education would be affordable, and we would restore welfare programs that paid for college and even graduate school for single mothers. Marriage would not be the way men were asked to “take responsibility” for the pregnancies resulting from sex, so that girls would not be forced to make a go of it with another person they would not have chosen to marry under different circumstances. And a pro-life culture would see healthy sensuality and intercourse as part of a rich personal and emotional life for teens and single adults, and make sure they had access to excellent birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancies, rather than encouraging ignorance, secrecy and lying through abstinence programs.


  5. TR, yes, UHC and universal day care and preschool are clearly central to a truly pro-life vision. To their credit, there are more pro-life Catholics who support this than pro-life protestants, who have also drunk the so-called “free market” kool-aid. (Deneen discusses this in another part of his post that I didn’t quote, when he talks about Catholic anticommunism shading into buying the whole right-wing vision–government is the problem, “free” markets are the answer, etc.)


  6. Erica, that’s a good distinction, and one that perhaps Deneen would agree with. I think the point of his article was to call out the superficial “anti-abortion” stance of many American Catholics.


  7. Didn’t a recent Gallup poll reveal that a slim majority of Americans are now anti-choice?

    Many others have pointed it out already, but it still irks me that these allegedly “pro-life” protesters were not to be found when George Bush spoke at Notre Dame in 2001. As governor of Texas, he sent many people to death thanks to his firm belief in capital punishment. Catholics are supposed to be “pro-life” in all circumstances.


  8. @GayProf — From a recent post at Feminste regarding the Gallup Poll —

    But the answers to the next questions are a whole lot more significant…. It turns out that a vast majority think it should be legal in at least some circumstances…

    If THOSE numbers are correct, the nation is more “pro-life” than “anti-choice”, although I doubt most respondents would understand the distinction. Confusion over terminology gives the first poll question a pretty wide margin of error, much like the 99% of my high school classmates who were “pro-life” even though the real numbers were probably far more like 50% (if that).


  9. It’s an interesting essay. And I would agree with the distinction between pro-life and anti-abortion. I don’t find our culture much pro-kids. The way work is structured, school, access to resources for children is pro-status, pro-prestige, pro all the things that are pointed out in your post, but not pro-kids or pro-families with kids. We don’t have cable, by the way. No Disney channel here.


  10. I think the historical argument is actually US vs. Europe. In Britain, you live in a parish, and actually legally have certain rights — to be married in the parish church, have a funeral there, etc. American Catholics never saw the parish as a residential unit: it was also cultural. So German Catholics would travel further to a German Catholic church, just so they didn’t have to confess at an Irish Catholic church. I had one student tell me that her grandmother thought her uncle’s confession was not valid because he did it at an Irish rather than a German church!


  11. That essay by Deneen has a lot of insightful points about the contradictions of living within capitalist Catholicism, but I wonder about the use and invocation of “culture” in the singular. Perhaps at some point in history there may have been a singular Catholic culture in the United States or elsewhere, but conditions since Vatican II and in the wake of increased migration since the 1960s would seem to point to a plurality of Catholic cultures, or at least ones that intersect with other cultures and experiences. At the very least, we should consider the large number of Latin American immigrant, working-class Catholics in the United States (since this is the frame of reference in the essay). So maybe it’s not that there is no Catholic culture but that there are many Catholic cultures — including Malibu beachfront Catholic culture — that do not follow the Pope on all matters.

    I’m trying to figure out how Father Cutie fits into all of this.


  12. I would second Rad Readr’s point and push it back even further. Despite church fathers’ claims to the contrary, there have been conflicts over Catholic “culture” in the United States since the founding of the country. Ethnicity has played a major role. Irish Catholics have historically been over-represented in the ranks of the American clergy. You can find accusations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that these clergymen were trying to force “their” Catholicism on Germans, Italians, Poles, etc.

    Today, of course, the ethnic dividing line is often drawn to exclude Mexicans. I have heard members of my own family describe Latinos as “not really” Catholic. And of course the most wonderfulest nativist of them all, Pat Buchanan, wrote an op-ed a couple of years ago which grouped western Europe, the US, and Canada under the rubric of “Christendom,” while pointedly excluding Latin America.


  13. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that the rabid anti-abortionists within the church are real bullies. Deneen is right–they cede no ground on any other issues, even (especially) those that would seek to embrace a fuller, more consistent notion of what it means to be pro-life. And they are especially vicious toward fellow Catholics who seek to broaden the conversation. Reading his analysis I was reminded of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who argued that the life issues must be seen as constituting a seamless garment. To isolate one without understanding its relationship to others is to do violence to the entire notion of this Catholic culture of which Deneen speaks. (I should note that Bernardin was often criticized for his “moderate” position!)

    I think there is another important element to this discussion, though. In my experience, the vast majority of those who isolate abortion as the only life issue are simply the well-intentioned pawns of a small group of religio-political leaders who ultimately don’t want anything approaching consensus or resolution on the issue. They want the issue to live on in perpetuity so as to justify their existence. And in the end, their agenda isn’t entirely, or even primarily, religious or theological; it is political. Put simply, they are interested in securing political conservatism, and they are using the devotion of many of these folks to achieve this end. This leads to some interesting kinds of choices. To wit, my current (Catholic) university has a prominent, well-funded speaker series. Several years ago, Sen. George Mitchell was invited to speak on the heels of securing peace in Northern Ireland. In the wake of his appearance, conservative Catholics denounced his choice on the grounds that he supported abortion rights. Yet, somehow, these same voices were notably silent when, a few years later, his former colleague Sen. William Cohen was selected for the same speaker series. The difference between the two former Senators from Maine wasn’t on the issue of abortion; it was, rather, one of party affiliation. That Cohen had a record of supporting abortion rights seemed not to bother anyone because he had the right party affiliation. (BTW, subsequent speakers have included John Ascroft and Richard Armitage. A regular murderer’s row of pro-lifers!)

    The reality that the leadership of the church tends to play this kind of political game explains in part why abortion tends to silence all other issues, because most if not all of the other life issues–from gender pay equity to global warming–would force them to support the agenda of the Democratic party.


  14. Wow–thanks to all of my super-smart and knowledgeable commenters! Thanks so much for engaging with Deneen’s essay.

    K.N., you surprise me with your cynicism, but I defer to your greater knowledge regarding Catholic leadership and politics. But your comment begs the question: why are the leaders you write of so invested in Republican power? I don’t get it, unless your comment is the meta-comment to explain the modern individualistic, hedonistic, capitalist Catholicism that Deneen writes of.

    Great points by Rad, John S., and Susan about the ethnic divisions among American Catholics. In many respects, your comments address Vance’s doubt about what he saw as Deneen’s construction of a “golden age” that probably never existed. Father Cutie couldn’t hold out forever–he had to live up to his name eventually! And, John S.–isn’t Pat Buchanan an awesome example of how teh racism makes a very smart, perceptive person crazy? It blows my mind that he is so pro-Catholic but so anti-Mexican. It’s sad, because (as Rad points out too) that’s the future of the American Catholic church.

    And Lilian, this is spot-on: “access to resources for children is pro-status, pro-prestige.” But, if EVERYONE could have high quality child care and an awesome education, *our* children wouldn’t be so *SPECIAL*!!! (Bleh.)

    Thanks again so much for all of your comments. I learn so much from all of you.


  15. Many good points have been made in this thread, but perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss/pathologize the politics of the pro-life movement. I happen to be pro-choice, but I recognize that many people feel much the same way about abortion that I do about torture, viewing it as an offense against human dignity. Suggesting that pro-choice advocates should focus on cultivating their values within the cultural sphere seems kind of like asking human rights advocates to stop complaining about government abuses and simply be kind to their neighbors. Of course, we should all seek to embody our principles in our lives (and plenty of pro-choice Catholics do), but politics has its place too.


  16. Medievalist here! I ain’t sayin’, I’m just sayin’, but the whole “wow-it’s-so-hard-these-days-to-be-Catholic-in-a-capitalist-culture” trope is kinda bullshit.

    When was there a time when Catholics did not struggle with materialism, and covetousness, and acquisitiveness?

    Late medieval English Catholics had a profoundly material and “grabby” relationship with God, one ordered around negotiation of the tit-for-tat variety (cf. David Aers, Glenn Burger, Lee Patterson.) They existed within a very mercantile and increasingly monetized society, as do we. And they didn’t even have the excuse of those dang Protestants screwing everything up!

    Consider the 15th c. morality play, “Everyman,” wherein the central character has to balance his “account book” with God. Or the “Wife of Bath,” who argues that “al is for to selle.” Or “Piers Plowman.” Or “Wynnere and Wastoure,” which is entirely about the struggle between the “winner” who saves and is NOT materialistic and the “waster” who spends it all. Or “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which is all about noble service to the Virgin, but is filled with lavish and positive descriptions of material goods. (BTW, teaching these texts to mainly Protestant Southern students never fails to blow some minds, and not always in a good way…)


  17. I agree a great deal with K.N.’s cynical assessment of things. The rabid Catholic pro-lifers are a lot like the former Weather Underground members that populate the well-done documentary on the same. I am reminded of Mark Rudd when we said, paraphrasing, that he could be on top of a mountain, by himself, with a beautiful vision of the world around, and he’d be obsessing about Vietnam. The obsession about abortion permeates everything that a certain Catholic crowd sees on the political landscape; no conversation dealing with a controversial-but-seemingly-unrelated issue will not circle back to abortion. Go to any Catholic online forum that deals with current events and see for yourself. It’s sad, even for those who care a great deal about similar things. But, to end on a hopeful note, the ND controversy has caused moderation to appear even among the so-called Catholic “orthodox.” – TL


  18. I too fail to understand the church’s fixation on abortion to the exclusion of other issues. One of our local Catholic churches in particular — the one time I went there, there was a huge banner in the parking lot (it’s there all the time), mentions in the sermon, and activists waylaying people on the way out with ‘literature.’ I thought, even if I were pro-life, I don’t think I’d want my entire religious experience to revolve around this. But then, maybe that’s the kind of thing people used to say about civil rights focused churches? That they just don’t want to be confronted with uncomfortable issues there? And I would think less of them for that. And it does make sense for people to work through institutions. So I don’t know, but I’m sure glad the multi-ethnic nature of the church makes other options available on Sunday morning. The abortion-focused one is also the predominantly Hispanic one, which I’m not sure what to make of.


  19. Historiann, I was struck by the resonance between your final paragraph and Ross Douthat’s column of a few days ago. Douthat quotes Peter Berkowitz’s 2005 essay, arguing “the gay marriage movement is working with the grain of American political history, in which the expansion of rights “steadily erodes the limits on individual choice established by law and custom.” Our legal and political debates, Berkowitz suggested, are won by whichever side can argue for the expansion of freedom, and combatants who can’t argue in these terms will “almost certainly see their cause go down to defeat.”” But Douthat (as we would expect) applies Berkowitz’s point much differently to the abortion debate: “The pro-life movement is arguably more comfortable with the language of rights and liberties than its opponents. Abortion foes are defending a right to life grounded in the Declaration of Independence, after all, whereas pro-choicers are defending more nebulous rights (privacy, autonomy, etc.) supposedly grounded in “penumbras” and “emanations” from the Constitution.” At some point we’re going to need to admit the obvious: both pregnancy and its termination involves restrictions on freedom and even rights. Simple recourse to those concepts, as important as they are, won’t resolve this issue.


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