Forming a Catholic Conscience Print
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.

 

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