Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
...but not the sole moral issue of our time. That’s why the Magisterium, to the great frustration of many Catholics, talks about all of the Church’s social teaching and refuses to talk simply and solely about abortion. The reason she does so is illustrated in a comment I got recently from a reader, who summed up a very common notion one hears noised about in conservative Catholic prolife circles:
A political issue is also a moral issue only if it involves choices directly counter to an explicit Church teaching, otherwise it is only a prudential problem, so controversies like abortion and euthanasia are moral issues but health care and immigration are not.
This is, I am sorry to say, utterly and dangerously false. Virtually every human act has a moral dimension to some degree or other. The fact that most human acts are not absolutely commanded or prohibited by the Church does not mean that such human acts “are not moral issues”. For instance, though the Church commends temperance and tells us that we should not indulge in habitual drunkenness, she does not micromanage how many drinks you can have at the pub. The command to live a temperate life is left up to our prudential judgment. It does not follow that each incremental step you take, prudential judgment by prudential judgment, on the way to making yourself an alcoholic, a divorcee, a debtor, and a ruined shell of a man dying of cirrhosis was “not a moral issue”. Insofar as your willed choice to destroy your own life resulted from free will and not from addiction or physiology, it will not help you much at the Pearly Gates if you tell St. Peter, “But I voted prolife! Nothing I did was directly counter to explicit Church teaching! My bar tab was a prudential judgment and so I am without sin!”
Progressive dissenting Catholics are noted for elevating less serious moral issues to the level of more serious ones in order to minimize the more serious issue. This is no secret. So we see foolishness such as attempts to claim that, say, the minimum wage is as crucial (or more crucial) than whether a child gets a pair of scissors stuck in his brain. It is perfectly right to roll one’s eyes at such sophistry. But it is not perfectly right to fall off the horse on the other side like a drunken man and announce that abortion and euthanasia alone are moral issues and the rest of the Church’s teachings are “not moral issues”. One of the great lies that conservative Catholics in particular have embraced over the past few years is the reactionary notion that “prudential judgment” means “do whatever the hell you want and ignore the bishops and the Church just so long as you oppose abortion”. The fact that the bishops offer, in various ways and degrees, sound counsel and not intellectual shackles inscribed with the words “That Which is Not Forbidden is Compulsory” is not a reason to breeze past (or ride with roughshod contempt over) their sound counsel on matters of prudential judgment. It is not a 007 license to just go ahead and do what you would reflexively do as if the Catholic Church did not exist.
Rather, the prudential judgements of the Church, steeped in the Tradition, should be cause to slow down, take a good hard look at the our actions in light of the Tradition’s prudent counsel and guidance and consider the possibility that, even though the Church is not going to decree that you should not go to war in Iraq, maybe it’s still a stupid idea since it’s pretty tough to square with Just War teaching (as two Popes and virtually all the bishops in the world agreed). It’s a reason to think “Gosh! If I flatly reject the clear and obvious teaching of Pope Benedict and embrace consequentialist logic to justify torture, haven’t i just embraced exactly the same “ends justify means” philosophy as those who justify abortion? Maybe I should heed the Church when it says that torture is intrinsically and gravely immoral so that my arguments against abortion are consistent!” It’s a reason to realize that just because the Church doesn’t order you to help out at the soup kitchen, maybe it would be good if you did anyway and it might even be the call which could spell the difference between heaven and hell for me. After all, no dogma commanded Francis to kiss the leper or Mother Teresa to help the dying. Yet they went beyond Minimum Daily Adult Requirement thinking and embraced, not the bare minimum, but the full meal deal, so that this became the means of their salvation and the salvation of countless others whose lives they touched. For Francis, kissing the leper was a burning moral issue and he had to obey his conscience, even though it meant going above and beyond just being prolife about the unborn. So too with Mother Teresa.
In short, just as the leveling of abortion to a par with minimum wage is the great folly of progressive dissent in the Church, so the reduction of all Catholic morality to the single issue of abortion is one of the greatest follies of recent so-called “conservative” Catholic thinking—for it doesn’t conserve the actual Tradition. It throws almost all of it away and banks on the hope that “I wore Precious Feet lapel pins” will stand us in good stead at the Pearly Gates even if we rooted for torture or lived as hedonists or cheered for those who grind the faces of the poor or ignored all the rest of the Church’s moral teaching as disposable since it was only “prudential judgement” and therefore “not a moral issue”.