By Charles Dern
September 23, 2008 - Recent remarks on abortion and the beginnings of human life by both Senator/Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have rekindled debate over an old question: to what degree must a Catholic politician uphold Church teaching when crafting public policy? Although there is room for legitimate debate on the answer to this question as it regards many issues. However, with regards to abortion, the answer is absolutely clear.
Few other moral issues have been condemned by the Church and her servants so forcefully, consistently, and for the length of time, as direct abortion. For example the Didache, also known as "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," and a work that dates from 50 to 120 A.D. states: "you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born." St. Basil the Great records in the fourth century that "those, too, who give drugs causing abortion are deliberate murderers themselves." In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas writes "He that strikes a woman with child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death of either the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide."
In modern times, Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical, Casti connubii (On Chaste Marriage) devotes a section to reiterating the immorality of abortion. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s affirms that "abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes." In 1974, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its Declaration on Procured Abortion that summarized and repeated Church teaching up to that point. Teaching on abortion again is reinforced twenty years later in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2270-2275).
Even if the above were not enough, Pope John Paul II surely sealed the teaching in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life) by condemning abortion in the most authoritative language possible:
"Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being."(Section 62)
The above represents only a fraction of what Popes, Councils and Saints have had to say in the denunciation of direct abortion. Still, as Biden argued, even though he as a Catholic could not personally choose or participate in an abortion, implementing laws on a public scale is a completely different matter. Indeed, often it is argued that a public servant cannot "impose his or her morality" on others.
As for the "imposition of morality" argument, let it suffice to note that every person who is or has been jailed or paid a fine has had morality imposed upon him or her. We are a society of laws. Laws place limits on allowable actions and proscribe penalties for those who transgress them. Thus there is no question that legislatures can and do impose morality on a multitude of issues. A law against abortion is not unique in this respect.
But the final answer lies in the teachings of Jesus Himself. Jesus teaches us that the Greatest Commandment is firstly to "love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" and secondly to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22: 37 and 39). Jesus also teaches us in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 29-37) that every single other person is our neighbor. In short, we are directed to love everyone without bound. Certainly, if God knew you "before you were born" (Jer. 1:5), "everyone" includes the unborn.
Now the question arises, "what does it really mean to love?" Although in the positive sense this question is open ended, in the negative sense (acts that are never acts of love), the Church is quite clear in her moral teachings, such as that on abortion. As stated by John Paul II above, because direct abortion is something that "always constitutes a grave moral disorder," it is something that can never be compatible with love of neighbor. It is what is otherwise known as an "intrinsic evil."
In fact, abortion is such an affront to the Divine plan for life and the blessing of fertility (Gn. 1: 28, "Be fertile and multiply"), that cooperating in its purveyance in any form, such as counseling one to have an abortion, supplying transportation to a clinic in order for someone to have an abortion, or supporting laws for its legalization, all constitute acts against love of neighbor, both against the mother and her unborn child.
Now, one of the first principles of logic is that one cannot both affirm and deny the same thing at the same time. However, the Catholic public servant who claims that he or she can be "personally opposed" to abortion while supporting its legal availability for others is doing just that. In claiming to be Catholic, one claims to believe in sovereignty of love of God and neighbor. But in supporting legalized direct abortion, one is implying that love of neighbor is optional.
We should pray continually for all of our elected officials. But in this period of political change, we should pray especially for those elected officials who do not yet realize what it really means to love their unborn neighbors.
Dr. Charles Dern is an Adjunct Instructor in Moral Theology and Medical Ethics for the Religious Studies Division of St. Charles Seminary and Immaculata University