The Problem With Toning Down the Rhetoric – And Why We Probably Won’t Do It

ORIGINALLY POSTED HERE on  6 July 2009

The Problem With Toning Down the Rhetoric – And Why We Probably Won’t Do It
Some of my Catholic friends have been urging me and others on the Catholic right to tone down the rhetoric when it comes to discussing issues related to the Notre Dame scandal, or Notre Shame as time is showing it to have been.  They want us to tone down our “harsh rhetoric” on issues such as abortion, President Obama and other Catholics who support him. These friends insist that they respect my right to my point of view, and they assure me that they, too, oppose abortion. However, they argue that many tactics of the Catholic pro-life movement are “negative” (e.g. showing pictures of aborted fetuses) and therefore counter-productive. They argue further that these tactics – which include protesting Notre Dame’s bestowing an honorary doctorate of law on President Obama – actually exacerbate tensions and divisions within the Catholic Church and within society at large.  Finally, they charge that such tactics are spiteful and otherwise uncharitable.  We on the right would say “sinful,” but these friends of mine don’t use that language.

I am not impervious to these criticisms. I don’t like being thought of in these terms, though I confess I sometimes accept their judgment with a touch of mischievous relish. I don’t know anyone on the Catholic or Christian right who wants to be thought of as using language that is counter-productive, divisive and spiteful.

Okay, maybe Ann Coulter, bless her.

But when it comes to their suggestion to tone down the rhetoric, I think we shouldn’t, and I doubt we will.

First of all, there’s history. No matter how earnestly these Catholic friends of mine insist that they oppose abortion, when I think about what they want us not to do, I am forced to conclude that they just don’t see the symmetry between the abortion issue and other moral tragedies in recent history, such as the Holocaust and racial segregation. Would my Catholic friends today not applaud those German, Austrian and Italian Catholics who risked their lives to speak out in the strongest terms against the racial policies of Hitler and Mussolini, even though in doing so they used language that their friends thought was counter-productive, divisive and spiteful?

And why can’t these friends of mine cast themselves in the role of American whites who, during the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, urged those few outspoken Catholic priests, sisters, and laypeople who rode freedom buses and were arrested during sit-ins to tone down the rhetoric, because it was counter-productive and divisive?

Is it me, or is the outrage of these Catholic friends of mine over the recent murder of the abortionist George Tiller, and the blame they hurl at the “extreme rhetoric” of pro-lifers for his death, not analogous to the anger of those white Catholics in the 60’s who blamed civil rights activists for instigating the Watts and Detroit riots?

My second reason for not toning down the rhetoric on abortion follows from the first. When and why did the abortion issue cease to be a “justice and peace” issue? Answer: when it became a women’s issue.

Have you noticed that there’s something about opposition to abortion that gives the creeps to “progressive” Catholics?

By the way, they hate to be called “liberals” or “left-wing” Catholics; they think of themselves as just plain, ordinary Catholics.  We aren’t to label them, but they freely label us.  This is what “liberal” now means.  For liberals, pro-lifers are “single-issue Catholics” or “single-issue voters”, a label intended to accuse us of ignoring all the other life issues in the “seamless garment” that makes up their precious “consistent life ethic.”

QUAERUNTUR: When was the last time you saw a “consistent life ethics” Catholic instead of simply assuring you that, yes, they too oppose abortion, actually speak out loudly against abortion? Do you know any “consistent life ethic” Catholics who seriously weigh a candidate’s position on abortion when deciding how to vote in an election?

No. For progressive Catholics it’s okay, even respectable, not to get upset about abortion to the point of voting against legislators who support it. Abortion is the issue that gets left off of “peace and justice” agendas. Progressivist Catholics associate abortion with sexual ethics, not with human life ethics. They complain that pro-lifers do not care about the other “life issues” such as capital punishment, war, poverty and health care. Never mind that no one really knows what pro-life Catholics think about these issues! But “peace and justice” Catholics only mention abortion when they are clucking their tongues at the pro-life movement.

I suspect that behind this “peace and justice” Catholic vs. pro-life Catholic tension is the divide between Democrat and Republican Catholics. I’m not saying that all pro-life Catholics vote for Republicans. I know a few who don’t. But let’s be honest, it’s hard to find pro-life Democrats holding public office. Progressivist Catholics know this too. Their loyalty to the aims and leadership of the Democrat party accounts for part of their opposition to the rhetoric of pro-life Catholics.

My third reason for not wanting us to tone down the rhetoric is a sense I have, a feeling not easy to pin down.

I am sensing a kind of Zeitgeist in the air which censures the use of “harsh rhetoric.”

I’ve been told by my progressivist Catholic friends that people today are turned off by the kind of angry, abrasive, “us v. them” rhetoric that reached a fever pitch during the Notre Dame controversy.  Just think!  American bishops were publicly critical of Notre Dame’s president. Pro-life protesters disrupted the graduation ceremony while President Obama was present, and some of them – “outsiders” as they were called – were arrested for trespassing on Notre Shame’s property.

Can you hear on the wind, on the waves, that whiny “why can’t we all just get along” mantra, scolding us for disrupting the feeling of harmony and comity we’re all supposed to be feeling in this Obama, post-political era?

These friends of mine praise Pres. Obama for his search for a “common ground” and his insistence on “dialogue,” even as they accuse pro-life Catholics of engaging in juvenile, discourteous rhetoric and of pursuing short-sighted, unrealistic and divisive political goals. What’s worse, in their eyes we are dragging this political conflict over abortion into the Church itself, where everybody should feel welcome, regardless of their views on abortion. Priests who preach about abortion are accused of alienating people in the pews. The new sin is making someone, anyone, feel uncomfortable because of his or her views or “lifestyle”.

But the net effect of this unrelenting censorship from the left is that the pro-life (yes, read: anti-abortion) message is ground down, silenced under the rubric of “it’s all right that we agree to disagree about this issue.”

Homosexual activists have a saying, “silence equals death.”  What they know, what the Catholic left doesn’t, is that all rhetoric aimed at effecting social and political change must, above all, be heard.

In the meantime, how many progressivist Catholic media shills will complain next week that this week’s G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, was disrupted by protesters advocating on behalf of the global poor or the environment?

You see, it’s not all acerbic rhetoric that merits labeling as counter-productive, divisive and uncharitable. It’s just pro-life rhetoric.

And that, in the end, is why we probably won’t tone it down.

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