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Exclusive column: The importance of learning from history

The Southern Nebraska Register is honored to exclusively publish this column by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. Archbishop Chaput submitted this column in continuance of Bishop Conley’s series on building a culture of life.

History is a useful teacher.

I was a seminarian in Washington, D.C. when Bobby Kennedy was running for the Democratic party’s 1968 presidential nomination.  I was also an active volunteer in Kennedy’s campaign. I can still remember helping with secretarial work in the same room where Edward Kennedy and Pierre Salinger labored away on the campaign’s strategy. It was my first involvement in elective politics, and, after the Vietnam Tet Offensive in February and Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder on April 4, Kennedy’s cause seemed urgent. Then, on June 5, Kennedy was gunned down himself.

After Robert Kennedy died, the meaning of the 1968 election seemed to evaporate. I lost interest in politics. I didn’t get involved again until the rise of Jimmy Carter. Carter fascinated me because he seemed like an untypical politician. He was plain spoken, honest, a serious Christian and a Washington outsider. So I supported him during his 1976 campaign when I was a young priest working in Pennsylvania. After his election as president, I went to Denver as a pastor in 1977. I eventually got involved with the 1980 Colorado campaign for Carter’s re-election on the invitation of a parishioner and Democratic party activist, Polly Baca, who was a good friend.

Carter had one serious strike against him. The U.S. Supreme Court had legalized abortion on demand in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and Carter the candidate waffled about restricting it. At the time, I knew Carter was wrong in his views about Roe and soft toward permissive abortion. But even as a priest, I justified working for him because he wasn’t aggressively “pro-choice.” True, he held a bad position on a vital issue, but I believed he was right on so many more of the “Catholic” issues than his opponent seemed to be. The moral calculus looked easy. I thought we could remedy the abortion problem after Carter was safely returned to office.

Carter lost his bid for re-election, but even with an avowedly prolife Ronald Reagan as president, the belligerence, dishonesty and inflexibility of the abortion lobby has stymied almost every effort to protect unborn human life since.

In the years after the Carter loss, I began to notice that very few of the people, including Catholics, who claimed to be “personally opposed” to abortion, really did anything about it. Nor did they intend to. For most, their personal opposition was little more than pious hand-wringing and a convenient excuse – exactly as it is today.

Why do I mention this now?  Back in 2008, a group called “Roman Catholics for Obama ’08” quoted my own published words in the following way:

So can a Catholic in good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate? The answer is: I can’t, and I won’t. But I do know some serious Catholics – people whom I admire – who may. I think their reasoning is mistaken, but at least they sincerely struggle with the abortion issue, and it causes them real pain. And most important: They don’t keep quiet about it; they don’t give up; they keep lobbying their party and their representatives to change their pro-abortion views and protect the unborn. Catholics can vote for pro-choice candidates if they vote for them despite – not because of – their pro-choice views.

What’s interesting about this quotation, which is accurate but incomplete, is the wording that was left out. The very next sentences in the article of mine they selected, which Roman Catholics for Obama neglected to quote, run as follows:

But [Catholics who support pro-choice candidates] also need a compelling proportionate reason to justify it. What is a “proportionate” reason when it comes to the abortion issue? It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life – which we most certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.

On their website, Roman Catholics for Obama stressed that:

After faithful thought and prayer, we have arrived at the conclusion that Senator Obama is the candidate whose views are most compatible with the Catholic outlook, and we will vote for him because of that – and because of his other outstanding qualities – despite our disagreements with him in specific areas.

I’m familiar with this reasoning. It sounds a lot like me 34 years ago. And 34 years later, we still have a million abortions a year. We also have the most aggressively abortion-friendly White House in history, a coercive HHS mandate and an administration that seems intent on bullying individuals and whole organizations into violating their religious and moral convictions.

Catholics – some naïve, some confused and a few frankly worse – helped to ensure that.

What’s the lesson? People who represent Catholic citizens like you and me, or seek to do so, need to offer more than pious talk about their “personal opposition” to killing unborn children when they ask for Catholic support.  They need a plan of action to restrict and eventually end that killing. And then they need to be held accountable. Because we’ve seen what happens when they’re not.

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