Morally Exhausted Arguments, The Anchor, September 26, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
September 26, 2008

The bishops of the United States have been vigilant and busy this election cycle not only in responding to false statements about Church teaching on human life and abortion by Catholic politicians but also in correcting false ideas of morality that flow from erroneous understanding of the teaching.

Three weeks ago we discussed how the Bishops’ Conference and many individual bishops powerfully responded to Catholic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s false presentation both of the truths of human embryology as well as of Church doctrine of when human life begins. The bishops said that when life begins is not a question of faith but science, and science demonstrates indisputably that human life begins at the fertilization of a woman’s ovum by a man’s sperm, popularly referred to as conception. They also said that even though different theologians have speculated about the timing of human ensoulment, there has been unanimity from the beginning that abortion, the intentional killing of the growing child in the womb, is always gravely sinful.

Today we turn to what the bishops have recently said about the moral consequences that flow from these truths. The context for these remarks was Senator Joseph Biden’s September 7 appearance on Meet the Press during which he said, “I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.” This is a recycling of the oft-invoked “personally opposed, politically tolerant” position on abortion that pro-choice politicians have been using for the past four decades.

The bishops were swift to respond to Sen. Biden’s remarks. The US Bishops’ Conference released a joint statement by Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bridgeport Bishop William Lori, who said, employing arguments accessible to all reasonable people, that once the humanity of the developing child in the womb is established, there is a duty in justice to protect that child.

They declared that Senator Biden’s contention that “the beginning of human life is a ‘personal and private’ matter of religious faith, one which cannot be ‘imposed’ on others, does not reflect the truth of the matter. The Church recognizes that the obligation to protect unborn human life rests on the answer to two questions, neither of which is private or specifically religious.

“The first is a biological question: When does a new human life begin? … While ancient thinkers had little verifiable knowledge to help them answer this question, today embryology textbooks confirm that a new human life begins at conception. The Catholic Church does not teach this as a matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact.

“The second is a moral question, with legal and political consequences: Which living members of the human species should be seen as having fundamental human rights, such as a right not to be killed? The Catholic Church’s answer is: Everybody. No human being should be treated as lacking human rights, and we have no business dividing humanity into those who are valuable enough to warrant protection and those who are not. Even this is not solely a Catholic teaching, but a principle of natural law accessible to all people of good will. The framers of the Declaration of Independence pointed to the same basic truth by speaking of inalienable rights, bestowed on all members of the human race not by any human power, but by their Creator. Those who hold a narrower and more exclusionary view have the burden of explaining why we should divide humanity into the moral ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and why their particular choice of where to draw that line can be sustained in a pluralistic society. Such views pose a serious threat to the dignity and rights of other poor and vulnerable members of the human family who need and deserve our respect and protection. … Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice.”

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and his auxiliary Bishop James Conley took on, in an even more forceful way, Senator Biden’s argument that one shouldn’t “impose” one’s morality on others. In a September 8 statement, they said, “In his Meet the Press interview, Sen. Biden used a morally exhausted argument that American Catholics have been hearing for 40 years: i.e., that Catholics can’t ‘impose’ their religiously-based views on the rest of the country. But resistance to abortion is a matter of human rights, not religious opinion. And the senator knows very well as a lawmaker that all law involves the imposition of some people’s convictions on everyone else. That is the nature of the law. American Catholics have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting the destruction of more than a million developing unborn children a year. Other people have imposed their ‘pro-choice’ beliefs on American society without any remorse for decades. If we claim to be Catholic, then American Catholics, including public officials who describe themselves as Catholic, need to act accordingly. We need to put an end to Roe and the industry of permissive abortion it enables. Otherwise all of us — from senators and members of Congress, to Catholic laypeople in the pews — fail not only as believers and disciples, but also as citizens.”

Archbishop Chaput, in his recently-published book “Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation By Living Our Catholic Beliefs In Public Life,” turned to the example of the Catholic former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, to demonstrate that public officials who claim that they cannot impose their moral beliefs about abortion on others do not hesitate to impose their ethical understanding on others in other areas. In Cuomo’s case, he argued in a famous 1984 speech at Notre Dame that even though he and his wife accepted Catholic moral teaching on abortion, he did not feel it appropriate to translate that judgment of conscience into public policy. Archbishop Chaput notes, however, that Governor Cuomo did not feel any of the same qualms about acting according to his conscience with regard to the death penalty. Twelve times in his dozen years as governor he vetoed capital punishment legislation, “imposing” his own view on the majority not merely of the legislators in Albany but of the populace in the state of New York, both of which supported the death penalty.

Governors, Senators, Congressmen, and activist judges seem to have no anxiety at all about imposing their view of the good on others when it concerns smoking legislation, taxes, the environment, marriage, the treatment of prisoners, economic bailouts, or war and peace. Why is it that the only time politicians ever invoke a false sense of pluralistic tolerance of evil is when they’re talking about abortion?

What does this mean for Catholic citizens who have the moral obligation to vote morally? It’s hard to believe that a Catholic citizen of sound judgment and conscience would ever support a politician who either supported —  or lamely refused to act publicly according to his “personal opposition to” —   cruelty to animals, or child abuse, or domestic violence. If a candidate’s character were such that either he or she did not acknowledge these evils or was too weak to act according to them when it came to their public duties, would we ever give such a vitiated character a pass because we think the candidate has a better economic plan? Yet, that is what many Catholic Americans have done with respect to abortion, which kills children in ways more sadistic that the worst of animal cruelty and constitutes the ultimate form of child abuse and domestic violence.

The bishops are addressing head-on the “morally exhausted arguments” of Catholic politicians with respect to abortion. This election cycle is a time for Catholic voters, especially those who have acted according to the same “personally opposed but publicly tolerant” position in the voting booth, to re-evaluate those choices. There will be more on this next week.