Oscar Wilde was right: Nothing succeeds like excess. In the race to November, polemics, not politics, prevail, and civility seems a lost art. In these contentious times, our bishops have offered their latest iteration of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The text is familiar, being a revision of the 2007 statement, duly amended over the last election cycles. Yet it, too, provokes controversy.
As in the past, the bishops address a variety of issues, but abortion remains “preeminent.” A footnote to the introductory letter tells us why. Abortion, unlike poverty, denial of asylum or the coronavirus pandemic, falls under the rubrics of “intrinsic evil.” That is, by its very nature, it “must always be rejected and opposed.” A bit later, the bishops cite the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith: “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”
The congregation goes on to say that a “political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good.”
As in the past, the bishops address a variety of issues, but abortion remains “preeminent.”
“Intrinsic Evil” Is Not a Conversation Stopper
What is implied by saying abortion is a “preeminent threat”? For the bishops, “the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.” Some bishops go further to assert that obeying this “special claim” requires no prudential deliberation. According to these bishops opposing “policies promoting intrinsically evil acts” is "nonnegotiable" (something Faithful Citizenship does not say), while differences regarding poverty, migration, the coronavirus pandemic, etc. are permissible. Laws permitting intrinsic evil, they say, are themselves intrinsically evil, so that voting for them (or even for someone supporting them) represents cooperation in evil.
Now to say an act is intrinsically evil is to say that it is never permissible. If an act falls under the description “abortion,” “artificial contraception,” etc., no further appeal to intentions or circumstances suffices to justify it. But to name an act “intrinsically evil” tells us little of its comparative moral gravity. St. Augustine believed that lying was always impermissible, but not all lies are equally grave. Nor are all equally grave acts intrinsically evil. Endemic poverty, despoiling the environment and neglecting those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic are gravely wrong even if they are not intrinsically evil.
To say abortion is intrinsically evil, then, is just to say that by its nature it is morally impermissible. Yet an act cannot be more or less impermissible; it simply is. And other acts or practices are no less intrinsically evil. Invoking modern human rights rhetoric in “Veritatis Splendor,” St. John Paul II extends the category to include “subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work.” And the bishops themselves describe racism as intrinsically evil.
To say an act is intrinsically evil is to say that it is never permissible. No further appeal to intentions or circumstances suffices to justify it.
If abortion is “preeminent,” it must thus be for some reason other than being intrinsically evil. For the bishops, dignity is decisive: “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.” Yet the bishops refer to “preeminent threats.” Indeed, they cite Pope Francis: “Equally sacred” are “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery and every form of rejection.”
Comparisons establishing “preeminence” cannot then be merely a function of intrinsic evil or the gravity of an individual act. As the bishops note, “abortion remains our preeminent priority” not only “because it directly attacks life itself” but “because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family” and “because of the number of lives destroyed.” Yet not even these criteria specify a “preeminent priority.” Recurrent famine threatens millions, as does failure to address the coronavirus pandemic; these, too, directly attack life and the sanctuary of the family. And as Pope Francis warns us, global warming and nuclear armament threaten humanity itself.
We may then speak of preeminent threats or, better (since, strictly speaking, only one threat can be a preeminent priority), of a preeminent set of threats. It is just because the sanctity of life is preeminent that equally grave threats to it take priority. To say abortion is “preeminent” can only be shorthand for recognizing all such threats to life and family, whether famine, genocide, systemic racism, global warming, the coronavirus pandemic, inter alia. None of these can be neglected; even if in the give and take of politics, voting addresses some threats better than others.
To say abortion is “preeminent” can only be shorthand for recognizing all such threats to life and family, whether famine, genocide, systemic racism, global warming, the coronavirus pandemic, inter alia.
Purity Is Not Policy
What vote will best protect the sanctity of life and family? Prudence must decide. And prudence, as the bishops remind us, looks at consequences. If the priority of abortion (or famine, systemic racism, the coronavirus pandemic, global warming, et al.) is relevant to voting, it is so, in part, “because of the number of lives” threatened. Voting, to be sure, registers my likes and dislikes; but it is never simply about me. Neither is voting merely a rite of professing belief. Doing right matters.
Public policy, after all, is not personal morality writ large on the body politic. Recognizing the moral gravity of abortion, I cannot procure it; no appeal to consequences is admissible. But the maxim governing personal choice cannot simply be imposed on others. At best, I must seek to persuade them; and as a limit case, I can support a legislative ban. I must, that is, attend prudentially to the consequences of my voting.
For St. John Paul II, a permissive law, e.g., one allowing abortion, may be morally flawed but voting for it does not represent complicity in “intrinsic evil,” if it limits “the harm done.” Realizing the political common good is always incremental. We must ask what politically feasible law or juridical decision will best protect the lives of the most vulnerable. And this, we saw, is an exercise of prudence. As the pope himself concludes, voting for such laws “does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”
Now, not all attempts are equally efficacious, nor does the priority of the issue determine the priority (efficacy) of the vote. Voting for a candidate may go far in guaranteeing expected results, e.g., when separating children from parents results from presidential decree. But sometimes the effects are not perspicuous. As history reminds us, voting for a president who opposes abortion means little should the president fail to act, and the sphere of action is limited. The president may appoint federal judges or a Supreme Court justice opposing abortion. Yet jurisprudence is not settled by personal beliefs, nor would overturning Roe vs. Wade, even if desirable, immediately ban abortion. The issue would be remanded to the states, some of which may adopt even more liberal policies. And one may doubt whether criminalizing abortion is always wise or effective.
Prudence may even favor a pro-choice candidate’s social welfare or health care policies because they are more likely to reduce the number of abortions, especially for poor women who want a child but feel incapable of raising it. Voting for a candidate is not, then, tantamount to endorsing his or her views on abortion (few candidates for office fully subscribe to the church’s opposition to all abortions). We are not contradicting Catholic doctrine in looking, with Pope Francis, to the full range of issues affected by our vote as we favor the candidate most likely to protect the dignity and rights of the vulnerable.
We are not contradicting Catholic doctrine in looking, with Pope Francis, to the full range of issues affected by our vote as we favor the candidate most likely to protect the dignity and rights of the vulnerable.
Finally, character matters. In modern, democratic societies, leadership is not simply being a relay transmitter of constituents’ preferences. We must trust in our representatives’ integrity and wisdom, especially in times of crisis. Who will best protect the dignity and rights of the most vulnerable: not only the unborn, but the elderly, victims of systemic racism or those suffering most from the coronavirus pandemic? Who succeeds not by excess but by fostering civic discourse and racial healing? Who will succeed in uniting us in pursuit of the civic common good? Even the best of causes can be betrayed by bias, deceit and invective. Vice, after all, is hardly virtue’s best advocate.
The church has wisdom to offer in forming Christian consciences. Concern for the defenseless in society precludes treating abortion as an unequivocal right; privacy is never so sacrosanct as to dismiss the claims of the vulnerable “other.” But, as Pope Francis reminds us, the others are many, even at our gates. In voting, we must weigh many issues, seeking those candidates and programs that best protect the dignity of the most vulnerable. For faithful citizens, mere profession of belief is not enough; moral innocence is not policy. As Aquinas taught us, in politics, prudence (practical wisdom) goes all the way down.
We may differ regarding candidates, programs and policies. The church’s doctrine offers no simple recipe for voting; nor does the “preeminence” of abortion spare faithful citizens the hard grace of discernment. For opposing abortion is not a political shibboleth, much less a sectarian marker of identity. What Jesus said still rings true: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16), and not the other way around.