With the debate over abortion relegated largely to the sidelines during the 2016 election cycle, some Catholics have turned their sights to other issues that are part of the church’s pro-life agenda, with the hope of either influencing ballot questions or simply getting Americans to consider the broader Catholic teaching on human life.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., for example, wrote an essay last week laying out the church’s case against physician-assisted suicide, which the city council there could vote to legalize later this year. Similar legislation is being considered in New York, Colorado and Maryland.
“A widespread mentality has taken hold which believes that, because of their so-called minimal quality of life, it is a moral and social good for people with infirmities, disabilities or serious illnesses to be able to end their lives whenever they want—and that others should help them do it,” the D.C. archbishop wrote.
Allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of pain medication to terminally ill patients is legal in just a handful of states, including in California where a new law went into effect earlier this year, but the movement is gaining momentum.
The New York Times offered its support in an editorial published Monday, writing, “There is no compelling reason to deprive [patients] of physician-assisted dying as one option alongside high-quality, innovative palliative care.”
Wuerl acknowledged the pain some patients face, but he said allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs is not the solution. “A truly compassionate and merciful response to the sick and vulnerable is not to confirm these impulses by offering a lethal drug,” he continued.
“Whether it is a terminally ill person or a young person suffering from depression, our response should be to draw them away from the edge, to help the vulnerable among us—regardless of their condition or circumstances—with genuine compassion and give them hope.”
Another issue receiving fresh attention from Catholic leaders in the United States is the abolition of the death penalty, which is still legal in most states even as its use declines.
In California, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles wrote a column last month urging voters to support a ballot question that would end the use of the death penalty there. He acknowledged that some in the church’s pro-life movement are not always as passionate about ending the death penalty but urged them to get on board.
“The church has always opposed abortion and euthanasia because it involves the direct and voluntary killing of innocent human beings. Obviously, the death penalty is different. Those guilty of violent crime are not innocent,” he wrote.
“But in opposing the death penalty we are also witnessing to the sanctity of life. We are saying that even the most sinful and guilty lives are precious to God and should not be taken by others.”
Catholic leaders in Nebraska are using a multi-media campaign to urge voters to uphold a death penalty ban that went into effect last year, and in Texas bishops released a statement on Monday urging an end to the death penalty in that state.
The bishops noted that church teaching allows the death penalty in cases where society cannot be protected from violent criminals in any other way, but they said that is no longer the case in the United States. They also noted that the death penalty disproportionately affects the poor and minorities.
“Our call to abolish the death penalty is not a call to deny justice,” the Texas bishops wrote. “On the contrary, it is a call to the whole community to recognize that the death penalty does not fulfill justice, nor does it console the inconsolable.”
“Rather than seeking vengeance, forgiveness offers a victim’s family and the accused true healing that comes through restorative justice,” the statement continued.
Texas lawmakers are not considering the state’s use of the death penalty, but the bishops’ statement was released to mark the World Day Against the Death Penalty. Pope Francis commemorated the day as well, tweeting, “Punishment should necessarily include hope! #NoDeathPenalty.”
Though voters will face a litany of ballot questions as well as pivotal state and federal races come Nov. 8, the presidential contest has dominated the headlines for months, and it has centered mostly on each candidate’s competency for the job.
Life issues have been largely absent, especially compared with other presidential contests from the recent past, like in 2012 when the Democrats framed the election as a referendum on women’s rights.
On the abortion question this time around, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has pledged to appoint pro-life judges, but in comments this week about Supreme Court vacancies, he did not mention the issue. He did, however, say he would appoint judges who support the right to bear arms.
Mr. Trump’s Catholic supporters have said his previous commitments to appoint pro-life judges is enough to justify standing by their candidate, even as he deals with fallout over his lewd comments about women.
But other Catholic conservatives have said since the primaries that Mr. Trump’s promise on judges cannot be trusted, pointing to his past support for abortion rights.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has said she will appoint justices who support legal abortion and she vows to repeal a ban on using federal money to pay for abortion.
Neither candidate has come out strongly on either side of the assisted suicide question and both support the use of the death penalty, though Mrs. Clinton has said she supports the rights of states to repeal the practice but favors using it in certain instances at the federal level.
John Gehring, the Catholic program director at the liberal nonprofit group Faith in Public Life, told America that in a way, Mr. Trump may have helped to open the door for conversations about the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide.
“It’s just not a religious right election,” he said. “If Ted Cruz were the nominee, you would see more talk about abortion. Donald Trump’s position on abortion has been all over the place.”
Catholic opposition to the death penalty and euthanasia is not new, Gehring noted, but this particular election may have created space for those concerns to be heard more widely.
“Some of this is because of fundamental shifts in how we think about religion and politics,” he said, “and some of it is due to Trump’s peculiar candidacy.”
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.