Among pro-life Catholics there is an elementary principle of moral reasoning we may call the "preferential option for life": when you are hunting and hear a rustle in the bush, you don't blast the bush to find out whether the corpse that falls out is a hunter or a deer. You find out first or you don't shoot.
And so, in pettifogging debates in which pro-choice partisans attempt the hoary old chestnut "Who even knows when life begins anyway?" pro-life Catholics very sensibly reply: "When in doubt, don't kill or harm."
But weirdly, when the topic is not the unborn, many allegedly pro-life people often forget their wisdom. Result: on many issues ranging from war to torture to refugees to the death penalty, it is extremely common to run into people who are anti-abortion, but not pro-life.
And so self-identified pro-life people, in a solid majority, favored the launch of the Iraq War, despite the fact that it failed to meet a single criterion of Just War teaching, was sternly denounced by Pope John Paul II, warned of by the world's bishops, and dismissed as folly by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who famously remarked that the "concept of a 'preventive war' does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church" and who warned that it would result in catastrophe—as the destruction of the Chaldean Church, the deaths of at least 100,000 people and the transformation of Iraq into chaos eloquently attests.
Relatedly, self-identified pro-life Christians supported, in greater percentages than the general U.S. population, the use of torture against prisoners. Indeed, along with Evangelicals, self-identified pro-life Catholics may constitute the single most enthusiastic supporters of torture in American public life. This is despite the fact that the church describes torture as gravely and intrinsically immoral—exactly the same terms in which she describes abortion.
Similarly, the death penalty is sometimes treated as an issue in which the church's guidance to inflict the punishment only if absolutely necessary is rejected on the theory that God "commands" rather than reluctantly permits the death penalty. Some even go so far as to declare the church, not merely entitled to an opinion from which they dissent, but actually "wrong" and work to execute as many victims as possible.
Finally, there is the strange spectacle of some Catholics opposing pre-natal help for low income women (thus increasing the likelihood of abortion for poor families who fear they cannot afford another child) and the even stranger spectacle of self-identified pro-life people brandishing guns and screaming for desperately poor refugee children from Central America to be sent back to the extreme dangers of rape, sex slavery and murder.
What is interesting in all these cases is that those who argue against the church's guidance tend to throw overboard the preferential option for life. Take torture. Those who support it tend to ask things like, “Does waterboarding rise to the level of torture?" "Why do you care about these thugs when a million and a half babies are aborted every year?" "Why do we get to kill people in war, but not torture them?" Note that all the energy, all the drive of these arguments is 180 degrees opposed to the preferential option for life. Asking if waterboarding rises to the level of torture is like a married man asking how far he can go with his secretary before it is "technically adultery." In plain English, it means "How much brutality do we get to inflict on a prisoner before it's technically a sin?" To ask the question already reveals the problem. But the most telling argument (and a very common one) is the notion that since war means we get to kill, it should a fortiori mean we get to commit the lesser evil of torture.
But the church's teaching is not that we get to kill in war, but that we may sometimes have to kill because we have no other way to stop an aggressor. It's the equivalent of a doctor having to amputate, not of a James Bondian "license to kill." Even in war, if we can avoid killing we are to do so—even at the risk that a prisoner might try to kill us, or escape and bring intelligence back to his side. That is why soldiers who kill prisoners are not heroes but war criminals. In short, as the preferential option for life reminds us, prisoners remain in the image and likeness of God and therefore the church commands us to treat them humanely.
Protecting the Innocent and the Sinful
The neglect of the preferential option for life was on display in an analogous manner in the debate over the Iraq War. One common trope on the blogosphere was that "the Pope never said it would be immoral to go to Iraq" as though the burden of proof is on those who oppose killing and not on those who advocate it. Indeed, some actually argued that the Iraq War was justified precisely because preventive war was not in the Catechism. According to this theory, since the Catechism was "silent" on preventive war, then the church didn't forbid it.
This is like saying because the Catechism doesn't specifically name “suction aspiration” as abortion, it therefore permits it. Once again, the obvious and common sense conclusion of the preferential option for life is that all the drive and energy of the church must be toward the goal of life and peace. Indeed, to get the real tenor of Pope Benedict's thought, one need only read his remark that, while there is room in the church's tradition for the tragic necessity of killing when we have no other choice "we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war.’"
Or again, with the death penalty, the church's preferential option for life is very clear: don't execute prisoners unless it is absolutely necessary to protect innocents from being harmed. Indeed, the church is calling for abolition of the death penalty wherever possible. Following the preferential option for life, the church's approach to the death penalty is emphatically minimalist and even abolitionist.
But many American enthusiasts for the death penalty (who self-identify as pro-life in large percentages) are maximalists. Genesis 9:6 is read as a command, not a concession. Indeed, as the frying-pan-waving celebrations accompanying executions make clear, the death penalty is often about vengeance utterly foreign to "love your enemies."
And likewise, with defenseless children arriving unaccompanied at our borders and desperately in need of food, water, clothing, medicine, and shelter due to horrific conditions in their native lands, our duty is clear: Treat them as we would Jesus Christ since, "inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:31-48).
In every case (not merely abortion), the church blesses life and treats exceptions to the fifth commandment as tragic, last-ditch necessities and support for life as self-evidently good. For Catholics to recover the meaning of what it truly means to be pro-life, we must be more than merely anti-abortion. We must see the salvation of human life and human souls—the preferential option for life both innocent and sinful—as it truly is: the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Now is the hour to embrace the church's full teaching and be the light in a darkening world.