Some Political Issues
Should Be More Important
Than Others for Catholics
Are some issues in the upcoming election more important than others? Absolutely.
I say that as a long-time advocate of whats called a Consistent Life
Ethic. My thinking has always been that the alternative to a Consistent
Life Ethic is an Inconsistent Life Ethic, which doesnt make sense.
Prolife Catholics have really no choice but to be consistently prolifethat
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. Lets assume
something for the sake of argument that is by no means self-evidentthat
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 its difficult and at times inappropriate to compare this
injustice with that injustice. But when it comes to comparing
the evils of the Iraq warassuming as we have that its unjustthere
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 assaultthrough illegal activitybut 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, lets 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, lets assume that such justifying circumstances dont
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 theres 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 isnt an argument to ignore capital punishmentassuming its
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 ones life are important, too, not
simply the fact one is alive. Of course it isnt enough that prolife
people support the right to life. The principle that upholds the right
to lifethe dignity of the human persontells 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 youre alive, we cant talk meaningfully about the conditions
of your life. Unless you have the right to life, its 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 rightsfor
example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to cultureis
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
concernseven very important ones such as capital punishment or the
Iraq warare 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.