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The Place of Abortion in Catholic Social Teaching

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 Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.