I recently lamented  that few Catholics listen to what their bishops have to say about politics, and that those who do listen are often more interested in arming themselves with rhetorical weapons against political adversaries than in allowing their own consciences to be formed by the Church. This is most evident on the question of abortion, where Catholics of various stripes continue to search for that one argument, that one point of doctrine, which might finally break the stranglehold that abortion has on our political life – and heal some of the deepest divisions within our own Church.
This past November, you may recall, the general assembly of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops considered a draft letter, which was to accompany the bishops’ document on faithful citizenship . The letter included this phrase: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority.”
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego took exception, arguing that such language was, “at least discordant with the pope’s teaching, if not inconsistent.” McElroy insisted, “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic Social Teaching. It is not.” The body of bishops thought the statement was acceptable, and the letter was issued  with the “preeminent” language intact.
Just this month, American bishops in Rome asked Pope Francis what he thought about calling abortion a “preeminent priority.” According to Archbishop Joseph Naumann , who was in the room, the Pope’s response was, “Of course, it is.”
This tussle over a single word – “preeminent” – was not a disagreement about whether abortion is right or wrong, nor whether abortion ought to be legal. The pope and bishops, including McElroy, are in agreement about those matters. And, of course, as Bishop McElroy rightly pointed out, abortion is not the only issue with a serious claim on the consciences of Catholics. I don’t know of any of his brother bishops who would disagree; Pope Francis certainly doesn’t.
But if abortion is the preeminent threat, then the prioritization of abortion has unmistakably political implications. And in political circumstances like ours – where one party is, at least at the national level, wholly devoted to the abortion license and one is not – those implications take on an unavoidably partisan cast.
And here’s where things get complicated for the bishops: Speak too forcefully against abortion and you are portrayed as a partisan. Speak too little about abortion – or even too much about anything else – and you are portrayed as a partisan. One half of American Catholics seem to think the bishops are a bunch of closet Democrats and the other half think the bishops are in the tank for Republicans.
So what is a bishop to do? Remain silent to avoid controversy? Twist or truncate the truth to avoid the charge of partisanship from one or both sides? No. Bishops need to speak the whole truth. And so they have:
The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed. At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty, and the death penalty.
This is the full statement to which Bishop McElroy objected. His objection was that the passage could be twisted to suggest that only abortion matters, not those “other issues.” Plenty of Catholics share his concerns. To some Catholics, the prominent inclusion of “other issues” muddies the waters, even inviting the sort of moral equivalence that often masquerades as a consistent ethic of life.
In short, the bishops’ statement will leave many Catholics unsatisfied precisely because it does not answer the question American Catholics really want to know: Who are Catholics supposed to vote for?
American Catholics want a political silver bullet; what the bishops have given them is frustratingly, maddeningly – and rightly – something else.
The bishops are charged with forming the consciences of the faithful so they can carry out their responsibilities as citizens in service to justice and the common good. This requires an understanding of what the Church teaches, but it also requires both bishops and the faithful to understand the complex circumstances in which citizens must exercise their moral judgment.
Knowing the relevant moral principles is not enough. Those principles must be applied to particular, and often contentious, circumstances. To do this well requires the virtue of prudence. Notice, prudence is a virtue – a habit – it’s not just another name for judgment. Not all judgments are prudent!
The Church insists that a politician who supports abortion, like a voter who casts a ballot with the intention of supporting abortion, formally cooperates with great evil. But the Church doesn’t teach that we should vote for whichever candidate is most strongly opposed to abortion – because that’s not always true. And the Church doesn’t say we can never vote for someone who supports an intrinsic evil – because that’s not true, either. And the Church doesn’t say that all threats to life and dignity are morally equivalent – because they’re not.
Abortion is not the preeminent threat because it’s intrinsically evil, though it is. There are places in our world today where it is not the preeminent threat. There was a time when abortion was not the preeminent threat here. But in this country, in this time and place, nothing is less consistent with the defense of human life – nothing rends the “seamless garment” more – than abortion. Abortion tears apart families, poisons our politics (and our Church) and destroys innocent life on an industrial scale.
So abortion is not the only threat to human life and dignity in this country, but it is the preeminent threat. The bishops haven’t provided a silver bullet. They haven’t told us who to vote for. But they have given us what we need.
Voting remains our responsibility; for it, we will each have to answer. Pray, hard, for prudence.
*Image: Mural in Argentina depicting St. Oscar Romero and Pope Francis [photo by Sarah Pabst/Financial Times]