When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) discussed faithful citizenship during the most recent semi-annual meeting, the nation’s Catholic bishops voted to hold up abortion as the “preeminent” issue facing American Catholics. The USCCB published the language in its document on political life, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizens.”
In our passion for advocating for the preborn, too often we focus on the negative, on the failure of our leaders to speak out. In so doing we run the risk of indifference toward the good that courageous pro-life leaders are doing. Pro-lifers should consider this important document — which uses the word “preeminent” four times to refer abortion and how Catholics must weigh it when considering other issues — a resounding success. The bishops are unambiguous: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act,” without morally grave justification — and “abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide” are foremost of these intrinsically evil acts.
While the document acknowledges the Church “is involved in the political process but is not partisan,” and that it “cannot champion any candidate or party,” the bishops are clear: “Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity and the protection of the weak and vulnerable.”
After the document became public, however, many focused on the debate where nearly one in three bishops voted to downgrade abortion, even citing Pope Francis to support their position. The leader of the dissenting vote was Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, who called the language “at least discordant with the pope’s teaching if not inconsistent” and even a “grave disservice to our people if we’re trying to communicate to them what the Magisterium teaches.”
As other bishops pointed out, Bishop McElroy’s argument was nonsensical. Pope Francis has deplored abortion since his election, saying abortion “is like hiring a hitman to solve a problem.” Of abortion Pope St. John Paul II once commented, according to National Catholic Register, “It is difficult to imagine a more unjust situation, and it is very difficult to speak of obsession in a matter such as this, where we are dealing with a fundamental imperative of every good conscience — the defense of the right to life of an innocent and defenseless human being.”
In recent years, Bishop McElroy has been a leading voice for the resurgence of the “seamless garment” approach first espoused by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago. Cardinal Bernadin’s seamless garment approach argued for what he called a “consistent ethic of life” that would broaden pro-life emphasis from abortion to include other issues: “Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.”
Although being pro-life certainly involves all of these issues, this kind of argument ultimately weakens the focus on legalized abortion as an intrinsic evil when it is put on par with issues such as war and poverty. For instance, war can have just causes, as in cases of self-defense, and reasonable people can disagree and the proper nature and scope of a given conflict. Likewise, poverty is a complex and often systemic issue, subject to prudential judgments, and well-intentioned people can disagree on how best to approach it. With the intrinsic evil of abortion — the intended, direct killing of the unborn — there is no such room for nuance.
As George Weigel pointed out in First Things, in the 1980s Cardinal Bernadin “suggested a moral symmetry between the defense of unborn life in the womb, the rejection of the death penalty, and resistance to the rearmament programs of the Reagan administration.” Weigel notes that, although Cardinal Bernadin truly believed in the pro-life cause, the practical effect of this so-called seamless garment policy “inevitably blunted criticism” of pro-abortion politicians. The seamless garment approach also promoted pro-life gate keeping, as politicians could point to their support for good causes like anti-poverty programs as evidence for being sufficiently “pro-life,” as well as denigrate pro-lifers who didn’t support pet political causes.
Bernadin’s seamless garment approach has never completely faded from the American episcopate, as evidenced by the one third of bishops who sided with Bishop McElroy. Still, the Catholic bishops of this nation promulgated a document to all Americans asserting that abortion remains the “preeminent” human rights issue of our time. This is a victory for the pro-life movement.
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