The Pro-Life USCCB Voter’s Guide

Twice now I’ve published articles here arguing that: a Catholic with a properly formed conscience cannot vote for a candidate who favors allowing abortion over one who favors restricting it – any more than a Catholic with a properly formed conscience could have voted for a candidate who favored allowing slavery over one who favored restricting it

Several people since have asked about the USCCB voter’s guide: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”  My answer: while I have rather strong reservations about some wording in the document, and although I think the approach the document takes eviscerates its rhetorical force, all-in-all, it’s hard to accuse the authors of not beating the drum against abortion. 

In a thirty-page document with very large type, abortion comes up no fewer than fourteen times – indeed, it shows up on nearly every page. You can’t read far before you find a sentence prohibiting abortion.  Permit me a few examples:  

    • “There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called “intrinsically evil” actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others.” (22)
    • “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.” (26)
    • “Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity: The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” (27-8)
    • “Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.” (34)
    • “The Holy Father, in a particular way, called on Catholic politicians and legislators to recognize their grave responsibility in society to support laws shaped by these fundamental human values, and urged them to oppose laws and policies that violate life and dignity at any stage from conception to natural death.” (39)
  • “A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” (42)
Is that clear enough?

Some have faulted the USCCB document for equating abortion with other issues. That’s not entirely fair.  The document states repeatedly that “some issues involve principles that can never be violated, such as the fundamental right to life. Others reflect [a] judgment about the best way to apply Catholic principles to policy issues.” (63) The latter, admits the document, are matters “for principled debate and decision.” 

Above all, though, the document insists: “It is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.” (37) 

The document seeks repeatedly to affirm the priority of abortion while not diminishing the importance of the other important issues we face.  Doesn’t that make sense?  We can’t cease concerning ourselves with health care, concern for the poor, the debt crisis, and marriage and family issues until and unless the scourge of abortion is ended: “Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision,” says the document, “this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues.” (29) 

Of course not.  What if there were two pro-life candidates running against one another?  Can we just forget that election or the issues involved?  Absolutely not.

In that regard, however, consider this: What would happen if the pro-abortion party in the country – the one dedicated to keeping out any pro-life candidates or voices – were guaranteed to lose 90 percent of the Catholic vote given their stance on abortion?  There is an odds-on chance that the pro-abortion party might not remain entirely pro-abortion. 

We might finally have a real election again between two parties and candidates with roughly equal claims on our moral concern.  And then we could consider those other important issues. We’ll never get there, however, as long as some people keep bellying up to the bar with the guy we all know is a sad, dangerous, and self-destructive alcoholic who, when he gets a few drinks in him, kills babies.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.