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The Place of Abortion in Catholic Social Teaching Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Thursday, 03 September 2009

The death and funeral of Edward M. Kennedy set off yet another round in the confused arguments among Catholics about the place of abortion in Catholic social teaching. Yet that teaching is clear for all who take a moment to look into it.

Some were appalled that this paladin of abortion rights received a public funeral Mass. Others countered that Kennedy may have dissented on abortion but this was surely overshadowed by his support for social justice. You cannot deny, they claimed, that on balance Kennedy fostered a culture of life.

Senator Kennedy never made these arguments himself. In fact, quite the opposite. He regarded the right to kill an infant in the womb on a par with alleviating poverty. Even the blog of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal has recognized that Kennedy did not believe in the much-touted Seamless Garment. Still, social justice advocates defend people like Kennedy along two lines.

First, they say that abortion is on par with other social justice issues, and does not take preeminence over war, social inequality, and the like. A deficiency about abortion can be made up by advocacy on the others. A second part of the argument claims one is working against abortion when you are working to reduce poverty, to improve education, and so forth.

This springs at least partly from a tortured reading of John Paul the Great’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Paul Lauritzen wrote about it in Commonweal some years ago, “the document insists that promoting a culture of life and resisting a culture of death mean opposing poverty, hunger, war, torture, environmental degradation, and the death penalty, among other things. In other words, promoting a culture of life is not just about opposing abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia, and to the degree that it is about resisting these things, it is because opposing them is seen as protecting the weak. It is not about these things per se.” But it is about them per se, just as it is about the social justice questions per se. And it is difficult to see how any Catholic is authorized to leave any of those concerns to one side.

Besides, John Paul the Great was quite capable of explaining what he meant. He wrote in Christifidelis Laici: “Above all, 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.”

He wrote in Evangelium Vitae: “It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.”

And he is not the only one. In a letter to the U.S. bishops before the 2004 election, then Cardinal Ratzinger explained: “If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, 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."

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in its Declaration on Procured Abortion: “The first right of the human person is life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others.”

In its 1989 Resolution on Abortion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote: “Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. It is imperative that those who are called to serve the least among us give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice.” (Italics added)

One could go on. Teachings from all levels of the Church call attention to abortion’s pride of place among concerns about life. The Church, of course, also has proper concerns for other social issues. Yet abortion is consistently put at the top of the list of concerns because the right-to-life is the foundation for all other rights. You can’t exercise a right to equality, or the right to healthcare, or peace or justice or anything else without first being born, which gives you a chance at life and its many joys and travails.

But another argument has been brought forward: that one may alleviate abortion by working on other issues that “build a culture of life,” a phrase from Evangelium Vitae. The president of the World Youth Alliance took this to absurd levels arguing that putting on swing dances builds a culture of life and therefore works against abortion. Similarly, a high-ranking Catholic in a chivalric order defended his group’s inaction on abortion by saying the Order supports hospitals and, thus, builds a culture of life. That’s an obvious good. But meanwhile, thousands of infants are destroyed in the womb each day.

We Americans have many generous impulses, but we have become blinded and hardhearted by failure to protect the poorest and most defenseless among us – by abortion.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy.

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Comments (20)Add Comment
written by Jim Thunder, September 04, 2009
I might add that Sen Kennedy wrote the Pope saying that he "always" supported the "fundamental teachings of the Church." Clearly he did not think that the teaching of the Church on abortion from the first century AD was fundamental. He was fundamentally wrong.
written by Bradley, September 04, 2009
Cardinal O'Malley had comments on his blog this week). He discusses the Kennedy funeral and is instructive about how to approach the hardened hearts that Mr. Ruse references: "We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people’s hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss".....
A Divided Church
written by Willie, September 04, 2009
Very Good! How often do you hear these days the bishops admonish those who would promote abortion and sacriligiosly confront the altar? Cardinal O'Malley was in a tough situation especially in Boston where the Church has suffered so much from scandal. At a recent retreat the priest admonished us to "remember the seamless garment." I do wonder how many clergy want to really believe the teachings of the Church. As so often in past history the laity needs to remind the Church of the Truth.
written by Robert Royal, September 04, 2009
Cardinal O'Malley's text is available in a link under Commentary in the left-hand column.
From Holland
written by Jos, September 04, 2009
Mr. Ruse, perhaps you can actually gain some insight on this from Holland. I read your recent column, and you failed to mentioned that the secular Dutch, controlled by "radicals", have an abortion rate that is less than half of that in the United States.
Holland abortion rate
written by Tim, September 04, 2009
To say that secular Holland's abortion rate is less than half that of the US doesn't tell me much. What was their abortion rate before they became so secularized (they weren't always that secular).? Also, the abortion rate in the US was very low before Roe v. Wade at a time when the US was far more Christian than it is today. If you torture a statistic it will say anything you want it to.
written by Austin Ruse, September 04, 2009
Actually, Holland, controlled by radical secularists, has a better abortion law than the United States so it would make sense that their abortion rate would be lower. The US has the most radical abortion law in the world; abortion through all 9 months of pregnancy for any reason, for no reason. Of course, Ireland, where abortion is illegal, has an even LOWER abortion rate than Holland. (and in case you are so tempted to counter; Ireland also has the lowest maternal mortality rate in the world).
To Mr. Ruse
written by Jos, September 04, 2009
Mr. Ruse, I don't disagree with your analysis. It all makes sense. Perhaps, instead of choosing the Netherlands for the World Congress because it "embodies the kind of culture traditionally minded people abhor", you should next choose a site in the United States. The culture there seems to produce much more radical abortion results (both laws and numbers) than Holland.
Sacred Right
written by Bill, September 04, 2009
As a young Boston priest, the late Cardinal John Wright put it this way: the rights of the unborn child are "the rights of a human, and of a human incapable of pleading his own right, and therefore with a greater claim, not a lesser, on the protection of the state." (Resonare Christum, Vol I, page 24).
written by David, September 04, 2009
I hope that the author does not suggest either:
- solely by opposing abortion, one has somehow embraced a minimally adequate standard of Catholic social teaching; other grave sins exist (eg, 25,000!! children die daily) and command our action; opposing abortion is central, first and mandatory, but not sufficient by itself
- that on matters where diversity of opinion is permitted (eg, war, death penalty), the teachings of the Pope/bishops carry only as much weight as a lay person's opinion
herd mentality
written by tim mccarthy, September 04, 2009
You can not roller skate in a buffalo herd, and when 75% of catholics use the pill, their duplicitous hearts will not allow for the cessation of abortion on demand. The only chance we have is a return to Tradition and the Vetus Ordo, while trying to conform to the message at Fatima of Our Lady, or this will be fixed by God, with the minor chastisement that many of the Church Fathers spoke of and which the post Vatican II Council Church finds inconvenient.
written by Charles Molineaux, September 04, 2009
Card. O'Malley's defensive comments were rather pathetic.
He came in to Boston, of course, as the relief pitcher after the departure of the disgraced Bernard Law; the lesson is that it's a rather thin bench of bishops in the bullpen.
written by Cavaliere, September 04, 2009
Bradley, it is certainly necessary to change hearts but in fact many hearts have changed and many laws enacted at local and state levels to reduce abortion. Unfortunately while Roe v. Wade remains they are almost always overturned by the Supreme Court and who was the most vocal opponent of getting pro-life judges on the court, none other than Teddy K.
In defense of bishops
written by PIo, September 05, 2009
To Mr. Molineaux:
There is no other way to say it: please, grow up! Our bishops are not professional ballplayers, traded in a draft and competing with one another. Each is called by God to watch over His flock, with his unique charism. Still, they remain human, with imperfections (in a way, that's fitting, given Peter's bumpy road to faith). But they all remain shepherds and teachers. I agree with David that their examples and teachings should not be taken lightly.
written by BillG, September 05, 2009
So, some feel that Sen Ted's defending the right of mothers to kill unborn children is "offset" by his desire that the state not kill heinous murderers of post-born people. What PJ O'Rourke said regarding Liberals and Conservatives on the subject of the death penalty and abortion applies well: "A pious Christian would sanction neither. A callous pragmatist would allow both. But it takes years of therapy to maintain the Liberal's position on the matter"
written by Holtmann, September 05, 2009
Abortion is MURDER. Plain and simple. It has been proven long ago and is an irrefutable medical FACT.Therefore, anyone who supports abortion, automatically ceases to be Catholic. And thus forfeits his or her right for a Catholic burial. Until publicly repudiates his or her stance and brings it in accordance to the Church teachings.

As Ted Kennedy never publicly repented, he should have been denied Catholic funeral. And it's a great shame that neither USCCB nor Vatican had the courage to do it.
written by Martin Snigg, September 05, 2009
Cardinal O'Malley's concern evaporates when the chief shepherd does his job properly. Which is why Bishop Martino was so charitable. His charity was such that it wouldn't even cross a grieving family's mind to ask for a grand public funeral if their relative was a vigorous abortion proponent.
Terms - Half and Full
written by Watcher, September 05, 2009
"Social justice" is a Marxist formulation that has far reaching implications. There is no need for another term than "justice". What is called social justice can be handled by what used to be called charity - from the word caritas. As Christians we are required to help the poor, the weak, the sick and the un-defended. Killing the unborn for reasons of lifestyle is in direct opposition to justice (and charity) - that's why the nonsense term social justice was invented.
written by suzie, September 06, 2009
So often I hear Catholics who are liberal say, "Abortion is not the only issue." No, it isn't but it is the FIRST issue. With out life, nothing else matters. Consider the BTK killer. He was a seemingly normal guy. Went to church, gave his time to volunteer with Boy Scouts, etc... but his crimes overshadowed any good he had done... Same with pro-abortion people. Abortion is murder and any good is over shadowed by the fact that they advocate for the right of a woman and doctor to murder.
This is non-negotiable
written by Roberto Riveros, September 06, 2009
I humbly think that either you are cold or hot. But being lukewarm, is something Jesus hated or disliked in persons. So, either you are a 100% Catholic and coherent, or you are not.

This relativism in the Church confuses persons. And we have a plethora of relativism in mass media, why welcome even more?

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