Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Abortion Is The Foremost Issue

A number of commenters in my "More Than One Way..." post have advanced various arguments for why things like the death penalty and the war in Iraq are of equal moral weight as abortion. Some seem to think that their lack of distinction in these issues adds up to freedom to vote for pro-abortion politicians. They're wrong, and I'm going to show why. Their points ranged from the serious to the silly. I'll try to deal with the serious ones here now. I may progress to dispensing with some of the silly ones later.

I Never Thought I'd Be Compared To Bill Clinton

But, in the eyes of some, making moral distinctions between abortion, the death penalty, and the War in Iraq is reminiscent of Clintonian equivocation.

However, making moral distinctions is something we must do as responsible adult Catholics. We must distinguish where we may act as well as where we must act. We must distinguish between areas of dogmatic teaching, where, as Catholics, our consciences are bound, and matters of prudential judgment, where Catholics of good will can disagree.

If we treat all matters of moral judgment as having equal weight and equal binding force, that will lead us to moral absurdities. For example, if, as some commenters claim, "killing is wrong in every form", that would make a cop who kills an armed perpetrator about to shoot someone the moral equivalent of Wanda Holloway, the infamous Texas "Cheerleader Mom", who murdered her daughter's rival for the cheerleading squad. Such an equivocation, of course, does not stand up either in Law or morality. After all, the Church teaches that defense of innocent life is not only permissible but a duty, which admits of the use of lethal means if necessary (CCC 2264-65).

To make such distinctions is not "moral relativism", as one commenter accused. It is an obligatory part of discovering the truth about any action.

I must say one other thing: Some commenters have accused me of "endorsing" President George Bush, and saying that as a priest I have no business doing so. That accusation is simply bizarre. My "More Than One Way..." post did not even mention George Bush. Is criticizing John Kerry or the Democratic Party equivalent to endorsing George Bush? If that's your logic, I don't know what to say to you. You might as well claim that my criticism of Kerry amounts to an endorsement of Lyndon LaRouche. Both conclusions are equally illogical. And my statements "defending" Bush in comments to that post, and here, are only made in response to those who have misunderstood or misrepresented the applicability and weight of Catholic teaching with regards to the President's policies and actions. George Bush hasn't sought and won't get my "endorsement".

Abortion and The Death Penalty

Firstly, the attempt to put the death penalty on equal footing with abortion is simply incorrect, and not consistent with Catholic teaching. These issues are treated as equivalent nowhere in Magisterial teaching: neither in the Catechism nor in the pronouncements of the Holy Father are they treated as having equal moral weight. If you are going to assert that they are, you must produce actual evidence from Church documents to that effect. If you can't do that, then you are asserting your opinion, not the teaching of the Church.

The Church's stance on abortion is a matter of doctrine. That is, the Catholic Church teaches, as a matter binding upon Catholics, that direct procured abortion is always wrong, and may never licitly be pursued. This is the ancient and constant teaching of the Church. (CCC 2271) Furthermore, human life and personhood are defined as beginning at conception. (CCC 2274) Because it is always and absolutely wrong, one may not sanction, permit, or participate in it, even indirectly. (CCC 2272) Finally, because it is a grave crime and offense against human dignity, Catholics are obliged to oppose it and work for its elimination. (CCC 2273, and the Doctrinal Note on...The Participation of Catholics in Political Life)

Because of the unequivocal and fundamental nature of the Church's teaching on abortion, the Holy Father has said that "the right to life comes first. It precedes and undergirds every other social issue or group of issues." Furthermore, the U.S. Bishops have said that being "right" on other important issues "can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life." They also wrote that "All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the... foundation" of the dignity of human life. In other words we must take the defense and protection of the unborn as the starting point, the sine qua non of our pro-life ethic. Because the protection of innocent human life is fundamental, and the prohibition on abortion so absolute, the US bishops warn that "failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters...".

If we compare the Church's teaching on abortion to that on Capital Punishment, the difference is striking. I would refer you to the Catechism, no. 2267. It upholds the traditional teaching of the Church that "does not exlude" the State's right to impose the death penalty in extreme cases. It does make clear that non-lethal punishments are to be preferred, and that there is only a "rare" necessity of the death penalty today. But there is no absolute ban on the death penalty, as there is regarding abortion. The Holy Father has never said that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong. He has said that the circumstances of the present day render the applicability of it "very rare." The difference between "very rare" and "never" is not a difference in degree, it is a difference in kind.

Because of this difference in kind between abortion and capital punishment, the decision about whether capital punishment is justified or not is a matter of prudential judgment. Note the language used in the Catechism. The death penalty is "not excluded". That means that the Church anticipates circumstances which justify the use of the death penalty. Observe also the language used in Living the Gospel of Life. Repeatedly it refers to the immorality of taking "innocent" human life. That word "innocent" is not there by accident or as "filler". One commenter wrote, "There is no room for the death penalty - and questions of guilt and innocence are beside the point." This statement is almost perfectly erroneous. There is room (narrow though it be) for the death penalty, and questions of guilt and innocence are entirely to the point.

The bishops, following the teaching of the universal Church, clearly distinguish between crimes like abortion and euthanasia, which are always wrong, and capital punishment, which admits of justification. There is no concession regarding abortion as there is with the death penalty. Once you start talking about whether the death penalty is justified in this or any case (and so must you reason, for circumstances do exist which warrant the death penalty), you have entered the realm of prudential judgment.

Who is to make that prudential judgment? As in other issues, the Church teaches that such judgments are to be made by "legitimate authority." Under the American system of government, that authority belongs to Federal and State courts. One commenter asked:

Are you suggesting it's up to the an individual to determine on their own what constitutes as a crime heinous enough to qualify for cap. punishment?

Of course not. And, in the case of President Bush, he did not, as governor of Texas, make that determination on his own. The people executed in Texas under his governorship were all found guilty by State courts, and had their sentences confirmed by numerous State and Federal appeals. Furthermore, the laws under which those people were executed were enacted by the legitimate, elected representatives of the people of Texas, and withstood repeated Constitutional challenge. Those who say "George Bush presided over the deaths of 'hundreds' in Texas", and the like, often speak as though Bush were a dictator who unilaterally enacted the laws of Texas, then personally convicted and sentenced those criminals, and capped off his orgy of bloodlust by personally throwing the switch that executed them. In fact, the only authority over the process which Bush had as governor was that of pardon or commutation. And, as one commenter pointed out, even that is severely circumscribed under Texas law.

All of this is not to say that I am a "fan" of Texas law regarding the death penalty, or that all of those executions were justifiable under Catholic teaching. But given the nature of prudential judgments, and the exercise of legitimate authority in making those judgments, it is simply nonsense to label President Bush a "murderer", or to posit moral equivalency between him and those who enable and apologize for the slaughter of 1.5 million unborn children every year. Nowhere does the Church equate capital punishment with murder or abortion.

If you say that you will not vote for George Bush because he supports the death penalty, that is your right. But if you do so, it's based on your opinion. You do so as a citizen, not as a Catholic. You cannot say that the teaching of the Church necessitates your position.

How Does The War Weigh In The Balance?

The War has even less moral weight than Capital Punishment with regard to abortion, because the judgment of whether a war is just or not involves even more contingent issues, and thus is even more a matter of prudential judgment. The Catholic Church has never been pacifist: the Church has always recognized the right of nations to defend their borders and the safety of their citizens (CCC 2308-09). Just War theory is the guide for Catholics. But the issues to be resolved under Just war theory, such as the reasonable prospect for success, or whether all means of resolving the conflict short of war have been exhausted, do not admit of absolute answers. What is the answer to the question, "Is the direct and intentional abortion of an unborn child ever justified?" A simple an unequivocal "No." The question "Is war ever justified?" is answered "sometimes".

A number of commenters have argued that Bush is just as bad as the pro-aborts because he has waged an "unjust" war. Well, once again, the one who makes the prudential judgment about whether a war is just or not is the nation's "legitimate authority". Under the American system, the legitimate authority in matters of war is the President and Congress. And Congress (inlcuding Senator Kerry) authorized the President to use armed force in dealing with Iraq.

Yes, the Pope did say that the war in Iraq would be unjust, if it were prosecuted without the approval of the United Nations. But the Pope, in saying that, did not abrogate the responsibility and competency of a nation's government to make the prudential judgment of whether to go to war or not. President Bush, having the authorization of Congress (including John Kerry), and based on the knowledge available to him, made the judgment that war was both necessary and justified. If he made that decision honestly, the worst he can be is mistaken in his judgment.

Personally, I don't believe the decision to go to war in Iraq met the criterion of Just War theory. But I also recognize that I haven't the competence to make that determination. But some, again, have gone far beyond the kinds of moral conclusions we can reasonably make about President Bush's judgment regarding the war. To label him a "murderer" because of the deaths in the war is just as illogical as to do so regarding the executions in Texas, and for the same reason: Bush made a prudential judgment that was rightly his to make, in a lawful manner, in an area which, the Church grants, is governed by prudential judgment.

And the number of civilian casualties is a red herring. No war in history has ever been prosecuted with as a great care in avoiding civilian casualties as our war in Iraq. Indeed, it could be said reasonably that our troops have at times faced greater dangers than would otherwise be the case, because of tactical and strategic decisions taken not on the basis of miltary expediency, but on the basis of keeping civilians out of danger. Our war in Iraq undoubtedly meets the conditions for the ius in bello.

The one thing prohibited under Just War theory is a war of aggression. And there is simply no rational way to characterize the war in Iraq as such, even if it is misguided. If you believe that George Bush got us into the war in order to get even for his father, or to enrich his buddies in the oil business, or to gin up fear to enable him to institute a right-wing dictatorship, then I would urge you to join the "black helicopter" crowd and take your suspicions to the Art Bell Show or the forums of MoveOn.org. You've departed the bounds of rational discourse. And I'd remind you that before 2003 everyone thought Saddam had WMDs: the Clinton adminstration thought he had them, the UN thought he had them, and John Kerry, along with most of Congress, thought he had them.

Just as with the death penalty, even if George Bush was wrong in his judgment about the war, he is simply wrong, not immoral or criminal. One cannot attribute the same level of culpability to errors concerning prudential judgments on contingent matters as one can to deliberate and knowing violations of the moral law. John Kerry and other pro-abortion "Catholics" are doing just that. John Kerry and the others know that the Church's teaching on abortion is fundamental and absolute, but insist on disobeying that teaching, and misrepresenting it and themselves as well. In the case of John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy, it can be demonstrated that they have done so consciously and deliberately. There is no question of mere "error" here: Kerry's position and record on abortion have been unequivocal and uncompromised for almost three decades. John Kerry cannot do everything in his power to defend and extend the so-called "right" to abortion and at the same time claim to be a good Catholic. To do so insults our intelligence, and is an affront to the Body of Christ.

I am sure that some of those who have raised these criticisms of Bush have done so out of genuine moral concern and zeal for Truth and Right. They see the death penalty as inconsistent with an Ethic of Life, and worry that our war is unjust. But those who wish to make allowance for Catholics to vote for Kerry or other pro-abort politicians have adopted a sort of tu quoque argument. Since Bush is so bad in these areas, they reason, that somehow "balances out" the fact that Kerry is a pro-abort, and makes it OK to vote for him.

That kind of thinking, however, is morally incoherent. It ignores the clear teaching of the Church, reiterated by our Holy Father, that abortion is the pre-eminent threat to the dignity of human life today, and the protection of the unborn must be the starting point of building a Culture of Life. And it ignores a fundamental principle of morality: you may not do evil in order that good may come of it.

Even if George Bush were The Worst President Ever, that would not make voting for John Kerry, or any other pro-abort candidate, morally acceptable. Pile them ever so high as you will, no collection of issues will ever "excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life." If you do not want to vote for Bush, so be it. But when pro-life candidates are available, Catholics must not vote for Kerry or any other pro-abortion candidate.


As I said above, I do not doubt the sincerity of many Catholics who are concerned about things like the death penalty. And by saying that issues like the death penalty are of less importance than abortion I'm not saying they are trivial. They are just less important. But I cannot help but wonder at the motivations of some of the advocates of the so-called "seamless garment" approach. Why is it that their seamless garment always seems to result in downplaying, or even dismissing, the protection of the unborn? Why is it that protection of the innocent always ends up on the fringes, the tattered edges, of their "seamless garment", if not trimmed off altogether? I cannot help but think that, at least sometimes, it's because they really think that issues such as the death penalty, poverty, saving the whales, etc., are more important than the lives of unborn children. I cannot help but suspect that, for such people, voting for the Democratic Party, and what it represents for them, weighs more in the balance than innocent human life. I hope that this is not the case, for those who do so are indeed selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.

What motivates this skewing of priorities? I'm not sure, but I can think of one possibility: We can see the faces and hear the names of those put to death for some terrible crime. We can see their families, broken by grief. We can have compassion for them and wish that they could be moved to atone for their crimes. We can see the pictures of Iraqi wounded, and those killed. We can see the funerals and the imprecations against America hurled by those hurt by the war. We can see the wreck and ruin in the cities and towns.

But the holocaust of abortion is largely invisible, because those who operate the machinery of death do their utmost to keep it that way. We do not see the small bodies torn limb from limb. We do not hear any screams from the victims of abortion. No news cameras report on their deaths. The media studiously avoids acknowledging the grief of the thousands of women who have come to lament their terrible "choice". There are no cemeteries marking the graves of the innocent unborn. They have no names, except those known to God alone.

But if we cannot mark their deaths in our hearts, and hear their cry for vindication, then we are truly deaf to the oppressed. If we cannot make their protection the starting point of our pursuit of justice, then we are truly morally impotent.

And if we cannot call those in public office who share our faith to do their duty to the least of their brothers and sisters in the womb, and hold them accountable for their decisions and policies, then all of our professions of caring and concern, all our protestations of compassion, ring empty and hollow.