The Catholic Thing
Forming a Catholic Conscience Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 11 October 2012

Now I know why Lincoln lost to Douglas.

Several weeks ago, a column appeared here in which I suggested that a Catholic with a properly formed conscience cannot vote for a candidate who favors abortion over one who favors restricting it, any more than a Catholic with a properly formed conscience could have justifiably voted for a pro-slavery or pro-Nazi candidate in times past.  

The response suggests it’s easy to lose sight of what’s truly important in a mass of secondary issues.

Some suggested that I had compared Obama with Hitler, even though the president’s name didn’t appear anywhere in the article. This was merely a confusion about analogies, which always involve a comparison of dissimilar things. 

If I say that a rosary is to a Dominican as a sword is to a soldier, I have not equated Dominicans with soldiers. Rather, I have contrasted the Dominican’s relationship to his rosary with the soldier’s relationship to his sword (they’re both worn at the waist). My point was that, as voters in previous generations had crucial moral challenges they had to face, so do we.

Others replied with the specious notion that cuts in Medicare might bring about an increase in abortions, even though there’s no statistical evidence for this; not to mention: (A) if we don’t do something about Medicare now, more serious cuts will be in the offing, and (B) we can’t make reliable choices based upon possible consequences that we can’t really predict.  

We wouldn’t have much patience today for someone who in 1858 argued that he was going to vote for Douglas because, if the economy got better, the pressure to extend slavery might diminish. 

What would we say about such voters if the economy didn’t get better – indeed, if it got much worse – and they still insisted on voting for Douglas again? You would start to wonder whether their professed concern for the slaves was merely a pose, covering up their real interests.

There were also those who claimed that certain modern anti-abortion candidates weren’t anti-abortion enough, or that “it wouldn’t make any difference.”  Similar claims were made in Lincoln’s day: that he wasn’t anti-slavery enough (indeed, he wasn’t), or that he wouldn’t really be able to change anything.  But that was mere sophistry. 

We don’t live in a world of perfect candidates. But consider this. The day an anti-abortion president takes office:

  • requirements against using foreign aid for abortions goes back into effect,
  • as do the regulations against embryonic stem cell experimentation,
  • not to mention that we might get a replacement Supreme Court justice (or two) who would vote against abortion rather than reliably in favor it, which would certainly not happen otherwise.

The only way to refute the proposition that a Catholic with a properly formed conscience cannot vote for a candidate who favors abortion over one who favors restricting it, any more than a Catholic with a properly formed conscience could have justifiably voted for a pro-slavery or pro-Nazi candidate, would be to argue that:

(A) a Catholic with a properly formed conscience could have justifiably voted for a pro-slavery or pro-Nazi candidate (Does anyone really agree with that?), or
(B) abortion is not as grave a moral evil as slavery or Nazi genocide. 

It’s important to understand that the judgment about the moral gravity of abortion is not mine; it is the Church’s. Procuring an abortion or formally cooperating in one is an automatic excommunication under canon law (canon 1398).

The 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated: “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others.”

In Christifideles Laici, John Paul II declared that:

The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. 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 of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. . . 

In Evangelium Vitae, moreover, John Paul made clear that, although there are a wide array of life issues and attacks on human dignity about which we must be actively concerned, abortion and euthanasia are of “another category” and of “extraordinary seriousness.” 

And in 1998, in “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” the U.S. bishops declared that:

Bringing a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be a daunting task. There is such a wide spectrum of issues involving the protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity. Good people frequently disagree on which problems to address, which policies to adopt and how best to apply them. But for citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life. . . .In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in His image. Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option. It is always a grave act of violence against a woman and her unborn child.

The Church has not been unclear on this issue. The question is whether Catholics consider themselves obligated to form their consciences according to the repeated teaching of their Church and then act accordingly, or whether they will engage in the moral equivalent of covering their ears and shouting: “la-la-la-la-la”? 

Those who have ears, let them hear. The blood of our children cries out to us from the ground.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (27)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 11, 2012
One candidate supports partial-birth abortion (obama) and one does not (Romney). Lest any of you Catholics out there missed it, here's the procedure I am referring to:

1. take one full term healthy baby girl who is about to be delivered by its mother
2. partially allow her head to emerge from the womb
3. insert a scissor into the base of her skull and, once inserted, open the scissor to make the incision wider
4. insert a canula into the incision and suck out the contents of her brain in order to produce her death.

Now, if any practicing Catholic can still go ahead and vote for Obama, there's little elee that can be said other than that you have a very disordered conscience.

Oh, and by the way, this same Obama proposed as a State Senator from Illinois that if the proposed aborted baby girl should survive, a "mother" has the "right" to have her live baby girl murdered since it was her intetion not to have this baby. Oh, natural law, oh, absolute rights and wrongs, where are you?
written by Jack,CT, October 11, 2012
Could not agree more Deacon Ed.

We also need to aknowledge that the society will
begin to 'Accept other EVILS as well when Abortion
is considered "OK",such as assisted suicide and
Euthanasia.I hope we relize this!
The "Evils will not end with Abortion",we will
start to see Liberal states debating such evils
as one state is already.
God Bless our children every last
one of the 3,500 that are killed in America every
single day and dumped in dumpsters.
written by Achilles, October 11, 2012
The self-deceit of nominal Catholics who rationalize a vote for obama is beyond the pale. I think all our social issues are because of the big government's, the feminist's, main stream media's, public education's and big business' successful attacks on the family, and what do Catholics with unformed consciences want to do? Further destroy the family by voting for the demonstrably worst and most murderous president in US history.
Sure, Romney is no real boy scout, but he appears to be closer to Mother Theresa when held up to Obama.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Rob, October 11, 2012
Prof. Smith seems to be unaware of Gov. Romney's comment earlier in the week.

"There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda," said Romney.

The Etch-A-Sketch is being shaken again. At least Prof. Smith makes no effort to defend Gov. Romney's record on abortion which is bad but certainly better than President Obama.

Perhaps Gov. Romney would be more open to the Church's teachings on life if he was a Christian.

The best thing to do is clear. If you are in one of the ten states or so that actually matter in the Electoral College, vote for Gov. Romney. If you live in one of the vast majority of states that show no sign of being competitive, vote for a candidate who actually defends life--be it former Congressman Virgil Goode or Tom Hoefling or whoever.
written by John Abel, October 11, 2012
I agree with your fine article. However, it is discouraging to hear some of the local Jesuit priests say they are voting for Obama (mostly because of his social justice plans). I presume America magazine is also pro Obama.
written by jsmitty, October 11, 2012
Look I'm not voting for Obama so please don't assume that. But Mr. Smith the analogy to voting for Hitler is a terribly unconvincing one. It reaches no one but the most unreflective and committed partisans on the prolife side.

Word to the wise,Mr. Smith: the person who invokes Hitler in a public debate sounds is the person who has run out of arguments!! It's a desperate maneuver. It's the most tired debate trope of all by moral theologians who can't be troubled think of a better stock example of pure evil. It's a groaner. It's wearying even to people who agree with you on abortion, Mr Smith. This article was painful to read.

Come on now!! You are a moral theologian with a professional mission to communicate the Church's teaching on defending life in a participatory democracy. This is an important task and should be done thoughtfully. You are not writing to college freshmen who just learned about the Holocaust and who've never thought about moral issues before. Please, I beg you, get creative....and think of something new to say and, for the love of God, leave Hitler (sorry "voting for Hitler") out of it!!
written by Walter, October 11, 2012
Catholic voters are not necessarily pro-choice, but they do not vote blindly for pro-life candidates because the Church's official positions do not address key issues that voters legitimately raise:

1. The evidence suggests that the election of pro-life politicians does not affect the number of abortions. In the 39 years since Roe v. Wade, the best correlation (though far from perfect) with fewer abortions seems to be sustained economic growth. The number of abortions went up and the rate of abortion stayed flat under Presidents Reagan and Bush (41). The biggest declines in both numbers and rates came under President Clinton, who is pro-choice. President Bush (43) was arguably the strongest pro-life president, but the number and rate of US abortions barley moved during his two terms. The last year for which CDC data are available is 2008, and based on the data one can reasonably expect a jump in the number of abortions since President Obama took office not because he is pro-choice, but because of the Great Recession.

2. Women are the ones who make the decision to abort and, as such, hold primary moral culpability. The Church's bishops seem unable to grasp or speak to this truth and prefer to portray women primarily as defenseless victims (see the US Bishop's statement above), unable to comprehend moral truths or fend off the arguments of pro-choice advocates.

3. There is no discussion about how anti-abortion laws would be enforced. The Church should be forthright in saying that it supports prison terms for both abortion doctors and women seeking abortions.

4. The Church has forsaken the use of force in fighting the evil of abortion. However, it has historically defended the use of force in fighting evils like Nazi genocide. Comparisons with the Nazis liberally used in this debate, so why does the Church not advocate the legitimate use of force in the defense of innocent life? How is this different from the fight against the Nazis?
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 11, 2012
Abortion - 50,000,000 human lives destroyed in the USA alone (anybody want to venture a guess what the figure is when you add Europe, Australia and China's 'one-baby policy' to the mix?)

My conscience says to vote for the man who's pro-life. One does NOT have to be a Christian to understand what the natural law is and requires of us. One only has to use the reason available to him or her.
written by Athanasius, October 11, 2012
Great article. I wish to add that ultimately what we need is to teach the beauty of true Christian sexuality. If people really understood how beautiful God intended sexual activity to be when practiced properly in a marital act that is both open to life and love, then they would see how our promiscuous society profanes this. We have the tools in Blessed Pope John Paul II's theology of the body, and authors such as Christopher West and Carl Anderson have written excellent books accessible to catechists and lay people on the subject.

I fear that as long as we live in a society that prizes the casual sex, hook-up culture, then we will have an extremely uphill battle against legal abortion. People in the grip of unloving sex will not want to give up their "safety valve" against being responsible for their actions. We need to turn the vicious culture of profane sex into a virtuous culture of respect for marriage, family, and the role of the marital act in that relationship.

This means not only preaching anti-abortion, but teaching the truth against contraception. When people can curb their concupiscent sexual appetite, they will be more open the truth of abortion and the evils that follow it.
written by Tony, October 11, 2012
Know what amuses me? The high-handed way in which people on the left, for instance at Mother Times, berate Pope Pius XII for not speaking out forthrightly against the Nazis (despite the fact that he did just that, and that he did more than any other single human being did to save the Jews, far more than Roosevelt and Churchill did, for whose inaction all kinds of excuses are accepted), when they snort and sneer at the popes who now speak out forthrightly against this wash of bloodshed.

No, the pro-abortion crowd are not Nazis. All kinds of distinctions must be made to determine degrees of culpability, and certainly allowances must be made for sheer stupidity. BUT they share with all the secular movements of the last 100 years a repudiation of man as under God, in favor of a world in which man becomes his own god, a world which always ends up, as Whittaker Chambers pointed out long ago, and as the current pope points out, being organized AGAINST man. In this sense, the peasants in the Ukraine, the country folk in China, the poor Jews in Germany, and the unborn in the west all face the same enemy.
written by Sue, October 11, 2012
Arguments using Hitler are only bankrupt if they truly do not apply. If it was truly bad debating to compare somebody to Hitler, then cynical people would just go act like Hitler to be protected from being attacked. Which, actually, they seem to be doing.

Obama is not like Hitler. He's more like Stalin, because Romney's the one like Hitler, whose single note of (dare I say it?) legitimate appeal seemed to be that he wasn't the Communist (and would in fact, fight them).

For those who need refreshing, in 1932, Stalin callously engineered the starvation of the Kulaks in the Ukraine, to the point that there was significant cannibalism going on, even among family members. Sorry guys, I would much rather die by Hitler's gassing than Stalin's starving.

The threat of Communism was significant enough to inspire German voters to support Hitler. That they didn't really know or internalize Hitler's own problems is brought home by the fact that even in this country, in 1939, Princeton undergrads voted Hitler "Man of the Year".

Bringing us now to Romney. Not only do we know that Romney was joined-at-the-hip to Planned Parenthood in the past (his own "Mein Kampf"), but we know that *right now* he supports abortion not just for rape/incest babies but *also* for "health" of the mother. There's no telling where this word-weasel will lead us, but sorry folks, Romney is *also* someone who the Church cannot sanction supporting.

Thank you Rob for an inspired idea - I would love to hear more about the Catholic's viewpoint on Hoefling vs Goode in non-contested states.
written by Brian English, October 11, 2012
"So, one might ask reasonably and seriously whether killing inside the womb is any more egregious or sinful than killing outside of it?"

Reasonable people can disagree as to whether a specific war is in accord with Just War Doctrine. Reasonable people cannot disagree as to whether it is evil to murder an unborn child. If you don't believe me, track down Cardinal Ratzinger's 2004 letter to the US Bishops.
written by ron a., October 11, 2012
Well said Mr.Smith. Very well thought out and articulated. For me, your last lines really hit the mark. Truth be told, what we have, mostly, IS posturing and an adamant refusal to recognize the evil (as crystal clear as it is!) and, thereby, adopt a behavior that would, if not eliminate, greatly reduce this mindless Holocaust. Ears tightly shut: not a theoretical problem open to discussion: but, an existential problem.
written by Randall Smith, October 11, 2012
The Author Replies:

With regard to the "key issues that voters legitimately raise" mentioned by Walter:

1. There is an important statistic Walter did not mention, but that Deacon Ed wisely did: Since Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton became the law of the land, there have been 50 million abortions in the U.S. alone. The rate may go up, it may go down, but overall, the deaths steadily increase year after year. During that time, due to the composition of the Supreme Court, there have been very few meaningful restrictions allowed on abortion -- until recently.

2. Over the last twenty years, the deficit has sky-rocketed under politicians from both parties. Are we now to say that we shouldn't vote for senators and congressmen who pledge to cut the deficit simply because "pledging to cut the deficit" doesn't automatically mean the deficit gets cut? Consider the following argument: "The evidence suggests that the election of politicians pledging to reduce the deficit does not affect the reduction of the deficit." Therefore: don't vote for politicians who pledge to reduce the deficit because (the reasoning seems to go) of all the things that MIGHT reduce the deficit, electing politicians who pledge to do so is certainly the one thing guaranteed NOT to reduce the deficit. All sorts of OTHER things, it seems, are infinitely MORE likely to reduce the deficit, so electing people with the right position on the deficit becomes unimportant. Does anyone think that way on any other issue other than abortion? Certainly not, because the sophistry of the position is clear: If you favor reducing X, don't vote for people who favor reducing X. Huh?

And yet, it's true, all sorts of other things ARE important if our goal is to reduce abortion. Electing politicians does not solve the problem. But in a country of laws such as ours, it is unlikely -- in some ways impossible -- for us to make any headway reducing abortions (or the deficit) if our elected politicians make it legally difficult (or impossible) for us to do so.

2. Women ARE victims in abortion, period. They may cooperate in that evil; they may even willingly go along with it. But make no mistake: they are the ones who are damaged: morally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. To portray them as criminals who knowingly murder is to perpetrate a falsehood; it runs contrary to everything that people who work with such women will tell you about them.

4. There is plenty of discussion of how anti-abortion laws would be enforced. Anti-abortion laws were enforced before Roe v. Wade, and many states enforce laws restricting abortions now. Such laws are usually enforced the way all laws are enforced: imperfectly, because we live in an imperfect world. But by the same token, they reduce the number of abortions --- sometimes dramatically.

5. The Church has not ruled out "force" if by "force" you mean non-violent resistance. Non-violent resistance was an extremely powerful force when used by Solidarity in Poland and by Gandhi in India. If by force, you mean killing people, then, quite frankly, I'm not with you. You cannot re-establish the value of human life by taking human life.
written by Brian English, October 11, 2012
"There is plenty of discussion of how anti-abortion laws would be enforced. Anti-abortion laws were enforced before Roe v. Wade, and many states enforce laws restricting abortions now."

If you look at the history of abortion laws in this country, the procedure that developed was that the legal system would go after the abortionist, with the expectation that the woman who underwent the abortion would testify against him. So laws going after the abortionist and not charging the woman would actually be consistent with the traditional approach.
written by Brian English, October 11, 2012
"but we know that *right now* he supports abortion not just for rape/incest babies but *also* for "health" of the mother. There's no telling where this word-weasel will lead us, but sorry folks, Romney is *also* someone who the Church cannot sanction supporting."

So instead of voting for a guy who would permit abortion in 5% of the circumstances, don't vote, and put back in office a guy who supports abortion in 100% of situations, and would actually like to bring back partial-birth abortion. What a brilliant strategy.

written by kristinajohannes, October 11, 2012
JSmitty, i disagree with your point and here's why. For some reason evil is always more clearly recognized retroactively. Tony partially makes the point i was thinking.

It's easy for many to beat up on an old evil and those they think are responsible for it, but darn hard for many to see the scope of evil clearly in their own time (and their participation in it).

I feel certain that sometime in the future, generations will look back and blame Catholics for the spread of abortion, just like they try to do now for the Nazis. Take a snapshot of how it is today so you can explain it to your future relatives if it happens to occur in your lifetime.

Because what are the future scholars going to find? All kinds of so called Catholic politicians,leaders, and organizations that promote or facilitate abortion while at the same time publicly highlighting their supposed Catholicism. What will these same scholars balance that against? I wonder.
written by Seanachie, October 11, 2012
Well done, Randall. On the abortion issue alone, Obama and party cannont be the choice of a Catholic with a properly formed conscience. Good to see that you have rattled the cages of some Catholic (apparently) relativists regarding abortion. Let's hope your article contributes to properly forming their consciences and that a new administration committed to protecting innocent life, not tolerating/encouraging infanticide, is elected on November 6.
written by Walter, October 11, 2012
Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Professor. Two brief responses:

1. "Sophistry" misses the point.. My argument is based on statistics: at the presidential level, at least, voting for a pro-life president has not reduced abortion, but voting for a pro-choice president (Clinton) did reduce abortion significantly. Using statistical terms, there is a negative correlation over almost 40 years.. We should ask ourselves why. What worked under Clinton? Let's find out and use it.

2. Re. women as victims: the traditional approach might see women as victims. This does not square with 21st century realities. Women did not have many legal rights under "traditional approaches": they could not vote and were viewed legally as property of their husbands. Today, women are viewed differently by society and, at least in some respects, by the Church. Women do indeed suffer from the consequences of abortion, but they are neither incapable of understanding the gravity of the decision nor from taking responsibility for their actions or their bodies. Accordingly, they should not be absolved of legal responsibility.
written by Achilles, October 11, 2012
The ends do not justify the means it is the most pedantic sophistry that suggests a pro-abortion politician whose tenure witnesses a reduction in abortion is a viable candidate. "What do they teach these kids anymore, it is all in Plato."
written by Gian, October 11, 2012
I agree with Sue. It is American political correctness to hyperventilate about Nazis and regard them as epitome of evil.

In fact, upto 1939, the Nazis had not engaged in anything intrinsically evil, as far as I know.
The Germans had a chance to vote out Nazis upto 1934. Given the active Bolshevik menace, present both externally and internally, and knowing the fate of Bolshevik-ruled nations, the Germans were certainly not being evil in voting for Nazis. Stupid, may be but not doing anything intrinsically evil.
written by Sue, October 12, 2012
Gian, you have not read me correctly. I am not saying Nazis were not an epitome of evil, nor that they were not evil before 1939 (in fact, they ran some very soul-crushing euthanasia programs and concentration camp programs in the 30s).

What I am saying is that the Communists were just as bad, and that the German people faced a similar dilemma in 1932 as we do now. They had the disadvantage of being the first in recent history with such a poor choice between two major evils. They should have chosen the third option. We shouldn't get fooled again this time.
written by Achilles, October 12, 2012
The invoking of “Godwin’s Law” is one of the most childish stupidities of the ideologue. However it is instructive to illustrate how one can cling religiously to an “idea” no matter how ill fitted to describe a situation and how he might try to cram reality into it in a vain act of self-deceit. Faulty self-love and an overestimation of one’s intellectual faculties undergird all such ideological expressions.
The problem with prohibiting anyone from bringing up Hitler as a comparison is that the comparison may be appropriate. It is little more than a leftist censorship that they intolerantly label “tolerance”. It allows them to be ignorant of history and saves them the trouble of having to understand the ideas, social currents and dominant personalities that contributed to shaping events. In that sense it is a convenience, especially to the “independent minded herd”. That type of thinking might be better tried on the National Catholic Reporter, over there, they don’t let reality get in the way of the cafeteria grazing.
written by Brian English, October 12, 2012
"My argument is based on statistics: at the presidential level, at least, voting for a pro-life president has not reduced abortion, but voting for a pro-choice president (Clinton) did reduce abortion significantly."

Where are you getting your statistics from? According to Guttmacher, the abortion rate high was 29.3 in 1981, but had dropped to 25.0 by 1993 (a 4.3 drop in the Reagan/Bush I years). From 1993 to 2001 the rate dropped t0 21.1 (a 3.9 drop for Clinton). It dropped to 19.4 in 2005, but ticked up to 19.6 in 2008, and general opinion is that the rate is going to slightly go up once the new numbers come in. So the abortion rate has gone down during both pro-life and pro-choice presidencies, but slightly more under pro-life presidents.

But the larger point that "root causes" Catholics miss is that in 1996, during the middle of the Clinton years that you always talk about, there were 1.37 million abortions. Is that acceptable to you?
written by rewinn, October 13, 2012
Can a Catholic with a properly formed conscience vote for a man who personally wrote a check to pay for an abortion ... and does not regret it?
I suspect most here would say no. Then the question is, can a Catholic with a properly formed conscience vote for a man who paid for multiple in vitro fertilizations ... which resulted in the destruction of the unused embryos ... and does not regret it?
Such a man is Mitt Romney. He paid for in vitro fertilizations that produced at least two of his grandchildren (...and the contracts gave his sons the power to mandate abortion of fetuses he considered defective (!))

Vote for him at your peril.
written by Jack,CT, October 20, 2012
Have you ever heard of the greater of two
evils.The fact is Mr Romney is a man of
great character and a man whom is able to
"Recognize" his errors.
I fear our current President is proud of the
3,500 Murders daily!
just something to think about.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters