VOTING: Understanding the issues and what’s at stake
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
If any of us thought that we could avoid political chatter this fall, the past two weeks of conventions and speeches have been a dose of unpleasant reality. In truth, I hope that all of us are paying at least a little attention. When leading politicians who claim to be Catholic misrepresent so badly the basic teachings of the Church, we Catholic citizens must call them on it.
No doubt, no one has missed the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a self-described “ardent, practicing Catholic,” being interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” two weeks ago (August 24). When asked what advice she would give a president on the issue of when human life begins, and despite the clarity of the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, Ms. Pelosi attempted to formulate a theological argument that (a) life may not begin at conception (quoting St. Augustine); (b) the teaching of the Church that life does begin at conception is only “about 50 years old;” and therefore (c) this teaching “shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose [an abortion].” Clearly, this not-quite-argument is poorly reasoned and false.
As saddened as I was to hear Ms. Pelosi make such indefensible, inaccurate statements about the Church’s teachings, I was greatly encouraged by the immediate response of my brother bishops. Archbishops Chaput, Egan, Wuerl, and others have responded strongly and clearly to Ms. Pelosi, and to all who might be swayed by her confusion and evasions, reiterating the constant, unchanging, and unequivocal truth that abortion is always a grave moral evil. On August 25, Archbishop Chaput responded, completely dismantling Ms. Pelosi’s confused argument, in part simply by quoting this from the excellent book “Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective” (Loyola, 1977), by Fr. John Connery, S.J.:
“The Christian tradition from the earliest days reveals a firm antiabortion attitude . . . The condemnation of abortion did not depend on and was not limited in any way by theories regarding the time of fetal animation. Even during the many centuries when Church penal and penitential practice was based on the theory of delayed animation, the condemnation of abortion was never affected by it. Whatever one would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in the strict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time of animation was never looked on as a moral dividing line between permissible and impermissible abortion.”
Cardinal Egan rebuked Ms. Pelosi even more strongly in his open letter of August 26: “Anyone who dares to defend that they [i.e. the unborn] may be legitimately killed because another human being “chooses” to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.”
I agree completely with the rebuke and rebuttal of Cardinal Egan and Archbishop Chaput. As your Bishop, I am responsible to our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of all the souls of North-West Iowa. I can’t force anyone to believe the truth, nor would I use such force if I could, but my duty as Bishop requires that I, as my brother bishops have done, teach that truth by word and example as firmly and as clearly as humanly possible. These true and universal doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church are the teachings of Christ.
1. Abortion is always a grave moral evil (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2270-2272). The deliberate taking of innocent human life can never be justified. The same grave moral evil is likewise practiced in euthanasia (CCC 2276-79), and in the destruction of human embryos for medical research, and in human cloning (CCC 2274). In each of these issues, as well, innocent human life is unjustifiably taken.
2. Cooperation in any evil act is also a grave moral evil (CCC 1868). Directly to assist with, for example, the taking of innocent human life makes one culpable for that action. Indirectly to assist with the taking of innocent human life may or may not be culpable cooperation, depending on circumstances. One of the key circumstances is knowledge of the evil to be perpetrated (CCC 1859-1860); and in our society today, it is scarcely to be believed that anyone above the age of reason could claim “invincible ignorance” regarding the moral status of any of these issues.
3. The proper formation of conscience is an ordinary duty of all the baptized (CCC 1777-1782). The objective sources of moral knowledge, according to which conscience can be formed with certainty, are natural law, Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church (CCC 1785). Subjective sources of moral knowledge, such as reflection on one’s own experience, private revelation, and infused virtue, never contradict the objective sources, but can deepen and strengthen conviction in the truth of the objective teachings (CCC 1778-1779). This means that the “argument from anecdote” (so-and-so did such-and-such a grave moral evil, and they came to no harm…) and the “argument from personal authority” (I have such-and-such a belief or experience, and I say…) always fail to persuade. It also means that, with very few exceptions, no one has the easy excuse of ignorance of the moral law to justify their malformed conscience (CCC 1791-1793).
4. Participation in the political process is an ordinary duty of all the baptized (CCC 1913-1917). This means not only that the faithful should vote, but also, more importantly, that the faithful must take responsibility for the actions of our elected officials by (a) exercising their vote with care and right discernment in conscience and truth, and (b) insisting that elected officials use their executive or legislative power for the common good (CCC 1916-1917).
5. The end never justifies the means (CCC 1753). This means that the common good can never be achieved by practicing any moral evil as state policy (CCC 1789, 1905).
Now, it must be admitted that not every moral evil is equally grave (CCC 1852-1854). Some issues have little effect beyond themselves; some touch on a few related issues; some are foundational to the whole structure of politics and society. The issues which have been labeled as “non-negotiable Catholic issues” are the most grave, because they are at the foundation of all our rights and responsibilities. These are, namely, the “life issues” of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning; and the fundamental social issue of the family, which in this country today mostly means the definition of marriage. These issues are “non-negotiable” because, if the fundamental right to life is not secure, no rights are ultimately secure. If existence is contingent upon the will of others, so too is every other human right contingent.
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, made this explicitly clear, as Cardinal Ratzinger, in the 1987 document called Donum Vitae (“The Gift of Life”):
“The inviolable right to life of every innocent human individual and the rights of the family and of the institution of marriage constitute fundamental moral values, because they concern the natural condition and integral vocation of the human person; at the same time they are constitutive elements of civil society and its order…. The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined…”http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt3sect2chpt2art5.shtml - 80 (Donum Vitae, III; see also Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Chapters 3 and 4).
In this way, the rights of prisoners and criminal suspects, of the ill and elderly, of children and families, of immigrants, all depend directly for their coherence and reasonableness on the right to life. Even opposing the three great “-isms” of modern liberal philosophy (race, gender, and class) depends on the prior recognition of human personhood and its inherent dignity as such. In the same way, the root principles defining all forms of social justice, such as solidarity and subsidiarity, are only ultimately guaranteed by defense of the right to life and of the family as the basic social unit. When families are unstable units, then all voluntary associations, up to and including states and nations, ultimately lack a coherent concept of justice to animate laws and mores. The five “non-negotiables” are fundamental because, when they are abandoned, justice itself is de facto abandoned (CCC 2273).
Our nation is divided today, because we have in fact abandoned these foundations for personal and corporate liberty in our legal system, but not in our culture, our expectations, or our vocabulary. More and more, to be “progressive” means to wish to change the culture to conform to new legal interpretations, while to be “conservative” means to wish to change the laws to conserve traditional culture. More and more, because America is a nation greatly attracted to the innovative, and not much attached to tradition or conservation, the expectation that law be the servant of culture is rejected. In other words, the tools of politics tend to favor a new, illusory ideal of the isolated, autonomous self, rather than (as they ought) to protect and defend a shared and inherited idea of the common good.
When this happens, division results. The “politics of identity” take over; the perceived “rights” of this or that group (defined by race, gender, and class) begin to seem more important than shared identity, shared humanity. In some fundamental sense, as Pope Benedict has said, the denial of a shared humanity requires a denial of some particular group’s humanity: in our day, especially of the unborn, and the terminally ill.
In the early Church, as still today, Christians were ridiculed for coming to the defense of the poorest of the poor: widows, slaves, orphans, infants exposed to die. Christians challenged the assumptions of the world that only the rich and powerful mattered, and died for it. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The full fruit of the Church’s early centuries of evangelization ultimately included the conviction that politics not only can but must aim for justice – not the worldly justice of due process and evenhanded use of force, which is too easily perverted into an idolatrous worship of order or system; but the divine justice of converted hearts and life completely free from sin. The conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries were sparked by the brightness of this luminous ideal. Our nation claims this Christian vision as its foundation and its heritage: to choose to accept one’s personal responsibility for the common good.
We know that for the common good to exist, the strong (such as those who wield the right to vote) are obliged to defend the weak (such as the unborn). We rejoice in the political freedoms of America, especially our freedom of religion. Because freedom in Christ is always freedom from sin, freedom to love, and never license to commit evil, we trust that our freedom of religion strengthens our democracy. When we live faithful to the fundamental truths of our faith and our democracy – that life is an inalienable right, endowed by our Creator, for a clear and specific purpose – then our laws and our culture will be strong and just, defending the weak and the poor.
I hope these words are helpful to you. As we approach the November elections we must clearly understand the issues and what is at stake. May the wisdom of the Church’s teaching help us all and may all faithful Catholics continue to speak the truth in love.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
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