Catholics, Abortion and Politics

A task force of seven was established at the U.S. bishops’ meeting Nov. 10-12, 2003, to prepare policy for dealing with Catholic politicians on the subject of abortion. As one bishop stated, the question is most complicated and delicate. The guidelines could possibly promote harmony between the hierarchy and politicians or could pit Catholic against Catholic in unseemly public recrimination of little fruit. Ancient though they be, words of St. Thomas Aquinas can apply and, while they do not define a solution, they can provide a basis for dialogue: Human government is derived from the divine and should imitate it. God, although he is omnipotent and perfectly good, permits some evils to occur in the universe, evils which he could prohibit. He does this because if these evils were removed, greater evils would ensue. Therefore, thus also in human governance, those who rule properly should tolerate certain evils lest other good things are lost and even worse evils come about (Summa Theologiae, Secunda Secundae, q. 10, art. 11c).

There is consensus that some moral evils are best left to instructed individual conscience rather than government enforcement. Agreement comes easily on such actions as wayward consensual sex, dishonoring of parents and unofficial lies. Most Catholics, certainly all bishops, oppose extending the tolerance St. Thomas mentions to abortion and hold to the opinion that government should make laws to protect the unborn. We are appalled by the cloud of insensitivity toward human life that covers our land. This, even though a different sensitivity has a history going back to Hippocrates and beyond. Something is terribly amiss in wholesale, on-demand abortion, uninhibited by moral scruple. Semantics and euphemism can alter the face of reality. Is it not true that if a student were to define abortion flat-out as the killing of a developing human child, a fair-minded professor would not mark him wrong?


Sooner or later the subject of abortion comes up in conversation among acquaintances. People with whom I have spoken, Christian and Jewish, who choose to be called pro-choice admit that abortion is not good but feel that it is a private matter. In essence, they extend St. Thomas’s words to abortion. They point to evils that would occur if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned. In this age, abortion would merely be driven underground, as whiskey was during prohibition. There would be no proper medical supervision of abortion procedures, which could be harmful. Also when a law does not have widespread support, it is unobserved, and disrespect for law in general is produced. If abortion is allowed openly and controlled by law, excesses like partial-birth abortion, recently outlawed, and infanticide of a viable child can be prevented. This control would be absent in underground activity. They also claim that the right of privacy permits abortion, although privacy does not protect many acts committed in private, such as spousal abuse, from government jurisdiction. There are other varieties of pro-choice opinion. But I believe that the above is a fair outline of where the majority of Americans stand at this time. Patently there are exceptions.

If evils associated with suppressing abortion by law are considered sufficient grounds by a Catholic politician for opposing such laws, if he is concerned that abortion should be opposed as a moral, not a legal issue, can his reasoning be dismissed out of hand by the hierarchy? This is the end point at which the outlook of the bishops and that of practicing Catholics in politics can lead to contention. As dialogue proceeds, may we be spared unrestrained words and actions.

A major contribution to a calm relationship now is that abortion is substantially a non-issue in this election year. Roe v. Wade, as even this administration concedes, is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Nothing is going to happen to Roe v. Wade, no matter who gets elected. Politicians and judges are not going to overturn it until the majority of Americans want it overturned. In the meantime, of course, politicians may find it easy to garner votes by taking positions on abortion and making promises that cost nothing and deliver nothing. This practice has misled voters in the past and had them vote for an empty package, wasting votes needed by other urgent causes.

It now behooves us all to proclaim, to the utmost of our ability, the sacredness and beauty of life and to put our faith in instructing, in grace and good will rather than in politics.

(Rev.) Connell J. Maguire
Riviera Beach, Fla.

Therapeutic Treatment

As a nephrologist, I would like to underscore the concerns raised by P. Gregory Rausch, M.D., in his letter (1/19). In treating the terminally ill, it is often possible to distinguish between treatments that are truly life-sustaining and procedures that are more intrusive than therapeutic. A point may be reached where there is more being done to the patient than for the patient. It is important not to erode the dignity and serenity of the transition to eternal life, along the spiritual path that leads to redemption.

Kevin E. Vitting, M.D.
Ridgewood, N.J.

Lived Faith

Thanks to Richard R. Gaillardetz for his insightful article, Do We Need a New(er) Apologetics? (2/2). I have felt discomfort hearing the passionate stances of some of the new apologists. What was unsettling to me was hard to explain. Richard Gaillardetz’s article is an excellent and clear analysis of this concern. The writer’s five features for a newer form of apologetics that is more faithful to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council will take much disciplined conversation but is an important challenge. I am happy that the writer mentions Thomas O’Meara and Robert Barron as writers who call us to connect our rich Catholic culture with our lived faith. We all need to spend time with 1 Pt 3:15-16: Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence....

Lorraine Crawford, I.B.V.M.
Chicago, Ill.

Value Above Issues

In Election Year Tug of War (1/19), John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is right on the money. The immaturity of our political and, for that matter, religious discourse is creating an environment not unlike the schoolyard, with its shouts and insults. Unfortunately our bishops do no better, but tend to join the fray. The very meaning of the Incarnation is to put people, their needs, their dignity, their value above issues. If we treat all people with justice and dignity the issues will resolve themselves. Or do we think Jesus had it wrong?

(Deacon) Walter Williams
East Longmeadow, Mass.

Reasoned Approach

The article Environmental Justice: A Catholic Voice, by Walter E. Grazer (1/19), presented a reasoned approach to the environment. Unfortunately reason is all too often lacking, including among many Catholic activists. He stresses a voice on behalf of the poor. I would add a voice on behalf of all people. For many, environmentalism has become a cult religion, especially among the leaders of many activist organizations, not to mention the ecoterrorists such as Earth Liberation Front and PETA. Too many Catholics combine their environmental fervor with a left-wing political philosophy to the point where their Catholicism is indistinguishable from their political radicalism.

Jim Collins
Farmington Hills, Mich.

Moral Leaders

Your editorial Restoring Trust (2/2) correctly points out that the patterns of deception and misplaced priorities displayed by certain bishops in dealing with errant priests have been the primary cause of the anger and disillusionment that is widely shared by Catholic laypeople and priests with regard to the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. But your proposed solution, suggesting that bishops need to find a new voice for speaking to their people, seriously misses the mark. It falls woefully short of identifying the significant institutional and leadership changes the bishops must make to restore their credibility as moral leaders.

While the bishops have taken strong, positive steps to hold priests accountable for specific instances of sexual abuse and have put in place structures and systems of oversight and accountability to minimize the risk of such abuse occurring again, they have done little with regard to their own accountability. For example, where were the voices of bishops calling for the resignation of other bishops, who even after they knew abuse was recurring, continued to move priests from one parish to another, enabling them to continue their abuse? Which bishops have spoken out publicly, challenging the unconscionable behavior of these bishops? Why do we still hear nothing today?

I understand that asking bishops to hold one another accountable is no small matter. Indeed, it is very complicated and requires great moral leadership. And this is not a problem peculiar to the Catholic Church. We have plenty of nonreligious examples in the past year demonstrating these difficultiesfor example, the failures of the accounting profession to regulate itself adequately and the failures in countless boardrooms and executive suites across corporate America and Europe to be self-regulating.

The Vatican, of course, has the institutional power needed to deal with this issue, but the Vatican has done nothing, at least nothing publicly, to hold bishops accountable in this regard. And when it comes to all aspects of church governance, the Vatican has shown little resolve for providing moral leadership.

Of course, any bishop or group of bishops who would publicly call for accountability from other bishops would pay an enormous institutional and personal price. But someone should have had the courage to do this. It needs to be done. Our church continues to suffer mightily because it has not been done.

Not many middle-aged people like me will leave the church because of this, but our children are not as committed to the church as we are, nor are they as willing to put up with such duplicity. This well-publicized evil makes it very difficult for young people to affirm their faith, even for those who want to be active, faithful members of the church. They, and we, need strong moral leadership, not just when it is pointing out that abortion is wrong or sexual behavior needs to be moderated or economic systems are unjust. We need moral leadership now that is inward looking, dealing with our own institutions and leaders.

The bishops have gotten half their job done, and done well, with regard to priests. But the other half remains unfinisheddealing with their own complicity. The bishops need to find much more than a new voice for speaking to the faithful. They need to find the courage and grace to be willing to make the painful changes still required to heal, liberate and resurrect their flock. We need them to walk the paschal mystery.

Robert A. Super
St. Paul, Minn.


Congratulations on the wonderful article by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., John Paul II and the Mystery of the Human Person (2/2). I am sure it will inspire many a Sunday sermon.

Carl Landegger
New York, N.Y.

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11 years 11 months ago
I agree completely with Robert Super (Letters, 2/16), who said that for the American bishops to regain moral authority they have to do more than “find a new voice.” He correctly points out that a restoration of credibility requires that the bishops hold themselves accountable for those members who have colluded with child molesters, covered up crimes and sins against children and put more children in harm’s way by moving around abusing priests. Does anyone seriously believe the bishops are concerned about the welfare of children? I certainly don’t, and I don’t know many Catholics who do. The bishops prefer to rail against abortion and blame cultural influences for the same reason Republican politicians do: it’s safe and guaranteed to arouse emotion among a certain segment of their constituencies. They can look good without having to pay a price. Others have noted the absence of episcopal outrage over the death penalty. Some months ago Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia publicly stated that the pope is wrong about capital punishment and that he, Scalia, had no intentions of voting to overturn it. I looked in all the media for some episcopal response. There was none. That silence spoke louder than words.


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