I have never before encountered, either in correspondence, after Sunday liturgies or just in casual conversations, such intense concern and confusion over faith and politics as I do nowadays. The issue is abortion. Unlike most of the moral imperatives that Jesus articulates in the Gospel, unlike the seven deadly sins and unlike the challenges of popes and bishops concerning injustice, world poverty and wars—all of which seem so easily ignored or relativized—abortion somehow commands moral attention.
While it is always a mistake to fixate ethics on one aspect of life (this easily allows people to ignore the rest of faith and morals), it is understandable that abortion has become such a divisive and disturbing issue in America. We have the most permissive abortion laws on the face of the earth; and any attempt to provide restrictions like those in Europe is decried by pro-choice extremists as an assault on womanhood. It is difficult to imagine any open-minded person believing a 12-week fetus is anything but a living being, a human being, but we have legalized the right to kill such human beings brutally if only someone wants to do it. This should be troublesome to any thoughtful person.
As it turns out, there are some Catholic politicians who see no problem. Senators Kennedy, Kerry, Durbin, Harkin and Mikulski, among others, all receive 100 percent ratings from a major abortion rights organization.
In an effort to challenge the false but growing impression that it is acceptable for a Catholic to support abortion on demand, the American bishops have recently released Catholics in Political Life. Taking up their duty to teach the faith clearly, the bishops counsel Catholic public officials that their acting consistently to support abortion on demand risks making them cooperators in evil in a public manner. Reiterating their commitment to advocacy in public dialogue as well as direct action on behalf of life, they also state that Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. As for the reception of the Eucharist, we are reminded that we are all required to examine our consciences, including our fidelity to the moral teaching of the church, lest we receive the body of Christ unworthily.
I hope that every Catholic in the nation can have a copy of this document. Equally valuable would be Archbishop William Levada’s Reflections on Catholics in Political Life and the Reception of Holy Communion, also made available by the Conference of Catholic Bishops in June on their Web site (www.usccb.org/bishops/reflections.htm).
Archbishop Levada’s article is important for the following reasons: a) it responds to questions raised by 48 Catholic members of Congress who wrote to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick about the withholding of Communion; b) it addresses the relationship between faith, ethics and politics; c) it explains why opposition to abortion is so central to Catholic ethics; and d) it offers a timely discussion of what it means to cooperate in intrinsically evil actions.
This last point is particularly significant for the present controversy. Archbishop Levada explains that a Catholic voter may not formally cooperate in evil by directly participating and intending to abet the killing of innocent life, but if the intention to support abortion is not one’s reason for supporting a candidate, it would not be sinful cooperation.
The cogency of this distinction, however, seems lost in much of the confusion and concern I mentioned above. The bishops, not wanting to constrain any among themselves, noted in their document that individual bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action. Thus, at least according to news reports, there now seem to be divergent judgments about formal cooperation. Some bishops are reported to have announced that all Catholics who vote for a candidate who supports embryonic stem cell research or abortion rights should themselves refrain from Communion unless they repent.
A bishop may claim that he is not telling anyone how to vote, but he is telling you that you are mortally sinning if you vote for Kerry or Pataki. Catholics cannot, without grave threat to their souls, even vote for the current governor of New York or California, no matter his party. The pro-life Senator Rich Santorum, who supported his fellow Republican Senator Arlen Specter against a pro-life challenger, should repent before he receives Communion. And president Bush, who also supported Specter, should not be voted for, since support of a candidate presumably entails support of all that candidate’s positions. The Democratic party may honor its pro-choice politicians, but what shall we say of a Republican Party convention that now honors its pro-choice moderates with prime-time speaking slots?
Some Catholics have wondered whether mortal sins vary according to states and dioceses. Others question whether they should vote at all. It is urgent, then, that bishops continue to provide clear teaching. They should make the case in the public square for the inviolability of human life, even at conception, without appealing to their own authority. They should demand that Catholic Democrat and Republican candidates who legally tolerate but do not ethically approve abortion under certain circumstances (rape, incest, threat to life of the mother) provide leadership and strategies to reduce abortions. Finally, they should help us reflect on the moral challenges of citizenship in a secular society. Without such continued and unified clear teaching, neither formation of conscience nor protection of the unborn will be well served.