In the Lunches with Leaders talk on women’s issues during the last electoral campaign, Brian Mulroney said that he personally did not believe in abortion but that we live in a pluralistic society and he did not wish to impose his views on anyone else.  Unless and until we have proof to the contrary, we must regard Mr. Mulroney as an honorable man.  Presumably, he has the good sense to be appalled at the slaughter of babies in this country since the amendment to the Criminal Code in 1969.  But, I wonder what he would say if some members of his parliamentary caucus, when asked about their suitability for specific tasks, were to produce statements like these:

  • I am a chartered accountant, with considerable knowledge of tax problems. But since we live in a pluralistic society. I am not going to impose my own views of them on others. I am going to forget about what I have learned, and simply listen to what my constituents have to say.
  • I am a lawyer. As I have been in practice for many years, I have a fairly good acquaintance with the laws of Canada, and I have formed very definite opinions about where revision of them is necessary. But, since we live in a pluralistic society, I am going to keep my own views hidden.
  • I have a Ph.D in economics. But since we live in a pluralistic society, I am going to forget about everything I know concerning the balance of payments, the effect of interest rates on business activity, monetarism, and all such related questions. I will pretend that I am only a layman, with a layman’s point of view on economic matters.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Mulroney would consider such expressions of opinion sheer nonsense.  He would expect those of his followers who possessed special knowledge and expertise to put them to good use.  Why then should he be willing to put aside his own special knowledge, surely the product of mature reflection, in order to give offense to extreme feminists and others who are in favour of abortion on demand?

From very ancient times, it has been thought that the man fit to govern ought to have a preparation for the job.  In Plato’s Republic, such a person is the one who has advanced, farthest in the knowledge of the good.  It would have seemed the strangest thing on earth, to Plato and to generations of men living after him, if a candidate for an office in the state had said, I have studied long and hard; I have had good teachers; and fortunately, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking on my own.  So I can truthfully say that I have made a little bit of progress in understanding what is good for individuals and society as a whole.  Nevertheless, we live in a pluralistic society, in which many people do not agree with my views, and therefore, I am bound to forget about what I have learned and simply accept what people tell me.

Abortion is not a Catholic issue; it is a matter of general, of public concern.  Nevertheless, the Catholic attitude to it, and the response of Catholic politicians to questions concerning it, have recently become major issues.  Mr. Mulroney is a Catholic; so is Geraldine Ferraro; so is Governor Cuomo of New York State.  The bishops of New York State, especially Archbishop O’Connor, declare that you either believe something or you do not believe it, and that if you believe it you must act on that belief.  If you are a Catholic in good standing, you regard abortion as immoral; you do not regard a law providing for it as a just law, and you do everything possible to change that law.

In an article which appeared in the Tablet late in August, John Deedy quoted Archbishop O’Connor’s statement “I don’t see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate who explicitly supports abortion” and said that this put Governor Cuomo in a dilemma.  As a conscientious and committed Catholic, he is opposed to abortion.  But as an elected public official, sworn to uphold the law of the land as interpreted by the Supreme Court, he recognizes an obligation to support what the Supreme Court in 1973 declared to be a woman’s right.  For a church official to make opposition to abortion an essential qualification for public office seems to him an unwarranted intrusion by the Church into matters of state.

One does not “happen to be a Catholic.”

Siding with him, Deedy says that the Cuomo-O’Connor exchange transcends abortions and touches on the question of the separation of Church and State.  Mario Cuomo is not timid or deferential, Deedy writes, and he has not hesitated to exert his own rights as a politician who happens to be a Catholic.  In this respect, he may have set relationships between church leaders and Catholic politicians on a new course.

Let us hoe that the politicians are set on a new course – by the clear-thinking Archbishop of New York, rather than the foggy Governor of New York State.  Mario Cuomo does not “happen to be” a Catholic.  He is a Catholic.  This means that he should, in conscience, as a matter of reasoned conviction, accept the Church’s view that abortion is wrong, and he should strive to put an end to this wrong.  As to the Supreme Court decision of 1973, he should regard it, as John T. Noonan did in his “Raw Judicial Power” (reprinted in J. L. Hensley’s collection of essays The Zero People) as a very faulty decision entirely out of keeping with American legal tradition.

Men in public office are not expected to be schizophrenic, believing one thing themselves and seeming to believe another when a question becomes a matter of public controversy.  Nor are they expected to act like robots on an assembly line, responding to what the computer (perhaps reflecting what the latest poll has revealed about people’s preferences) motivates them to do.  They are supposed to be people of principle.  The Catholics among them might well read the words of Hilaire Belloc to the Salford Liberal Association in 1904:

My religion is of course of greater moment for me by far than my politics, or than any other interest could be, and if I had to choose between two policies, one of which would certainly injure my religion and the other as certainly advance it, I would not for a moment hesitate between the two.

In the electoral campaign of 1906, he again refused to make an idol of politics.  He went so far as to pull a set of rosary beads out of his pocket:

Gentlemen, I am a Catholic.  As far as possible, I go to Mass every day.  This is a rosary.  As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day.  If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that he has spared me the indignity of being your representative.

Let us hope he will direct public opinion

It is hardly necessary for our politicians to go that far.  Yet, they might reflect on what the idea of being a representative meant for Belloc; going farther back, they might reflect on what Edmund Burke defined it to be to centuries ago, in a speech to the electors of Bristol:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents…It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.  But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any set of men living.  These he does not derive from your pleasure;  no, nor from the law and the constitution.  They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable.  Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Let us hope that our new Prime Minister agrees with Burke that he has no right to sacrifice his mature judgment and his enlightened conscience to political expediency.  Let us hope that he will try to direct public opinion, instead of merely following it, and that, even if it makes him at least temporarily unpopular with some section of the electorate, he will do his best to end the slaughter of the innocents.

Dr. David Dooley is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.