A thorough reading of Evangelium Vitae shows why being ‘Catholic and pro-choice’ makes about as much sense as being ‘Catholic and anti-Eucharist’ or ‘Catholic and pro-rape’

Following is a slightly condensed version of a paper delivered at a meeting of pro-life groups and others sponsored last May by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference at Canberra.

The ideals to be used in the formulation of public policy were set out in principle by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council in their Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes….(GS)

Regarding what they called “the difficult but very noble art of politics,” the Fathers of Vatican II praised “the work of those who for the common good devote themselves to the service of the state and take on the burdens of office.” They counseled politicians that “with integrity and wisdom, they must take action against any form of injustice and tyranny” (GS 75). Law-making had an important role here, to recognize the duties and protect the rights of all persons, families, and groups in the community (GS 75). In this context the rights of the unborn child to life and the responsibility of law-makers to protect that life were reaffirmed by the Council (GS 27, 51) and have since been repeated very often by the popes and bishops, as well as many faithful Christians, clerical and lay, Catholic and Protestant. But no politician can do everything and good laws will only take us so far in the building up of a civilization of life and love.

I want to outline five positions that seem to be clearly ruled out by Catholic teaching on the role of the legislator with respect to abortion, especially as articulated in Evangelium Vitae (EV).

Catholic and Pro-Abortion

The first is the claim that one can be a Catholic in good conscience and pro-abortion. One occasionally meets people who openly declare themselves opposed to Catholic teaching in this area and yet are believing, even practicing, members of the Church. Being pro-life, it is asserted, is not a core belief for Catholics in the way that, say, the Trinity or the sacraments are.

The Catholic tradition has, however, consistently and unequivocally condemned abortion as a grave moral and social wrong, both because it is a direct killing of an innocent human being and because it is an attack on the mother, on parenthood, relationships, community. Pope John Paul likewise authoritatively spoke for the Catholic tradition when he defined that “direct abortion always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being” and that “no circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever” can ever make it licit (EV62). He echoed the Second Vatican Council which had declared: “All offenses against life itself, such as abortion … are criminal. They poison civilization, and they debase the perpetrators even more than the victims…. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” (GS 27, 51).

The reference to crime here is primarily a moral category, but it also points to another Catholic teaching in this area: that the civil law must protect basic human rights including the right to life from conception…. Likewise John Paul II has condemned the “sinister” trend in legalizing attacks on life in the name of individual rights. The decriminalization of abortion is, he argues, “a disturbing symptom” but also “a significant cause” of grave moral decline and the denial of true human rights (EV 4, 20, 68); it turns the supposedly democratic state into “a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members” (EV 20, 70). He draws the radical conclusion that laws which authorize and promote abortion [are] radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law (EV 72).

At this point someone will plead the primacy of conscience and Catholic teaching that individuals must follow their consciences even when they are wrong (e.g. Vatican II, Dignitatis Humane). It is therefore important to understand the difference between conscience and personal preference or arbitrary private intuition. The moral character of actions is determined by objective criteria, not merely by the sincerity of intentions or the goodness of motives (GS 51), and all people are called to form their consciences accordingly.

The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. Yet it often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said of the person who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin (GS 27).

How then do we form a right conscience? Catholics seek to inform their consciences according to reason which grasps the natural law accessible to all; this is clarified, confirmed, and possibly supplemented by divine revelation mediated by Church teachings. They believe that by “their faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the Magisterium, and obeying it, receives not the mere word of human beings, but truly the word of God (Lumen Gentium).” Given the consistency and gravity of Church teaching in this area, “[conscientiously] Catholic and pro-abortion” makes about as much sense as “[conscientiously] Catholic and anti-Eucharist” or “Catholic and pro-rape.”

A ‘Religious’ Issue

It is commonly asserted that attitudes to abortion are “religious,” especially if they are the attitudes of religious people, and that they are therefore properly to be kept to the private sphere and not to influence public policy including the voting and other activity of legislators. In response to this the Church asserts that its teaching in areas like abortion is accessible to natural reason unaided by faith, even if truth in this area is clarified and decisively confirmed by revelation mediated by the Church. Catholic teaching on human rights questions such as abortion is no more arcane or mysteriously religious or sectarian than its teaching against slavery, apartheid, or unjust wars. To characterize these matters as religious and personal is an evasion amounting to ethical relativism.

Of course, Catholic teaching on abortion is also a religious issue, since it is believed by Catholics not only on the basis of the persuasive moral reasons against abortion but also on the authority of the Scriptures, the Christian tradition, and the living Magisterium of the Church. The seriousness of abortion is all the greater when it is realized that it involves the killing of a being made in the image of God, that this is contrary both to practical reason and to God's will, and that it involves renunciation of a sacred trust.

It is true that there is profound disagreement in the community about the abortion issue, and that the Catholic Church and other Christian communities have not been uninfected by this disagreement. This does not however reduce such issues to issues of personal choice. The morality of slavery or apartheid has been the source of considerable disagreement, but no one seriously proposes that these issues were therefore beyond moral judgment or appropriately left to each individual slave-owner or white supremacist to decide. Thus the Pope has pointed out that the responsibility for abortion falls not only on the mother and the doctor, but also, among others, upon “the legislators who have promoted and approved abortion laws” (EV 59, 90).

Some will immediately respond that it is all very well for Catholic parliamentarians to carry their faith even into their political lives and follow their consciences, but they must also (and perhaps first) respect the consciences of their constituents.

Respect for Constituents

Some will immediately respond that it is all very well for Catholic parliamentarians to carry their faith even into their political lives and follow their consciences, but they must also (and perhaps first) respect the consciences of their constituents, many of whom do not share their views on these matters. They must avoid imposing their religious and moral beliefs upon others, especially with all the power of state law and policy. (Of course this rather begs the question about the much more radical “imposition” that abortion itself is upon at least one of the parties involved.)

But as Robert George has pointed out, professing to be anti-abortion yet pro-choice is a classic political example of having it both ways. And as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has observed: “It is true that it is not the task of the law to choose between points of view or to impose one rather than another. But the life of the child takes precedence over all opinions. One cannot invoke freedom of thought to destroy this life” (Quaestio de Abortu, 20)

Majority Rules?

Some Catholic politicians take the view that majority opinion is what counts. Most citizens apparently want abortion more or less on demand; so do most of their elected representatives; it is the job of a representative in a democracy to enact public opinion whatever his or her private views. In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope very persuasively answers this misconception. As he observes, “the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations” when legislators engage in a “tragic caricature of legality” in passing permissive abortion laws (20).

Democracy, the Pope reminds us, is not infallible; it should not “be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality…. The value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes.” If it fails to observe “the objective moral law which, as the natural law written in the human heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law,” it easily becomes hostage to those “most capable of maneuvering not only the levers of power but also of shaping the formation of consensus.” (EV 70)

Legalizing abortion “contributes to lessening respect for life and opens the door to ways of acting which are destructive of trust in relations between people”; such laws are contrary to the good of individuals and the common good; indeed there is reason to doubt whether they are valid laws at all (EV 72). Thus no legislator can hide behind majority opinion, renouncing the duty of forming and following his or her own conscience, even in the public sphere (EV 69).

Immorality and the Law

Another view that might be put is that not all immoral activities can or should be restricted by law. Catholics believe that adultery and lying are intrinsically immoral but they have not, in general, sought to make these activities criminal. So, it might be argued, abortion should best be decriminalized: after all, it is impossible to stop; women will seek abortions anyway, and possibly achieve them by more dangerous methods. Yet few would seem to be comfortable with extending this principle to the perennial problems of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of children: since it is going to happen anyway, whatever the law says, better to decriminalize it and provide a sterile environment!

As Evangelium Vitae points out, it is a primary function of the criminal law to ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for their innate rights, such as the right to life.

Likewise Pope John Paul has observed that: “Certainly the purpose of civil law is different and more limited in scope than that of the moral law. The real purpose of civil law is to guarantee an ordered social co-existence in true justice, so that all may ‘lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way’ (1 Tim 2:2). Precisely for this reason, civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being).” Although laws are not the only means of protecting human life, nevertheless they do play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behavior. (EV 71

Msgr. Anthony Fisher is a Dominican priest from Australia.