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Some Political Issues Should Be More Important Than Others for Catholics

Mark Brumley

Are some issues in the upcoming election more important than others? Absolutely. I say that as a long-time advocate of what’s called a Consistent Life Ethic.  My thinking has always been that the alternative to a Consistent Life Ethic is an Inconsistent Life Ethic, which doesn’t make sense.  Prolife Catholics have really no choice but to be consistently prolife—that is, to defend human life against all attacks and to support whatever fosters respect for human life, including insofar as possible the conditions under which human life is actually lived.

Some prolife activists have been wary of, if not outright hostile to, the Consistent Life Ethic.  This is because some people mistakenly claim that prolifers must view all issues touching on human life as equally important.  Such a view is sometimes called the Seamless Garment approach to life issues, although not all proponents of the Seamless Garment approach think all life issues equally important. 

How can someone consistently prolife hold some life issues to be more important than others?  The answer is simple.  Some threats to human life are more immediate, more far-reaching, and graver than other threats. 
Consider the issues of abortion and the Iraq war.  Let’s assume something for the sake of argument that is by no means self-evident—that the war in Iraq is unjust. Legalized abortion is without question unjust because it amounts to state-approved killing of millions of innocent, helpless babies.  How do these two things compare with each other?

Often it’s difficult and at times inappropriate to compare this injustice with that injustice.   But when it comes to comparing the evils of the Iraq war—assuming as we have that it’s unjust—there is no comparison.   American forces in Iraq are not deliberately and directly killing millions of innocent, helpless human beings.  You might argue that the number of civilian casualties in Iraq is too high to justify the war.  You might make the case that abuses of civilians are far greater than the Bush administration admits.   But it would be absurd to argue that 1, 300,000 people were being killed as a result of American policy in Iraq. 

Not so with abortion.  Last year, abortion destroyed 1,300,000 human lives.  And not in the way, say, thousands of people died as a result of criminal assault—through illegal activity—but as the result of government-approved killing.  Legalized abortion is not the consequence of an abuse of policy but the consequence of an abusive policy, one that allows certain human beings to kill other human beings, with the killers’ actions backed up by the police power of the state. Where government should uphold the right to life of unborn babies, it intentionally allows over a million of them to be killed each year through abortion.

There simply is, then, no legitimate comparison between the evil of abortion and the war in Iraq, even on the assumption that the war is unjust.  What about another “life issue,” capital punishment?

Again, let’s assume for the sake of argument that capital punishment, as it is practiced in the U.S., is unjust.  I add the qualification “as it is practiced in the U.S.” to help specify things because not all uses of capital punishment are wrong, as far as Catholicism goes.  The Catholic Church recognizes the right of the state, under certain circumstances, to use the death penalty (CCC 2267).  Whether those circumstances presently exist in the U.S. is an interesting question to debate.  For the argument here, though, let’s assume that such justifying circumstances don’t exist.

Where does that leave us with respect to capital punishment and the issue of abortion?  According to one anti-death penalty advocacy group, there were 65 executions in 2003.  I would say, “Compare that to 1.3 million abortions in 2003,” but of course once again there’s no comparison.  Over a million innocent human beings were killed in 2003 through abortion, while less than a hundred human beings, at least some of whom are arguably not innocent, were killed through capital punishment. That isn’t an argument to ignore capital punishment—assuming it’s unjustly applied in the U.S.—but it is an argument against lumping them together as if they were on more or less the same level.

Some people object to prolife advocates’ emphasis on life issues on the grounds that the conditions of one’s life are important, too, not simply the fact one is alive. Of course it isn’t enough that prolife people support the right to life.  The principle that upholds the right to life—the dignity of the human person—tells us we should be concerned with the conditions under which life is lived.

Nevertheless, as a matter of sheer commonsense, protecting the right to life has a practical priority over the right to a certain condition or standard of life, even though the latter is also important.   Why?  Because unless you’re alive, we can’t talk meaningfully about the conditions of your life.  Unless you have the right to life, it’s nonsense to talk about having other rights.  Pope John Paul II put it this way:

The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination (Christifideles Laici, no. 38).

Yes, issues such as health care, unemployment, homelessness, education, and poverty are significant ones. Someone genuinely committed to the dignity of the human person and for that reason genuinely committed to the right to life should, as we have said, also support efforts to ensure that people have access to health care, jobs, homes, education, and sufficient wealth to live a decent human life. That is the sense in which prolife people must have a Consistent Life Ethic.

But those without health care, job opportunities, homes, schooling and economic means include 1.3 million babies who were killed last year through abortion.  When they were deprived of their lives, they were deprived of the opportunity for health care, of a chance to begin a life leading to work, of having a home, of eventually attending school, and of attaining any economic means whatsoever.  The logical priority of the right to life is unavoidable. 

Abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell experimentation, human cloning, and same-sex marriage have been called non-negotiable issues in certain Catholic circles.  Why?  Because they involve intrinsic evils that government can never legitimately authorize. They involve issues on which all Catholics are obliged, as Catholics, to agree.  Most other concerns—even very important ones such as capital punishment or the Iraq war—are subjects about which Catholics can legitimately disagree.  Not so with the five non-negotiable issues.   On these issues there is such a thing as the Catholic position, whether or not certain Catholics choose to embrace that position.

Cardinal Ratzinger made this point recently in connection with abortion and euthanasia on the one hand and capital punishment and war on the other.  In his letter, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,” he set out general principles regarding reception of the Eucharist by those who support abortion rights and euthanasia. Ratzinger wrote, “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage way, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

Given the nature of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, the same absolute prohibition that applies to abortion and euthanasia applies to these things.  Likewise, Catholic teaching requires an absolute opposition to same-sex marriage.

Catholics have an obligation to form their consciences according to the teaching of the Church.  That teaching allows a wide range of conscientious judgments on a number of important, political issues.   Abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell experimentation, human cloning, and same-sex marriage are not among those issues.  On these subjects there is but a single legitimate “Catholic position.” When it comes to legal support for these issues, one can be Catholic or “prochoice,” but not Catholic and “prochoice.” 



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved