Abp. Chaput reflects on why Democrats have “gotten worse” on abortion

From the HLI World Watch site:

In a video interview with Catholic News Service, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said that the position of the Democrat Party on abortion has “gotten worse” over time because Catholics within the party haven’t taken a strong moral stand and shown a willingness to abandon the Democrat Party.

“I think many of the Democrats have [taken] Democrat Catholic votes for granted because they’ll go with them no matter what the party position might be on abortion,” Archbishop Chaput said. “That’s why the position of the Democrat Party has gotten worse, and worse, and worse as time goes on because Catholics haven’t abandoned them as they’ve moved in that direction.”

Chaput said that in the earliest days of the abortion debate in the United States, most people probably thought that the Republican Party would’ve “easily embraced abortion,” and that Democrats would have been the political party standing for the defense of life because of the large number of Catholics within the party.

“Catholics have been historically part of the Democrat Party in great numbers, and I think really could’ve stopped that great development movement if they tried, but they didn’t in order to accommodate people from the other side of the issue,” he said.

The Archbishop also said that you can’t always trust the Republican Party to stand for the defense of life either.

Read the entire piece, which includes a transcript of the remarks in full. Lots of interesting food for thought in the Archbishop’s comments. The histories of the two parties are worth studying a bit. For example, it might surprise some to learn that the Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party. By the late 1800s, the GOP has solidified itself as the party of the WASPs, and its harsh stances against immigrants and drinking made the Democrat Party a natural home for Catholics coming to the U.S. from Europe. Yet the GOP maintained a strong pro-civil rights stance, and many advances were made on that front against opposition from (mostly Southern) Democrats who supported segregation. President Eisenhower, for example, was a stout supporter of civil rights, proposing and signing into law the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.

It’s not entirely clear to me why most people in the early days of the abortion debate would have thought the Democratic Party would have opposed abortion more strongly than Republicans, especially as it seems the Democratic Party shifted much more sharply and radically in the 1960s and 1970s on social issues. It is, I suppose, something of a chicken-or-the-egg discussion: did Catholics of that era go along with the Party out of loyalty, or did Catholics who embraced contraception and supported abortion help re-shape the Party? Put another, and more specific, way: did Sen. Edward Kennedy change his views in the 1970s because of changes in the political climate, or did he lead the change? I suspect it was a combination. Still, as of less than twenty years ago, in 1996, the Democratic Party platform welcomed anti-abortion Democrats:

Choice. The Democratic Party stands behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of ability to pay. President Clinton took executive action to make sure that the right to make such decisions is protected for all Americans. Over the last four years, we have taken action to end the gag rule and ensure safety at family planning and women’s health clinics. We believe it is a fundamental constitutional liberty that individual Americans — not government — can best take responsibility for making the most difficult and intensely personal decisions regarding reproduction.

The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.

Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare, not more difficult and more dangerous. We support contraceptive research, family planning, comprehensive family life education, and policies that support healthy childbearing. For four years in a row, we have increased support for family planning. The abortion rate is dropping. Now we must continue to support efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and we call on all Americans to take personal responsibility to meet this important goal.

Abp. Chaput also stated, “You know you can’t trust the Republicans to be pro-life 20 years from now. You can’t let any party take your vote for granted.” Exactly right. Principles over party, especially when it comes to the personalist principle articulated clearly in Catholic social doctrine:

The Church has many times and in many ways been the authoritative advocate of this understanding, recognizing and affirming the centrality of the human person in every sector and expression of society: “Human society is therefore the object of the social teaching of the Church since she is neither outside nor over and above socially united men, but exists exclusively in them and, therefore, for them”. This important awareness is expressed in the affirmation that “far from being the object or passive element of social life” the human person “is rather, and must always remain, its subject, foundation and goal”. The origin of social life is therefore found in the human person, and society cannot refuse to recognize its active and responsible subject; every expression of society must be directed towards the human person.

Read more on the Vatican website.

UPDATE: This is from a post, “George McGovern’s Pro-Life Paradox”, by W. James Antle III, posted yesterday on The American Conservative website:

Yet McGovern did inadvertently play a key role in making the Democratic Party more accepting of abortion. He chaired a 1968 commission bearing his name that sought to “democratize” the process by which delegates to the party’s national convention were selected. The idea was to reduce the power of the party bosses and remaining urban political machines.

The local party bosses were replaced with effective quotas for women, minorities, and young people, who in some cases were able to supplant the old machines and create new ones. Whether this new process was more democratic was open to debate—quotas suggest the outcomes were at least partially ordained and the old machines at least answered to bigger, more representative constituencies than the ideological activists who supplanted them—but the practical impact was to dilute the power of Northeastern ethnics and Southern Protestants for the benefit of secularists and feminists.

As the Catholic journalist Mark Stricherz wrote in his book Why the Democrats Are Blue, these changes played an instrumental role in pushing the party to the left on abortion and a whole range of social issues. This wasn’t inevitable. Such leading 1960s Democrats as Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie were pro-life; younger liberals like Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson also initially opposed abortion.

While some of the party’s erstwhile social conservatism had been driven by Southern Democrats, who had been losing influence since Harry Truman took a strong stand against Jim Crow at the 1948 convention, many Catholic Democrats supported civil rights for blacks—and unborn children. As Stricherz pointed out to an interviewer, “the party from 1948 to 1968 was controlled by white Catholics, especially Irish Catholics.”

The post-McGovern Commission Democratic Party was more diverse in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity. But diverse viewpoints were never the objective. The rules changes facilitated the adoption of a platform that supported abortion and, to name the answer to a 1970s trivia question, the Equal Rights Amendment.

The same line of analysis appears to be taken by Donald T. Critchlow and W.J. Rorabaugh in their new book, Takeover: How the Left’s Quest for Social Justice Corrupted Liberalism (ISI, 2012). 

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.