Bishops, Babies, and the Bomb: An Imaginary Conversation

Peregrine Quester: I’m looking for a straight answer to a question that seems to be taboo. Is it a sin to vote for a pro-abortion politician?

Jack McThomas: Do I have to answer yes or no?

Quester: Yes

McThomas: Then yes.

Quester: Are you going to stop there? No qualifications? McThomas: Plenty. But you asked for a yes-or-no answer, and the yes-or-no answer is pretty obvious. Giving a man political power when you know he’ll use it to kill the innocent must be sinful. Or when you know he wants to let the killing to go on, or wants to pay others to do it, or when he refuses to try to stop it.

However there are qualifiers, and naturally the qualifiers complicate the answer.

Quester: You mean it’s not always a sin to vote for a pro-abortion candidate?

McThomas: That’s right. You may have no real choice. The way things are going, we could end up with wall-to-wall abortionists in politics. Then it’s either vote for one of them or withdraw from civic life.

Quester: Can we stick to the present? Under present circumstances, how could it not be a sin to vote for a pro-abortion candidate?

McThomas: Let’s work from principles. You probably remember from your catechism that to commit a grave sin, three conditions have to be met. You have to have serious matter, and that’s the only part I tackled when you asked for a yes-or-no answer. Then you have to have full knowledge of what’s at stake, and you have to give full consent. That’s where the qualifiers come in, in full knowledge and full consent.

Quester: Putting those two together, “full knowledge and full consent,” sounds like something a lot of fuss is made over: informed consent.

McThomas: You can’t consent fully to something you don’t understand. You need information. You may also need explanation. But poor understanding isn’t the only impediment to consent. Physical constraint, or moral duress, can make a charade of what might seem to be consent. In such a case, the actor becomes a puppet.

Then there’s lack of alternatives. That’s the case we mentioned, where all the candidates are pro-abortion. Even today, that happens often enough. And when it does, you may not be consenting to a candidate’s abortionism if you vote for him.

Quester: That wouldn’t be a sin at all, then.

McThomas: Probably not, ceteris paribus.

Quester: What’s that?

McThomas: It means: All other things being equal. It’s a phrase economists use to isolate their analyses from reality. To make their abstract models critic-proof.

Quester: What “other things” are you thinking of? McThomas: Well, you could have an intervention from ecclesiastical authority. Mind you, that sort of thing isn’t likely to happen nowadays, to say the least. But in theory there could be a non expedit, a disciplinary ruling that Catholics should abstain altogether from voting. Or a Regnans in excelsis, excommunicating the pro-abortion politicians.

Quester: Excommunicate them? Why, bishops celebrate Holy Mass in their honor!

McThomas: I’m not necessarily recommending it..Excommunication, I mean. And certainly not the celebration of Mass in their honor.

However, another point has been raised from time to time. As you know, both the old Code of Canon Law and the new one excommunicate those who procure an abortion. Does this law also strike the politicians who make abortion possible, and encourage it, and pay for it?

Quester: That’s an interesting question. I’d like to put it to a canonist. But let’s get back to the question we started with: Is it a sin to vote for a pro-abortion politician? Your answer is: Yes, but not necessarily.

McThomas: No. My answer is: Yes, but not always. That is, not in every case.

The principle is simple, the practice sometimes is not. You have the clearly grave matter of empowering a pro-abortionist to kill the innocent, through other agents of course. At the very least, the voter is permitting an unspeakable crime. But how often does the voter give full consent? How often does he have sufficient knowledge?

Quester: You mean knowledge that it’s a grave matter?

McThomas: Actually I wasn’t thinking of that. Now that you raise the point, I see it only too well. Abortion enjoys all the authority of law: not just its permission but its moral approval. When you consider that the law is a teacher, and when you recall that Catholics have been brought up to respect the law, you can see how this law could affect the thinking of Catholics.

Quester: Plus the barrage of pro-abortion propaganda.

McThomas: Just how effective that is is doubtful. It’s so patently factitious and far-fetched. “Pro-choice” has to be the most self-defeating euphemism in current use.

What’s really dangerous is the constant attrition of the Catholic conscience by civil institutions favoring abortion. They’re ubiquitous: state subsidies, insurance, even the United Way. And, of course, the law itself.

Quester: This has taken its toll already. Just think of the nuns, and even the bishop, who’ve said publicly that access of the poor to abortion is a matter of equity.

McThomas: Now you’re touching the nerve. Unless the bishops and priests keep reminding Catholics that abortion is an unspeakable crime and an attack on the personhood of God himself, and an outrage against the dogma of the Incarnation, Catholics will sooner or later get used to abortion. They’ll accept it as inevitable, as a normal part of life. They’ll forget it’s a grave matter. To the extent that this is already happening, it is a calamity and a tragedy.

Quester: But you weren’t thinking of all this when you wondered how often the voter has sufficient knowledge. What were you thinking of?

McThomas: Simply of knowledge that a given politician is pro-abortion. Because abortion is widely considered a no-win situation in politics, politicians try to avoid the subject. That includes many who have the right convictions and vote the right way. Moreover the newspapers try to avoid it. They want abortion to be a non-issue, and it becomes a non-issue when people don’t make a fuss about it.

Quester: Aren’t you shooting from the hip?

McThomas: Obviously this doesn’t apply to every politician or to every newspaper, or to every reporter on every newspaper. Then some newspapers are anti-abortion on the editorial page, but that doesn’t necessarily affect the reporting.

Quester: But shouldn’t the local bishop make it clear which candidates are pro-abortion?

McThomas: He can’t very well do that if he’s celebrating Mass in their honor, or if his own newspaper is publishing their political advertisements, or if Catholic colleges in his diocese are giving them honorary doctorates.

To answer your question more directly, I’m not sure the bishop should come out with a blacklist. To identify pro-abortion politicians is usually the laity’s responsibility. What the bishop must do is inform voters of the ethical principle: Don’t vote abortionists into office.

Quester: Come to think of it, I wish bishops would stick to principles.

McThomas: If you mean the bishops should confine themselves to statements of principle, that’s a big mistake. But it’s an understandable mistake, considering recent history, and it will remain a temptation so long as the bishops’ political comments are drafted by a man who repeatedly distorts the principle of subsidiarity, to say no more. Yet when you consider the matter, you realize that bishops must be free to condemn particular abuses.

Even where they confine themselves to generalities, they don’t teach in a vacuum. They have to emphasize the principles that bear on a given age, on its abuses and its temptations. Otherwise their principles will sound like platitudes. If they harped on the permanence of marriage in a society without divorce, say, but crippled by corrupt courts, they would be seen as irrelevant. In that sense, and only in that sense, the bishops’ agenda should be set by the world.

Quester: Confining themselves to principles would keep the bishops out of trouble, anyway.

McThomas: Not with everybody. Not if they’re doing their job. They can get into trouble with a corrupt regime if they talk in broad terms about honest government. Talking generalities can demand courage, if the generalities hit home in high places. Chrysostom got into hot water that way.

Quester: What principles do you suggest the bishops of this country teach nowadays?

McThomas: Brian Benestad has written a book on the subject. [The Pursuit of a Just Social Order, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington.] Read it.

Quester: Of course. But what principles do you suggest the bishops emphasize?

McThomas: They shouldn’t forget chastity.

Quester: That would be refreshing.

McThomas: Some of the bishops have been doing a good job of it already. When Archbishop John Quinn was president of the episcopal conference, he spoke clearly enough. Contraception is certainly sinful, he said. The pill, once hailed as the harbinger of freedom, has destroyed the freedom of husband and wife. It has led to more than a million divorces a year. Venereal disease has become epidemic. Contraception was supposed to abolish unwanted pregnancies, yet the abortion rate has skyrocketed. The new promiscuity has wreaked psychological and emotional havoc.

Quester: I wish we’d hear more talk of that kind among bishops.

McThomas: So does the Pope, and he’s said so. Contraception has become a tabooed subject. I wonder how many IUDs are marching up to the Communion rail every Sunday, and not a peep from the pulpit. Nor anyone in the confessional. Yet Archbishop Quinn is right. Contraception has destroyed marriages and spawned promiscuity. It has multiplied abortions. In fact some so-called contraceptives are really abortifacients.

Quester: So you think chastity is the most important message the bishops can get across to people at large?

McThomas: Oh no. I think the most important single social principle to be taught by the bishops is that virtue — personal virtue — is the chief constituent of the common good. The very object of human society is the life of virtue. Chastity is one virtue among many.

Quester: If the bishops can’t talk about virtue, they can’t talk about anything else. But is there anything else they should be talking about?

McThomas: Subsidiarity, for starters. Property. Consumerism, and the materialism at the root of consumerism. At the root of abortion, too. But read Benestad.

Quester: When the bishops talk about vices, shouldn’t they give some guidance about which vices are worse than others? What I mean is, which vices have a worse effect when they’re made a part of public policy.

For example, the bishops could help voters decide between a pro-abortion candidate and a candidate who advocates something worse.

McThomas: Seems reasonable.

What’s worse than abortion, by the way? What are you thinking of?

Quester: Nothing in particular. But let’s say a nuclear first strike. I mean against cities.

McThomas: A nuclear strike against a city would be tragic beyond words, but it needn’t be immoral. A city can be a military target, if it has the right kind of military facilities. The question then becomes one of proportion. Does the civilian carnage outweigh the military damage? The bishops’ letter on nuclear arms is pretty clear about that.

Quester: But a first strike?

McThomas: The bishops conclude in their letter on war and peace that any first use of nuclear weapons is wrong. They argue from the likelihood of escalation. They probably assume that escalation is likely to entrain damage disproportionate to whatever good is achieved, and also likely to include indiscriminate attacks on non-combatants. These are reasonable assumptions, but the bishops don’t spell them out. So they present us with an argument based on what they assert to be a likelihood, and on a couple of unstated assumptions, themselves likelihoods.

Quester: No wonder the bishops cited their condemnation of first use when they warned us that not every part of their letter carried the same moral weight.

McThomas: That still leaves us trying to find a political position that’s worse than pro – abortionism.

Quester: Can’t you think of one?

McThomas: Not one that politicians would admit to yet. But they’ll get around to it.

On the issue of warfare, if a politician advocated wars aimed at enslaving whole nations that might be as bad as advocating abortion. Genocide would certainly be as bad. But it would hardly be worse.

Or suppose somebody advocated the obliteration of cities, by nuclear weapons or conventional weapons or any means whatsoever. That would be as bad as advocating abortion. The bishops make that clear in their letter. Hold on.

Here we are: “We are well aware of the differences involved in the taking of human life in warfare and the taking of human life through abortion.” Their point — and they make it — is that defense against aggression may entail a justifiable loss of innocent life.

But they go on: “Nothing, however, can justify direct attack on innocent human life in or out of warfare. Abortion is precisely such an attack.”

Quester: So if we accept the bishops’ stand, a political plank for abortion is equivalent to a political plank for the obliteration-bombing of cities.

McThomas: That’s what the bishops have to be saying. But they haven’t quite said it.                   Incidentally, you referred to “the bishops’ stand.” They haven’t taken a collective stand against voting a pro-abortion candidate into office. Quite the contrary.

Quester: Now hold on. You can’t be saying that the bishops have taken a collective stand in favor of voting a pro-abortion candidate into office! That’s unbelievable! That’s an outrageous claim!

McThomas: Well, look at the record. During the 1976 electoral season, the almost 50 bishops of the episcopal conference’s central committee told Catholics what was really important in choosing a candidate. Abortion was listed first, but with the explanation that the list was “in alphabetical order.” Abortion, the bishops said, was “among our concerns.” But the bishops urged Catholics to judge candidates “on the full range of issues,” and they threw in everything but sensitivity and openness to growth. By the standards the bishops set up, you could balance a candidate’s pro -abortionism against his opposition to unemployment and his support for educational opportunity.

I’m not dreaming those issues up, mind you. The bishops actually cited them when they made abortion one issue among many.

Quester: It’s hard to believe.

McThomas: The bishops liked their position so much, presumably for its balance and moderation, that they published it again for the 1980 presidential elections. But it couldn’t save Carter this time.

Quester: What the bishops are saying is that you shouldn’t keep a candidate out of office just because he favors abortion.

McThomas: It doesn’t admit of any other interpretation, and in fact that’s the way people have invariably understood it. Pro-abortion candidates have used it in their campaign ads. In Catholic papers.

But if the bishops think a man is fit for office when he favors the killing of innocent children, they should think he’s fit for office when he favors the obliteration-bombing of cities.

Quester: The bishops are pretty mixed up, aren’t they?

McThomas: Not all of them.

  • Patrick Riley

    Patrick Riley was with the DeRance Foundation when he wrote this article in 1984.

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