Here’s one more – as prepared for presentation on November 14, 2009, at the 95th Annual National Communication Association Convention in Chicago, IL (“Discourses of Stability and Change”).
In a November 8, 2009 article in Time magazine, Amy Sullivan writes,
The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church traditionally couch even the harshest disagreements in decorous, ecclesiastical language. But it didn’t take a decoder ring to figure out what Rome-based Archbishop Raymond Burke meant in a late-September address when he charged Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley with being under the influence of Satan, “the father of lies” [for presiding over pro-choice Senator Ted Kennedy’s Catholic funeral this past August].
As Sullivan goes on to explain,
The debate nominally centers on the question of how to deal with politicians who support abortion rights. Burke and others who believe a Catholic’s position on abortion trumps all other teachings have faced off against those who take a more holistic view of the faith. But at the core, the divide is over who decides what it means to be Catholic. [emphasis mine]
In this paper, I examine abortion politics and “who decides what it means to be Catholic” from a rhetorical perspective. I argue that the emphasis on abortion opposition as a litmus test for Catholic identity manifests rhetorically as a master narrative in U.S. Catholic political discourse. This master narrative shows up in simple matters of religious ritual (like Sen. Kennedy’s funeral), but also in questions of voting practices and national legislation (such as the current health care reform debate), amongst other places. In other words, this master narrative is pervasive in U.S. Catholic political discourse today.
Because of the size and clout of the Catholic Church in the United States, understanding this Catholic master narrative is relevant to our understanding of the interplay between religion and American politics more broadly. Since Catholics make up almost 25% of the electorate, Catholic voting patterns impact overall political outcomes in American life. I argue that this abortion criminalization master narrative operates to legitimate a particular, narrow model of Catholic identity, and thereby constricts the moral agency of American Catholics in their political involvement.
To make this argument, I first give an overview of the concept of master narrative and comment on its relationship to rhetorical theory. I then describe and offer examples of this abortion criminalization master narrative in Catholic political discourse, which is characterized by its invocation of a heroic, good vs. evil cultural model. I conclude that this master narrative falsely legitimates and stabilizes a narrow model of Catholic identity, particularly in relationship to American politics.
The concept of master narrative does not stem from rhetorical studies, but rather has its origins in literary theory. This concept has been fruitfully invoked within the disciplines of women’s studies (Lawless 2003), journalism (Cline 2006), and ethics (Lindemann Nelson 2001), to name a few, but it has not been prominent within the field of rhetoric. However, rhetoricians have connected rhetoric to narrative theory, as Andreea Ritivoi did in her 2002 book Yesterday’s Self: Nostalgia and Immigrant Identity, and communication scholars have been even more active in incorporating narrative into their scholarship. In using the concept of master narrative in my analysis of Catholic political discourse, I suggest that it is a natural fit for rhetoricians interested in the persuasiveness of political and religious language.
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. Daniel Burke referenced this phenomenon in an October 16, 2008 article for Religion News Service, where he described a “resurgent Catholic Left” which rejects the position that “voting for a pro-abortion rights candidate is akin to heresy.” This rejected position is an oblique reference to the master narrative at work in contemporary Catholic discourse, whose particular characteristics I describe shortly. 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 – which is the case when the threat of “heresy” hangs over political positions.
To demonstrate how this master narrative manifests in Catholic political discourse, I offer three examples. The first example comes from a speech given by an archbishop during the 2008 presidential campaign. The second example comes from a statement by the national director of a Catholic pro-life group after the presidential election. The final example comes from a letter published by a bishop during the recent health care reform debate.
In the first example, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput addresses a conservative Catholic women’s group called ENDOW (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women) on October 17, 2008. The title of this pre-election speech is “Little Murders.” The following passage comes from the end of the speech.
For 35 years I’ve watched thousands of good Catholic laypeople, clergy and religious struggle to recover some form of legal protection for the unborn child. The abortion lobby has fought every compromise and every legal restriction on abortion, every step of the way….The abortion conflict has never simply been about repealing Roe v. Wade. And the many pro-lifers I know live a much deeper kind of discipleship than ”single issue” politics. But they do understand that the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is protecting human life from conception to natural death. They do understand that every other human right depends on the right to life. They did not and do not and will not give up – and they won’t be lied to. [emphasis mine]
In this passage, Chaput characterizes the Left’s abortion reduction counterstory (Lindemann Nelson 2001) as an attempted deception inflicted upon “good Catholic” people who are engaged in a noble “struggle” to “protect” the “unborn child” against an uncompromising foe, the “abortion lobby.” These pro-lifers “won’t be lied to” by the Left. Chaput characterizes morality and Catholic teaching as absent of historical situatedness, as something that members of the Catholic pro-life movement simply “do understand” (and, by implication, the Catholic Left does not). Thus according to Chaput, the Catholic Left is not only acting against Catholic teaching and the Church, but also in league with “the abortion lobby” against the “unborn child.” Listeners and readers are invited to think of themselves as knightly champions for the downtrodden, fighting an epic battle against the evil forces of the world, while dissenters are portrayed as dangerously subversive to Catholic values and identity.
In my next example, Priests For Life national director Fr. Frank Pavone expresses his disappointment following the election of Barack Obama as President. In this November 5, 2008 message to supporters, he also invokes a heroic, good vs. evil master narrative.
Americans have made a grave mistake in electing Barack Obama to the presidency… [but the pro-life movement will keep working] to see another day when the work and the ballots of pro-life people will dismantle the Culture of Death. We will keep marching toward that pro-life America we seek, and won’t stop until we get there. [emphasis mine]
By framing the election of Barack Obama as a “grave mistake” and linking it with the “Culture of Death,” Pavone cleanly transposes a supernatural battle between good and evil onto the political process. Barack Obama, by virtue of his position against abortion criminalization, becomes a representative of the “Culture of Death.” At the end of the passage, the language of “marching” evokes an image of almost militaristic discipline, while the phrase “[we] we won’t stop until we get there” adds to the sense of a simple conflict between good vs. evil, both because of the inevitability of good’s eventual triumph, as well as the unambiguous certainty of the righteousness of the cause.
In my final example, Rhode Island bishop Thomas Tobin criticizes Democratic Representative Patrick Kennedy for opposing abortion criminalization. Over the last several weeks, Bishop Tobin and Congressman Kennedy have been in engaged in a heated public exchange over the inclusion of abortion funding in health care reform. Congressman Kennedy, a Catholic, supports health care reform even if it includes public funding of abortion, whereas the U.S. Bishops strongly advocate universal health care but refuse to support any legislative package that includes abortion funding. In a letter published in the Rhode Island Catholic on November 12, 2009, Bishop Tobin writes,
[Congressman Kennedy, in your letter of October 29, 2009, you wrote,] “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. Although I wouldn’t choose those particular words, when someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church.…Your rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion [is a] a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you’ve re-affirmed on many occasions. [emphasis mine]
In this passage, Bishop Tobin characterizes Kennedy’s political positions on abortion funding as “reject[ing] the teachings of the Church… on a grave a matter, a life-and-death-issue.” The strong language of “rejection” supposes that Kennedy’s disagreement over policy equates with opposing human dignity itself. Though Tobin’s language is less militant, the basic underlying assumptions are the same as those of Chaput and Pavone. Again, he transposes a simple good vs. evil dichotomy to the political realm, while also strongly stating a narrow understanding of what constitutes legitimate Catholic identity. Unsurprisingly, Congressman Patrick Kennedy is the youngest son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, about whose pro-choice positions this same master narrative was invoked to question the senator’s worthiness for a Catholic funeral, as I mentioned at the start of this paper.
To sum up, in all of these cases, by invoking familiar, heroic cultural models, and inviting the reader or listener to perceive him or herself in the role of hero and warrior for good, the arguments acquire great persuasive power. By transposing a heroic model onto the political process, the audience is given the choice of either being for or against goodness itself based on the political strategies to which they subscribe. In pointing out this master narrative, I am not arguing for or against abortion (or its criminalization); rather, I am pointing out a problematic equation of political strategies with religious identity that occurs in U.S. Catholic political discourse. The heroic model is linked to Catholic identity, positioning Catholics as at war with a hostile world, and representing that war as occurring in the political process itself. By equating the political strategy of opposing abortion criminalization with being in favor of abortion itself – and therefore in favor of the Culture of Death, a position antithetical to Catholic identity – these Catholic rhetors attempt to offer certainty amidst the instability of political discourse.