I have sometimes ridiculed the Left’s commitment to abortion as its sole core principle by referring to the “sacrament of abortion.” It stands at the center of a belief which holds that the Imperial Autonomous Self is the highest good and that, therefore, all (including the very life of another human being) must be sacrificed in order to maintain that cultic devotion. To be sure, many on the Left, feeling the shame of what they continue to doggedly support, like to muffle their commitment with euphemism, calling it “choice” instead of “child killing.” And there is much talk of “safe, legal, and rare” child killing to soften the brutal truth of what the cult worships. But at the end of the day, what is being fought for is child killing.
And not all who worship in the cult feel bad about it. Indeed, some on the Left have borne out this religious fanaticism with appalling zeal, declaring, in the words of Katherine Ragsdale, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that “abortion is a blessing” and abortionists do “holy work” — or, in the words of pro-abortion zealot Florynce Kennedy, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” (What? You think I come up with this stuff myself?)
However, the sacralization of abortion can cut both ways. To illustrate, let me refer to a letter I received recently asking a rather telling question:
I was wondering if you might have a really great article on the difference between an unjust war and how it compares to legalized abortion — to draw the great difference between an unjust war and the legality of abortion.
My strong suspicion is that this reader, like so many others with whom I have corresponded, was hoping for a reply along these lines:
Abortion is intrinsically immoral and can never be justified under any circumstances (that’s what “intrinsically immoral” means). “Just war,” on the other hand, is a matter of prudential judgment. So we know for certain that abortion is evil, but “prudential judgment” means you can disagree with the Magisterium if you like. Therefore, you must oppose abortion, but may support “unjust” wars.
The problem is, this argument tends to rely on two very dubious ideas.
The first of these dubious ideas is that “prudential judgment” means, “Let’s play ‘Simon Peter Says’.” In other words, unless the pope issues a direct dogmatic decree telling us what to think and do (Simon Peter says, “This particular war is unjust”), we can feel free to ignore even the strongest warnings of the Magisterium or common sense by saying, “It’s just a prudential judgment, so I don’t have to listen.” According to this theory, we could simply blow off things like this in the ramp-up to the Iraq War:
- “No to war!” — Pope John Paul II
- “[The] concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in direct response to a U.S. bid to get the Vatican on board with our preemptive war
- “To permit preemptive or preventive uses of military force to overthrow threatening or hostile regimes would create deeply troubling moral and legal precedents. Based on the facts that are known, it is difficult to justify resort to war against Iraq.” — the USCCB
. . . and plunge into war anyway, explaining that the pope hasn’t dogmatically defined our course of action as wrong, so we can do as we please.
The problem is, this sort of Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to magisterial guidance is essentially an open invitation to live as a pagan, since almost none of the Church’s moral guidance is dogmatic (including, by the way, the matter of how to apply Humanae Vitae on a daily basis). Yet somehow folks on the Right have figured out that artificial contraception is wrong, even when Simon Peter has not played “Simon Peter Says” to dogmatically legislate each and every particular of how we should behave in our bedrooms. Indeed, Rome has never dogmatically defined that suction aspiration constitutes abortion, yet conservative Catholics generally have no trouble figuring that out.
However, when it comes to the matter of just war, there is suddenly overwhelming bafflement (and righteous defiance) on much of the Right concerning common-sense application of magisterial guidance, just as there is overwhelming bafflement (and righteous defiance) on the Left concerning the pelvic issues. Do waterboarding, cold cells, and stress positions that cause suffocation and death constitute a violation of ius in bello (i.e., whether the war is fought justly)? It’s so confusing! We’ll never know what torture is till the Magisterium spells it all out for us, despite the fact that we have hanged Japanese for such crimes and our own military field manuals have given us clear guidelines for avoiding prisoner abuse (hint: Treat prisoners humanely, and you won’t accidently abuse them). Likewise, in the matter of ius ad bellum (i.e., whether we had just cause for war), there is utter mystification despite the fact that the overwhelming judgment of the Magisterium was that the Iraq war did not meet the ius ad bellum criteria.
To resolve this mystery of how the Magisterium could have gotten it so wrong when the United States was so right, we still hear that the guidance the Magisterium gave was, like so much else, not infallible — unlike the teaching on abortion. But so what? The urgent warning to avoid the war was as highly reasonable a judgment as suggesting that telling children to play in traffic, while not formally defined by the Church as gravely immoral, is still inadvisable and likely to get a lot of innocent people killed — and it was, by the way, perfectly accurate. And so, most recently, a bishop at the recent synod of Middle Eastern bishops attempted once again to make the daring suggestion to Catholics that a war whose chief fruit has been the destruction of the Iraqi Church is a war that needs to be seriously reconsidered:
Since the year 2003, Christians are the victims of a killing situation, which has provoked a great emigration from Iraq. Even if there are no definite statistics, however the indicators underline that half the Christians have abandoned Iraq and that without a doubt there are only about 400,000 Christians left of the 800,000 that lived there. The invasion of Iraq by America and its allies brought to Iraq in general, and especially to its Christians, destruction and ruin on all levels. Churches were blown up, bishops and priests and lay persons were massacred, many were the victims of aggression. Doctors and businessmen were kidnapped, others were threatened, storage places and homes were pillaged . . . .
Perhaps the acuity with which Christianity was targeted has been lightened during the last two years, but there still is the fear of the unknown, insecurity and instability, as well as the continuation of emigration, which always makes this question arise: what is the future of Christian existence in this country should this situation continue, more so because the civil authorities are so weak. The tears are continuous between the different religious and political composing elements, as well as external influence by external powers, especially neighboring countries.
Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world conscience? All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians.
We want to sound the alarm. We ask the question of the great powers: is it true what is said that there is a plan to empty the Middle East of Christians and that Iraq is one of the victims?
The question was rendered all the more poignant by the fact that this bishop would see slaughter visit his cathedral soon after this statement. Of course, the response of those who support the war that unleashed all this horror against the Iraqi Church is “More war!” Indeed, many still hold the mysterious belief that the purpose of the Iraq war was in the best interests of the people of Iraq or the Church there, despite the fact that, as the good bishop points out, the Church has done nothing but hemorrhage to death throughout our long and meandering campaign of nation-building. The truth is, there is nothing in the record to indicate that the fate of the Iraqi Church is of much interest to the United States, which was the bishop’s main point.
So am I saying that there are no prudential judgments and that we should just knuckle under to everything the bishops say on any matter? No. I am saying, along with the Holy Catholic Church, that the normative posture of a disciple of Jesus Christ is docility to the God-appointed teachers of Holy Church, not, “Prove that I should believe or do this, and then maybe I’ll think about it, if I feel like it.” Really:
Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms. (Catechism 87)
This means, among other things, that the point of just war teaching is not that the Church has to prove that a war is unjust, but that the State has to prove that it is just. And, as the magisterial authorities above make abundantly clear, that case was not made by a long shot when it comes to our adventure in Iraq.
Some people will exclaim, “If that’s so, then the Church is making it extremely difficult to go to war!”
Yes. That’s the idea. The point of just war doctrine is not, “If you can jigger your rationales for war into something vaguely resembling a fit for just war criteria, then feel free to go nuts!” It is, precisely, to make launching a war very, very difficult. That’s because war involves killing human beings, and you don’t want to do that unless you are very sure it is justified. The reason you don’t want to do that is because an unjust war is known by another, less popular name: Mass murder. And mass murder, whether it be of 122,000 innocent Iraqi civilians or 1.4 million innocent children, is gravely and intrinsically immoral.
In fact, the Church is so stringent on this point that she has long believed that the deliberate murder of even one innocent human being is sufficient to damn the murderer to the everlasting fires of Hell. It has been a touchy subject with her ever since a practical politician said to his bleeding-heart peacenik colleagues concerning a certain innocent civilian who was interfering with the grand geopolitical strategizing of the day: “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (Jn 11:49-50).
This leads to the second dubious idea that is gaining currency among some Catholics — an idea that is a curious mirror inversion of the blasphemous sacralization of abortion by the Left: namely, the notion advocated by an increasing number of conservative Catholics that opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world.
So, for instance, the logic animating my reader’s question was this: if one opposes abortion, one is absolved of any other moral choices one may make, including supporting an unjust war that kills thousands of innocent people. That is, after all, what was both suggested and even assumed in speaking of the “great difference between an unjust war and the legality of abortion.” Indeed, what is ultimately being suggested is that opposition to abortion, not the blood of the Lamb, washes away the sin of launching an unjust war, as well as virtually every other sin you could name.
So I am regularly informed that, because 1.4 million children are aborted each year, approval of the use of torture and the commission of war crimes is not only no sin, but somehow a patriotic virtue. Does the Church oppose the death penalty? No moral problem supporting it at all, so long as you oppose abortion. Do I pretty much ignore and even ridicule the Church’s teaching on a score of issues? No big deal, I oppose abortion! I wish I could find even the ghost of a thread of logic in such arguments, but in fact there is none at all. It is a completely illogical approach to Church teaching. But it appears to rest, in each case, on a soteriological theory that has absolutely nothing to do with Catholic faith, except this heretical formulation: “The Church opposes abortion. Therefore, to oppose abortion is to fulfill all that the Church requires of us to be saved.”
But, in fact, opposition to abortion is no more salvific than the vaunted commitment of the Left to “social justice.” The liberal, Pelosi-style Catholic imagines that increasing the minimum wage or funding a soup kitchen cleanses one of the sin of supporting abortion. A growing number of conservative Catholics imagines, like my reader, that opposing abortion cleanses one of the sin of supporting an unjust war or sundry other evils.
Now, one does not necessarily expect a Leftist Catholic who views the faith largely as a means of social reform to care about orthodox soteriology (essentially summed up in the words, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”). But one does expect a self-described “faithful orthodox Catholic” to understand that Jesus Christ, not adherence to a particular ideological fragment of Catholic moral teaching, takes away the sin of the world.
To recap: Neither commitment to social justice nor opposition to abortion takes away sins. And, in fact, we can and do commit other sins that are as grave as abortion. So, to return to my reader’s request for a relative scale of values between support for abortion and unjust war, here’s the cold hard fact: if a war is truly unjust, it means that one who supports it is supporting murder. And if one is supporting murder, it makes no “great difference” to God whether the one being murdered is a pre-born baby or an adult Iraqi civilian.
It falls to us as rational creatures to decide the justice of a given war (and many other crucial moral issues) with the tools and guidance provided by the Church. But if we are choosing evil (whether via unjust war, fornication, or white-collar crime), we cannot suppose that “Hey! I oppose abortion!” will substitute for repentance and confession. Human life is sacred, and fighting to protect it is good. But no good work, not even that one, takes away our sins, nor gives us a license to commit other sins. Our call is to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and no substitute religion — whether the religion of “commitment to social justice” or the religion of “being pro-life” — can substitute for the fullness of Catholic faith in Him. Support the right to life with might and main (Jesus Christ commands it, after all). But don’t imagine for one moment that obeying Him in that one thing is atonement for disobeying Him in other areas.