Abortion and voting: What does the Church teach?

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Pro-life advocates gather near the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life in Washington in 2018. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

It’s a little funny, being called “a pro-abort.” Some readers assumed from my article on voting that appeared online and in the Sept. 6 issue of Our Sunday Visitor that I wanted people to vote for Joe Biden.

I was only laying out the rules of the game. I wasn’t playing, or even commenting on the game. Many people had been saying that a Catholic can never vote for a pro-choice candidate, because doing so advances an intrinsic evil. The Church doesn’t teach that.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained this almost two decades ago. The Church says that Catholics can vote for a pro-choice candidate as long as they don’t vote for him because he’s pro-choice and they have what he called “proportionate” reasons. The American bishops say “truly grave moral reasons.”

That’s one big mistake Catholics make about voting. Others make the opposite mistake. They treat voting as a matter of balancing several concerns whose importance you weigh yourself. They believe that abortion and the other life-and-death issues such as euthanasia aren’t necessarily more important than the others.

They reject the idea that our understanding of human dignity is closely tied to our understanding of the unborn child’s right to live, and, indeed, to every human being’s right to live and not to be killed because someone else wants him dead. They argue as if the cardinal hadn’t included the requirement that we have “proportionate” reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate.

Defending Biden’s Catholicism in an article in Commonweal, John Gehring rightly speaks of the “interconnected social justice issues,” but balances the candidate’s radical promotion of abortion with his positions on other issues.

Father James Martin notes in a Facebook post that “neither party or candidate fully expresses Catholic teaching in its totality. Neither party fully expresses the vision of the world that Jesus offers in the Gospels. And both parties and candidates fail on important issues in the Church’s view.” Of course, and sadly, true. In voting, he explains, Catholics must consider “all the issues in light of the Gospels and Church teachings, and then [vote] by using their consciences.” Also true.

As far as this goes, Father Martin is saying things we need to hear. But not everything we need to hear. This second mistake is a subtler mistake than the first one, because it’s half-right.

It’s another matter of the rules. The rules of a game push you to play one way rather than another. The NFL’s rules in my youth favored a running game supplemented by a passing game. Today’s rules favor a passing game. So teams pass more than they run.

The rules of Catholic voting give abortion a central and crucial place. It’s not just one issue among many. It’s a defining issue, an orienting issue, the one that gives the foundation and sets the trajectory. The issues do interconnect, as Gehring says, but I think he sees them connecting like lines drawn on a page. However, I think they connect in the way a foundation connects to the house built on it.

We “privilege” the life issues, as the academics put it. The American bishops say this in their introductory letter to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority,” they say, “because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.”

They warn against “a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity.” Intentionally killing people “is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.” We have a “preeminent obligation to protect innocent life from direct attack.”

In an earlier statement called “Living the Gospel of Life,” they call abortion and euthanasia the “preeminent threats to human dignity.” They “directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others.”

The bishops follow the popes. Life, Pope Benedict XVI says, “is the first good received from God and is fundamental to all others.” Pope St. John Paul II called the right to life, “the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights.”

Here’s why the second mistake is half right. The bishops make sure we remember the interconnection. They give examples of intrinsically evil acts we can’t support with our votes. The list begins with the life issue: abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide.

It’s a longer list than we usually hear. It includes “genocide, torture, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war … violations of human dignity, such as acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable … deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning.” Pope St. John Paul II includes others in Evangelium Vitae: mutilation, torture, “subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation … disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons.”

Catholics are not single-issue voters, because the Church instructs us to consider many issues, because few candidates get it all right, and most get something very wrong. Some who seem to get it right don’t actually mean it and won’t act on it. Voting is complicated.

We have no easy rule for it. We have to think hard about it and try to vote for the candidate who most supports the common good as the Church presents it. We don’t vote for those who support intrinsic evils, unless we have a grave moral reason for doing so. And “grave” means really serious. We don’t vote just for the candidate we think slightly better, or slightly less worse, if he supports intrinsic evils. That’s the second mistake some Catholics make.

Catholics aren’t single-issue voters. The Gospel of Life isn’t just the Gospel of Unborn Life. But we are voters who take the life issue as fundamental and preeminent. The Gospel of Life begins with the life of the unborn.

Here’s one explanation why. Abortion is the issue that most reveals what a candidate thinks about all the other issues, whatever his official policies are. It shows what he really thinks of the human person and therefore what kind of society he wants to create. It’s a focusing issue, the clearest expression of a practical commitment either to obey the moral law and protect the integral good of the human person, or to reject them.

How seriously can we take a candidate’s claims to help the poor if he doesn’t care if they live or die before birth? If he believes human dignity is something we choose to give them by letting them be born, not something they have?

Everyone knows the unborn child is a human child, even if they don’t admit it. The most vulnerable people alive, the unborn, show most clearly the need to believe in the dignity of the human person simply because they’re human beings. They’re the test case for whether one thinks human beings are fundamentally creatures to be honored and valued or things to be used and discarded. That’s why abortion is our preeminent priority.

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.