Yes, Virginia, Catholics Can Say Abortion Should Be Legal

Yes, Virginia, Catholics Can Say Abortion Should Be Legal September 7, 2016

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Or that is what Fr. Matt Malone, S.J., claims, in an article at America. It is the kind of article that makes one say: “Yes, Fr. But.” (Leila Miller at Little Catholic Bubble had so many buts she wrote a full rebuttal; hie you to her blog and read it.) I want to stress one of her points.

Before I do that, however, I should first say that I sympathize with Fr. Malone’s main concern, which was the presence of protesters as Sen. Tim Kaine arrived for Mass on August 28. One of them held a sign that said that he and Mrs. Clinton are “a match made in Hell.” Another held a sign citing canon 915 (to make the claim that Kaine should not be given Holy Communion). These lovely people would be better advised to go inside, kneel, pray, and attend to their own worthiness to receive the Eucharist. If they have concerns about canon 915, or about Sen. Kaine, they should write his bishop. Engaging in self-righteous street theater does no one any good, including the pro-life movement. (Unless the pro-life movement wants to become in reality the group of firebreathers the media has portrayed it as, lo these many years.)

But Fr. Malone does not limit himself to making this sensible point. He goes further, and claims that Catholics are free to disagree about whether abortion should be illegal in the first place.

[I]t does not necessarily follow from the fact that something is immoral that it should be illegal. Thus our public policy choices belong to the realm of prudential judgment.

No. I stop Fr. Malone here. “Prudential judgment” does not free us from the moral law, or the duty to reflect it in our civil law. Prudential judgment is a question of how to do that, not whether to do that.

Let us read on.

To be sure, the church’s magisterium has supported specific public policy solutions in the areas of abortion, the death penalty, prostitution and other contentious issues. [Yes it has.] And not all of those issues involve the same level of moral gravity. Yet Catholics are still free to disagree with one another in good conscience, if not about the moral principles at stake, then certainly about the prudential application of those principles in the public square.

But the question, Fr., is how to apply, not whether to apply. It is surely true that Church gives more latitude for “prudential application” when it comes to the death penalty, which is not an intrinsic evil. But abortion is. Cardinal Ratzinger made this clear in “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.”

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Note that Ratzinger is not merely talking about disagreements over the “moral principles at stake.” He is talking specifically about their “application in the public square.” (He even uses the word “application.”) Fr. Malone is wrong when he attempts to lump abortion in with the death penalty in this regard.

Pope St. John Paul II also made note of this in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

72. The doctrine on the necessary conformity of civil law with the moral law is in continuity with the whole tradition of the Church. This is clear once more from John XXIII’s Encyclical: “Authority is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience. …

Now the first and most immediate application of this teaching concerns a human law which disregards the fundamental right and source of all other rights which is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual. Consequently, laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual

73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). …

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”.

Believing that abortion may be legal, or voting to uphold and extent its legality, is not an option the Church has left open to Catholics. Not on this question. There is no such thing as being “personally opposed.”

Where Catholics can disagree is with regard to strategy: How do we best go about getting rid of abortion once and for all? That is not, however, to be confused with supporting or voting for its legality. It is good to eliminate the reasons why many women choose abortion, but the Church does not permit us to say that by doing so, one need no longer worry about whether abortion remains legal. As Mark Shea is wont to say: Catholics are a both-and people.


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