Roman Catholic leaders appear to have rejected ‘seamless garment’ approach to abortion

Although the document discussed below is addressed primarily to Roman Catholics in the United States, it contains a very strong pro-life message of great importance to all Christians, and all people of conscience, in Canada no less than in the U.S.

The ideas presented in the document are especially relevant at the moment to pro-lifers in Ontario, as they prepare to cast their votes in a provincial election, widely expected this spring. – Editor

In October 1998, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States published a statement called Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. It says that the United States was founded on a basis of freedom, that it is necessary today to call it back to that freedom, and that this issue “is not a sectarian issue any more than the Declaration of Independence is a sectarian creed.” “Real freedom,” it states, “rests on the inviolability of every person as a child of God.”

The statement calls on Roman Catholics to bring home this message to their country. “Every Catholic, without exception, should remember that he or she is called by our Lord to proclaim His message … Every Catholic is a missionary of the Good News of human dignity redeemed through the Cross … No one, least of all someone who exercises leadership in society, can rightfully claim to share fully and practically the Catholic faith and yet act publicly in a way contrary to that faith.”

Many elements in American society want moral convictions kept out of the public sphere. “Today, Catholics risk co-operating in a false pluralism. Secular society will allow believers to have whatever moral convictions they please – as long as they keep them on the private preserves of their consciences, in their homes and churches, and out of the public arena.”

And the statement quotes Pope John Paul II saying that if “everyone has the mission and responsibility of acknowledging the personal dignity of every human being and of defending the right to life, some lay faithful are given particular title to this task: such asparents, teachers, health workers, and the many who hold economic and political power” (emphasis, as in all of this article, is in the original).

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision “effectively rendered the definition of human personhood flexible and negotiable. It also implicitly excluded unborn children from human status. In doing so, Roe helped create an environment in which infanticide – a predictable next step along the continuum of killing – is now open to serious examination.”

The teaching of Christ’s Church is that, “for citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing of, any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem … Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option. It is always a grave act of violence against a woman and her unborn child … Similarly, euthanasia and assisted suicide are never acceptable acts of mercy … This same teaching against direct killing of the innocent condemns all direct attacks on innocent civilians in time of war.”

The bishops say people who claim to be working for social justice, but who do not support the pro-life cause, are really working against social justice. “Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence, and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care … But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community … All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person’s most fundamental right – the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights.”

The bishops have strong words for Catholics in public life. “Some (Catholic officials) will face a political penalty for living their public office in accord with their pro-life convictions. Those who choose this path, we assure them that their course is just, they save lives through their witness, and God and history will not forget them. Moreover, the risk of witness should not be exaggerated, and the power of witness should not be underestimated. In an age of artifice, many voters are hungry for substance. They admire and support political figures who speak out sincerely for their moral convictions.

“We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching …. No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible.”

The bishops then urge Catholics to vote for pro-life politicians. “Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant political power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God’s children who are unborn, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue – or lack thereof – is a judgment not only on them but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders (by) principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.”

In June 1998, the Roman Catholic bishops of Ontario published a document called Choosing a Government. It urges Catholics to be politically knowledgeable and politically active, and certainly to vote. It mentions abortion and euthanasia three times. In two of these instances, it lists these evils along with others. In a list of 11 principles to be observed by all governments, the ninth principle reads: “Governments must support life. All human beings must be nourished, supported, and cherished from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. A government worthy of support will favour life rather than abortion and euthanasia, will be supportive of families, will make palliative care a priority, will fight against child poverty, and will look for the rehabilitation of those who have become entangled in crime or drugs.” And, in a list of five practical suggestions for the guidance of voters, the second and third read: “Candidates will be examined on the full range of issues involved …. A very important area is a candidates’s stand on the whole range of human life concerns: abortion, euthanasia, poverty, unemployment, violence, neglect of the old, the infirm, and the marginalized.”

The Ontario statement is accompanied by a one-page summary which simply states: “No candidate will be perfect but candidates should be assessed on their responses to a broad spectrum of issues, although their attitude to an ethic for life, a preferential option for the poor, and a commitment to stewardship, will be crucially important.”

It should be kept in mind that the U.S. statement deals with “living the Gospel of Life,” while the Ontario statement deals directly with voting. In the former, however, the matter of voting is closely linked with the issues of abortion and euthanasia alone, while in the latter, these issues, though considered to be important, tend to be grouped with other issues as well. One is reminded of the “seamless garment” teaching of the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, the chief effect of which, many believe, was to weaken the pro-life effort.

For more information on pro-life voting, see the lead editorial in this issue of The Interim.