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NCA: Abortion Criminalization as a Master Narrative in U.S. Catholic Political Rhetoric

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 upand 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.


5 thoughts on “NCA: Abortion Criminalization as a Master Narrative in U.S. Catholic Political Rhetoric

  1. In the escalating fight between Thomas Tobin and Patrick Kennedy, it strikes me that a conflict of interest is involved in one of the parties being the umpire or mediator. It also strikes me that both parties are in a position to abuse their position to further the fight…under the rubric of a higher purpose. I recommend the following post: http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/so-the-last-will-be-first-and-the-first-will-be-last/

    Posted by stillhere4u | November 22, 2009, 2:57 pm
  2. It takes an individual with clear talent in rhetoric to see the thread of militant (in which we see a reflection of the Church Militant with her Christian soldiers ready to defend her) language in the quotes you provide.

    But when you write, “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.”, could someone unskilled in the art of rhetoric hazard to point out your word choices?

    “…opposing abortion criminalization…” what a way to put it! Certainly I am not saying I am in favor of abortion! I am merely using the abortion industry’s favorite new turn-of-phrase to confuse the ignorant and obscure the basic issue.

    Babies are dying, Kari. Beautiful, little children who are loving and kind and have immortal souls – they’re being murdered.

    If the whole world would say out loud, “Kari is very intellectual!” would your sense of self be satisfied and allow you to turn your energy away from the word games? When will you start to put your time and attention to saving babies?

    Check out the Lifesitenews story on the Virginia mom that’s posted today. Do you have the heart to defend this infanticide with linguistic tricks?

    May the Christ Child visit your heart this Christmas and open eye of your soul to the Truth. God bless you.

    Posted by Katherine | December 22, 2009, 7:13 am
    • Katherine, you are right that I chose the phrase “opposing abortion criminalization” consciously, but for some reason of your own have projected all sorts of evil motives to my choice. I chose that phrase because there is a very real (and important) distinction between opposing abortion and supporting (or opposing) laws and politicians that/who aim to make abortion illegal. Sure, there’s overlap – but it’s crucial to remember to differentiate particular strategies (like overturning Roe v. Wade, or supporting crisis pregnancy centers, or improving the social safety net for pregnant women, or helping girls understand that their dignity and value does not depend on being sexually desired by men, or teaching teens about contraception, or improving higher education opportunities for women, or extending health care benefits so that no one feels forced to have an abortion based on financial desperation/health care costs for a pregnancy/baby, etc.) and opposing abortion itself. There can be different paths up the same mountain, with the same goal in mind.

      There’s a difference between ideals (like eliminating abortion) and the concrete reality of how laws are made in a democracy. Law-making in a democracy, for good or ill, requires compromise, and no one will compromise with someone screaming ‘baby-killer’ at anyone who thinks differently about how to go about ending abortion, or at least reducing it. That kind of rhetoric just alienates people and ensures that no one will take your concerns seriously – and thus it is the best way possible to ensure that abortion stays legal and abortion rates stay high. The status quo helps no one but fundraisers and politicians seeking election.

      You might find it worth reading Fr. Ray Schroth’s recent article, “The Holy Eucharist as a Political Weapon.” The article is dealing specifically with bishops denying communion to pro-choice politicians. But I think it is relevant here, nonetheless. Here’s an excerpt:

      Let’s be clear on this. I too agree that abortion is a sin, the taking of a human life, and the life of the child in the womb should be protected by law.

      But I have a sense of how difficult it would be to over-rule Roe v Wade or pass other laws, like the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding, but which must be voted on every year, or laws requiring parental consent, counseling, waiting periods, etc. But to use the Eucharist as a club to force a political leader, who must represent a vast and complex constituency, to bow to the political directive of a local bishop can be seen as both an abuse of ecclesiastical power and an occasion for scandal for the Church.

      Posted by Kari J. Lundgren | December 22, 2009, 5:37 pm
  3. Kari, thanks for your even-handed, thoughtful response to Katherine’s comment. Everything we say necessarily involves language, and I think there is value in paying close attention to the words we use when speaking about an issue as charged as our country’s legislation concerning abortion. I think you make a good point about the need to build bridges with people holding different views with the hope of ultimately reducing the number of abortions. Clearly you are not advocating killing babies but ultimately trying to use the skills you have (in rhetorical analysis, writing, patience, etc.) to point out the problems with the way the arguments surrounding abortion are typically framed. Perhaps then such people (particularly those with considerable clout, like bishops) might begin to reconsider their language and become more effective at collaborating with others to achieve their political and social goals (read: saving babies).

    The irony of Katherine’s question “When will you start to put your time and attention to saving babies?” is that she found it worthwhile to take the time to craft a substantial comment on your blog post. While there is always a danger in academia of getting lost in vain pursuits of showing off intellectual prowess, I don’t see this happening here on your blog. Again, I see you caring deeply about the Catholic Church and Catholic identity and abortion and seeking a way forward with the resources you have.

    Katherine, I would suggest to you that you will advance more quickly in reaching your goal of saving babies if you see Kari for the ally she is than by labeling her as a heartless, insecure intellectual out to perform “linguistic tricks.” In doing so, you lend more credence to Kari’s perspective rather than less. Try having a little more imagination about how God might be at work in the world. I think that too often the Church lacks imagination; much as many of the Jews of Jesus’s time could not believe that Jesus could possibly be the Messiah, we can be in danger of clinging too tightly to our preconceived notions of how God is going to accomplish something (e.g., reducing abortions) that we write off something that may well be part of his solution (such as the work of thoughtful academics like Kari).

    Posted by Julie Draper | December 23, 2009, 12:17 am
  4. Kari,

    For good or ill, most people need some kind of simple master narrative in order to help them see the importance of an idea or action. Whether it is us vs them (as in the famous “Steelers Nation”) or good vs evil, or some other rallying cry, from sports to economy to politics to evangelization, we rely on these narratives to bring coherence to social groups.

    Many in the Catholic Church are suggesting that the Catholic Church has lost some of its coherence (they might even say “all” rather than “some”). Historically, we see that it takes many decades after a major council or synod to discover or refine Catholic identity. The Catholic Church has long held that our faith is applicable to the political realm–indeed, to every realm of life. Such application is not inherently problematic but is rather the consequence of a vital faith.

    The question at hand is both about abortion and about Catholic identity–and in ease sense, playing on different levels. A better-defined sense of Catholic identity would not necessarily be a bad thing.

    I am not familiar with Congressman Kennedy, in particular, but I sense from the debate that the Catholic members of Congress who oppose abortion criminalization are also not able to or are not trying to push other forms of legislation that would provide better encouragement for a choice other than abortion. You presume a different situation, one which is not readily apparent to someone who has not followed these details in politics with an eagle eye. Is there an analysis of voting records and speeches that might shed light on this, beyond the simplistic political surveys typically used by political action committees? I am thinking of something that would examine both votes and the reason for the votes; for example, a vote for pre-natal health care for poor families could be seen as a vote against abortion in such an analysis.

    You make the most important point in your final paragraph where you note that you are “pointing out a problematic equation of political strategies with religious identity that occurs in U.S. Catholic political discourse,” essentially to “offer certainty amidst the instability of political discourse.”

    You clearly demonstrate that these Catholic rhetors make the equation. That it is problematic is not apparent to me from your article. I write as someone who is not favorable to the style of Bishop Burke or Bishop Tobin, but who is rather frustrated with many Catholics who too readily compromise with either major political party when neither is really promoting a world view that harmonizes with the Gospel.

    The larger problem is that when politicians support a point of view — whether “personally opposed but…” or “i will fight against…” — we are often taken in, even despite signs that their actions will not follow the promise of their words. This is ultimately the most pernicious (and persistent) reason why we cannot support the mere articulation of a political strategy.

    Posted by Jerome | February 18, 2010, 2:26 am

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