People have always talked about campaign issues and taken more or less critical note of candidates’ positions on them, but most citizens didn’t use to wear their candidates on their sleeves the way many of us do now on social media (though they might have worn them on their lawns or car bumpers, as many of us still do). When a significant figure not known for his or her involvement in party politics publicly picked a candidate, it made news precisely for its being extraordinary.
These days, not so much.
Still, the irruption of Sr. Deirdre Byrne into the presidential campaign last month may have marked something very like a sea change in American politics, at least as far as Catholic participation is concerned, and so beyond the election itself.
Sr. Byrne’s speech was, until her last paragraph, almost entirely unexceptionable (the liberty she took with the marital status of Our Lady at the time of the Annunciation raised some hackles, but it was dramatically effective and close enough for government work, as far as I’m concerned).
“[T]he truth is the largest marginalized group in the world can be found here in the United States,” she said. “They are the unborn.” Right on both counts. “We must fight against a legislative agenda that supports and even celebrates destroying life in the womb,” Sr. Byrne continued. Right again.
I understand, and even sympathize with my fellows in the pro-life movement, who believe that support of pro-choice politicians despite their pro-choice stances is not only morally permissible, but prudent, insofar as the laws and policies those politicians favor tend to reduce the number of unborn lives destroyed.
It is, quite frankly, a sensible political tack to take in the main, and a more powerful argument than many of my pro-life fellows are willing to admit.
Nevertheless, it does not absolve us of the duty to advocate, agitate, and otherwise work to change our laws so they reflect, rather than repugn our basic commitments. “Keep in mind,” said Sr. Byrne, “the laws we create define how we see our humanity.” She’s right about that, too, and there’s no escaping it.
“What we are saying,” Sr. Byrne went on to ask, “when we go into a womb and snuff out an innocent, powerless, voiceless life?” The answer to that question must cause anyone who confesses God’s justice to tremble.
The absolute commitment of the Democratic Party to the expansion of so-called “abortion rights” complicates the prudential calculus US citizens must make, in and out of election season. It is reasonable to demand an account of how a party so obviously in the pocket of the abortion interest can possibly inspire the confidence of candid minds, even ones that happen broadly to share the party’s views on the subject.
So much for my agreement with the substance of Sr. Byrne’s remarks.
I am dismayed at her decision to make them to the nation from the rostrum of the Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention, in support of a man I have always found to be a howling buffoon and grotesque: the champion of everything broken and sore and festering in our body politic; the embodiment of almost everything sick in the soul of our nation.
That she did so arrayed in the habit of her religion only added to my consternation, but I readily concede that, having decided to speak, there really wasn’t anything else for it.
“Donald Trump,” Sr. Byrne told us, “is the most pro-life president this nation has ever had, defending life at all stages.” To the first part of that assertion, I reply that—right or wrong—it is a very low bar, and creates the impression that pro-lifers are fighting for table scraps: beseeching favors rather than demanding recognition of a right inscribed on our very nature. The second part of the assertion is demonstrably inaccurate.
“His belief in the sanctity of life transcends politics,” Sr. Byrne continued.
There, Sr. Byrne has apparently confused her own convictions with those of the President, who has none—unless one is willing to consider that he might believe the untruths that escape his lips with almost every breath, at least while he is uttering them.
Sr. Byrne has also discovered therein the reason she ought not have given the speech where and when she gave it: The cause of life is in point of fact inescapably political—foundationally so, as it directly and immediately concerns the basic question of human affairs: How are we to order our lives together?—though it does transcend partisan politics.
At least, it should.
Her decision to address the Republican convention contributed to the solidification of the fight to end legal abortion as a partisan issue in electoral politics, precisely at a moment in which the general cause of life is gravely imperiled and efforts to establish a broad pro-life coalition are most needful.
So much for my disagreement with Sr. Byrne.
Here are some of Sr. Byrne’s biographical details, which anyone engaging her must admit, and of which anyone criticizing her must be duly mindful: She is an officer in the US Army and a wartime veteran; a physician of great accomplishment; she served in Afghanistan and has dedicated herself to caring for the weakest and most vulnerable—making herself her brother’s keeper, and a true friend to the least among us; she has earned her pro-life cred over and over again, and her right to be known as a patriot cannot be gainsaid.
It is not too much to say she is an American heroine.
No disagreement over her esteem of our President can change that, nor can any misgiving at her decision to address the nation in the terms and under the circumstances in which she chose to address us erase her record or authorize any assault on her character.
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief and International Editor of the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Into the Storm: Chronicle of a Year in Crisis (416pp. TAN Books, 2o2o).
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