This is a different kind of post than our usual Religious Rhetorics material. It is, rather, a relevant academic conference paper. This has the advantage of both adding more material to RR (otherwise, as evidenced by the rate of posts of late, somewhat difficult during the semester) and increasing the audience for our academic work. Thus, Martin and I may post more of these in the near (and distant) future, when it seems appropriate. It’s a different genre (and by necessity a bit longer), but feedback is just as welcome.
Without further ado, here is my paper, “Catholic Social Teaching and the Abortion Reduction Counterstory in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election,” as prepared for presentation on November 12, 2009, at the 95th annual National Communication Association Convention (“Discourses of Stability and Change”) in Chicago, IL.
In an October 16, 2008 article titled “Lay Catholics push back on abortion and politics,” journalist Daniel Burke from Religion News Service cites “a resurgent Catholic Left that’s finding its voice during the 2008 presidential campaign.” Burke explains that “[t]he newly revived Catholic Left is part of a larger effort by religious progressives to expand the definition of ‘values issues’ to include war, the economy and the environment.” According to Burke, “While many [Catholic progressives] accept the church’s teaching that abortion is evil, they reject the idea that voting for a pro-abortion rights candidate is akin to heresy…. Progressives say they now have a persuasive contribution [to the abortion debate]: that addressing the root causes of abortion, such as poverty, can be more effective in the short term than working to criminalize the procedure.”
In this paper, I look at the phenomenon of the “resurgent Catholic Left” from a rhetorical perspective, focusing specifically on what I term the abortion reduction counterstory. I argue that during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Catholic legitimacy was contested rhetorically between Catholics asserting that abortion criminalization was a non-negotiable voting issue, and those Catholics who argued that outlawing abortion might not be the most effective approach to protecting human life. Such Catholic progressives went on to argue that, in fact, the emphasis on abortion criminalization could come at the expense of serious issues like “war, the economy and the environment,” because Republican candidates had no vested political interest in actually outlawing abortion, but such candidates did have problematic positions on other issues of concern to Catholics. I argue that the political discourse of the Catholic Left, and the abortion reduction counterstory in particular, is characterized by how it draws upon the rhetorical resources of Catholic Social Teaching.
To make this argument, I first give a brief overview of the concepts of master narrative, and counterstory, with particular reference to political legitimation in Catholic discourse. I then offer examples of what I’ve termed the abortion reduction counterstory, which was a significant rhetorical strategy of progressive Catholic rhetors during the 2008 election. I conclude that contemporary Catholic political discourse, particularly as it pertains to abortion, is fraught with rhetorical legitimation and contestation, rather than stability.
When journalist Burke writes that “[Catholic progressives] reject the idea that voting for a pro-abortion rights candidate is akin to heresy,” he is referencing both a dominant master narrative in contemporary U.S. Catholicism about the relationship between American Catholics and politics, and the rhetorical resistance to that master narrative that manifested during the 2008 election.
Put briefly, in contrast to rationalist assumptions that knowledge is validated purely by reason, narrative theory shows us that certain underlying narratives and metaphors are at work in even the strictest logic. Some cultural narratives are particularly powerful at organizing social identity and knowledge, and these are often known as master narratives. Master narratives are problematic when they legitimate oppressive power structures. For example, Jean-Francois Lyotard, who introduced this concept in his 1979 work The Postmodern Condition, criticized 19th century continental master narratives of science for how they legitimated cultural imperialism. Hilde Lindemann Nelson, in her 2001 work Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair, writes about the medical field, in which a master narrative privileges doctors as “professionals” while nurses are simply “helpers.” Thus, when nurses offer insight into a patient’s needs, they are not listened to, because they are characterized as inferior, soft, emotional, etc. The oppressive and dominating power of the master narrative means that nurses also think of themselves this way, not trusting their own insights, despite the fact that they spend more time with patients and may have more knowledge of some areas of patient care than a doctor does. This shows how, as Lindemann Nelson puts it, their “moral agency” is damaged.
Master narratives relate to Catholic political discourse when authoritative Catholic voices, including individual bishops in their public statements, equate authentic Catholic identity and values with particular political strategies – for example, that “voting for a pro-abortion rights candidate is akin to heresy.” This master narrative is expressed in microcosm when a North Carolina priest asserts that voting for pro-choice Barack Obama is a mortal sin requiring sacramental confession, or when a blog commenter asserts that Catholics who support Obama are “leftists first, and Catholics second, if at all.” Individual Catholics’ moral agency is constricted by a master narrative that leaves no room for conscientiously analyzing the integrity and positions of political candidates out of fear of compromising their Catholic values and identity.
However, Lindemann Nelson offers the notion of “counterstory” as a way out of this situation. A counterstory challenges a master narrative by offering an alternative, empowering narrative. To return to Lindemann Nelson’s medical example, if nurses articulate for themselves a narrative in which they are trusted professionals with valuable insights, and if they are able to organize themselves and spread this narrative, it can have a powerful impact on both doctor-nurse relations and on patient care. Similarly, American Catholics regain moral agency when they assert that, as Catholics, they reject the idea that Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life can only be (or, in fact, is best) upheld by voting for candidates claiming to oppose Roe v. Wade. The gist of progressive Catholics’ counterstory is that Republican promises to outlaw abortion are political manipulation, and that therefore it is important to vote based on candidates’ positions on other key issues, like poverty and war; and also, to shift emphasis from the politically impossible goal of outlawing abortion, to reducing the abortion rate.
Examples of this counterstory abound in the Catholic political discourse from the 2008 presidential election. I offer two brief examples. In a September 24, 2008 Washington Post article titled “Abortion: Rhetoric or Results,” Georgetown political scientist Fr. Thomas Reese writes,
Those wanting to do something about abortion must face the political reality that abortion is not going to be made illegal in the United States. Granted that fact, then the political question has to change from “Who will make abortion illegal?” to “Who will enact programs that will reduce the number of abortions?”
Reese goes on to cite statistics about the role of socioeconomic factors in the choice to abort, citing studies published by left-leaning groups Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, both of which invoke Catholic Social Teaching on justice and the economy.
Similarly, prominent Catholic legal scholar Nicholas Cafardi wrote in National Catholic Reporter on September 30, 2008 that,
…[A]s recent data show, abortion rates drop when the social safety net is strengthened. If Obama’s economic program will do more to reduce poverty than McCain’s, then is it wrong to conclude that an Obama presidency will also reduce abortions? Not at all.
Every faithful Catholic agrees that abortion is an unspeakable evil that must be minimized, if not eliminated. I can help to achieve that without endorsing Republicans’ immoral baggage. Overturning Roe v. Wade is not the only way to end abortion, and a vote for Obama is not somehow un-Catholic.
Both Reese and Cafardi emphasize that they think abortion is morally evil, in line with Catholic teaching, but that Republican political strategies are inadequate for fulfilling the mandate of Catholic teaching on human dignity. In addition, they cite principles of economic justice stemming from the Catholic social tradition, connecting those principles to the abortion debate. They also emphasize the breadth of Catholic moral teaching, as when Cafardi goes on to say in the same article that,
Despite what some Republicans would like Catholics to believe, the list of what the church calls “intrinsically evil acts” does not begin and end with abortion. In fact, there are many intrinsically evil acts, and a committed Catholic must consider all of them in deciding how to vote … [including] abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, torture, racism, and targeting noncombatants in acts of war.
Thus the abortion reduction counterstory is characterized by its emphasis on separating Catholic identity from Republican political strategies, its invocation of Catholic Social Teaching and the role of socioeconomic factors in the choice to abort, and its argument that faithful Catholics must exercise political savvy by considering how to reduce the number of abortions that occur nationwide, rather than simplistically voting for candidates who claim to be “pro-life.”
To sum up, in this paper I linked Catholic progressives’ arguments about reducing abortion rates to Hilde Lindemann Nelson’s concept of counterstory, and argued that in contesting a dominant Catholic master narrative about what it means to be a Catholic voter, Catholic progressives reclaimed moral agency for expressing Catholic identity and values. With their invocation of Catholic Social Teaching, Catholic progressives contested both the legitimacy of a narrow model of Catholic identity equating Catholicism with Republican political strategies, as well as the moral legitimacy of those political strategies themselves. In the end, contemporary Catholic political discourse, particularly as it pertains to abortion, is fraught with rhetorical legitimation and contestation, rather than stability.