Is Abortion the Preeminent Issue of Catholic Social Justice?

Abortion is the pre-eminent issue in violence and barbarism, in magnitude and due to the natural order of rights.

Crowds gather in Washington for the 44th annual March for Life, Jan. 27, 2017.
Crowds gather in Washington for the 44th annual March for Life, Jan. 27, 2017. (photo: Jeff Bruno/CNA)

On Nov. 12, while the assembled bishops of the USCCB debated the language of an accompanying letter to a Catholic voting guide, Bishop McElroy of San Diego took the microphone and proclaimed, “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face in the world of Catholic social teaching.”

I may have missed his point due to the awkward phrasing. It should be clarified, however, that there are numerous distinct and definitive ways to illustrate that abortion is in fact the preeminent issue of Catholic social teaching.

Abortion is the pre-eminent issue in terms of gravity. In 850 pages of text, The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the word “abominable” in reference to a sin exactly once. It occurs in paragraph 2271, which states that “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” The Catechism goes further: “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense.” The Code of Canon Law indicates that procuring or committing an abortion earns one an automatic excommunication “by the very commission of the offense. (1314)” In fact, it is a sin considered so grave that it required the bishop to sacramentally absolve (though Pope Francis now allows priests to forgive the sin in Confession).

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope Saint John Paul II condemns abortion, without exception, dozens of times and extensively documents that the Church has condemned abortion for two millennia. Though he condemns other sins against the Fifth Commandment in the document, he mentions “abortion” no fewer than eighty-one times, illustrating that abortion is a uniquely grave violation. He bluntly states, “Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable.” 

In a rather striking passage, Pope Saint John Paul II makes a statement that fulfills the requisites of papal infallibility: “Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.”

Pope John Paul also stresses that the unborn baby is not the only victim in the process, but that mothers who are pressured by friends and family are often unwilling victims of abortion.

Abortion is the pre-eminent issue in violence and barbarism. Though the actual process of abortion is intentionally obscured in political circles by words like “choice” and “rights,” it can be easy to forget that the little victims of abortion are burned or ripped apart one arm or leg at a time. No criminal, regardless of his crime, would ever be treated like this in the Western world, yet the innocent victims of abortion are treated like this every day. If you doubt this medical characterization, I would recommend viewing the Congressional testimony of Dr. Anthony Levatino, an OB/GYN who performed over 1,200 abortions in his career.

Abortion is the pre-eminent issue in magnitude. Abortion has been the method of execution for over sixty million innocent babies since 1973 in America. That’s the equivalent of the populations of Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Puerto Rico, Utah, Iowa, Nevada, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Washington D.C., Vermont, and Wyoming—combined.

But that only tells part of the story. In that same time frame, it is estimated that as many as two billion innocent babies have been aborted worldwide. That is more than twice the current population of the entire Western Hemisphere.

The magnitude of this devastation is, quite literally, incomprehensible.

Abortion is the pre-eminent issue due to the natural order of rights. There’s a reason that Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in that order. It’s the recognition of a fact once considered self-evident—the right to life precedes all other rights. It is inherently preeminent to other rights. In fact, without the right to life, no other rights can be said to exist. The rights to peaceably assemble, to worship freely, and to speak freely—these are rights that first necessitate the right to life.

Without the right to life, other “rights” are reduced to mere fictions born of nothing more than political fashions.

In closing, I would observe that the assembled American bishops of the Catholic Church stand on a moral precipice and risk stumbling into a deep chasm of irrelevance. Though there are notable and laudable exceptions, the American bishops have collectively done a horrifyingly scandalous job keeping their own houses in order. The last thing the bishops should ever consider doing is to turn their backs on the unborn. Rather, especially as the Church attempts to recover from failing to protect the innocence of children, it is time for the American bishops to redouble their efforts to protect the unborn—and all those who suffer from the scourge of abortion.