Documentation: Must Catholic Legislators Oppose Abortion?

Archbishop Roger Mahony

Feast of the Sacred Heart, June 2, 1989

In a few weeks, the Supreme Court of the United States will hand down its decision in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.

While it is impossible to predict how the Webster decision will affect the abortion liberty as defined by the Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the very fact of the Court’s accepting responsibility in the Webster case means that the public policy debate over abortion is not settled. Indeed, it will intensify.

Even if the Court should drastically limit the abortion liberty as defined by Roe, the problem of securing the right to life of the unborn will not be solved, nor will the argument over abortion cease. In fact, it will multiply, since the various state legislatures may well be required after Webster to reconsider state abortion law. Instead of one great national abortion debate, there will likely be 50 such debates.

This new legal and political situation has re-opened important questions about the role of Catholic public officials—both elected and appointed—in the matter of abortion. These questions are likely to be with us at least through the balance of this century. As the Archbishop of Los Angeles, I believe it is my responsibility to clarify the Church’s teaching on the responsibilities of Catholics who serve as elected or appointed public officials. In doing so, I hope I can make a contribution to the larger public debate on this preeminent moral and civil rights issue of our generation.

Let me begin by challenging several misconceptions which have marred the abortion debate since 1973, as follows:

(1) It is often said that the right-to-life movement seeks to impose “sectarian religious values” on the American public, and thus violates the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Roe v. Wade abolished—not modified, but abolished—the abortion statutes of fifty states. It is historically inconceivable that those laws involved the “imposition” of “sectarian beliefs.” Rather, they expressed the consensus of local communities on the right to life of the unborn. That consensus, in the main, remains clear: every available piece of reputable survey research indicates that the American people reject abortion as a means of contraception, reject abortion because an unplanned pregnancy would involve economic difficulties, and reject abortion when the procedure is undertaken to resolve problems of personal relationships between a man and a woman.

Approximately 75 percent of the American people oppose abortion when the reasons given for terminating a pregnancy are those under which 99 percent of abortions today are obtained. Public officials who work to eliminate the abortion liberty as defined by Roe v. Wade are working with, rather than against, a demonstrable public consensus—a consensus that cannot be reasonably described as “sectarian,” a consensus that has been written into Federal law for 13 years by the Hyde amendments.

(2) As for the alleged violation of the separation of church and state, the Constitution did not rule religiously-based values out of the public debate over issues of public policy.

To claim that the First Amendment did this is to disenfranchise that overwhelming majority of the American people whose commitments to democracy, justice, and democratic civility rest on Biblical understandings. Resistance to the abortion liberty defined by Roe v. Wade is not simply a “Catholic issue,” substantively or institutionally. There are Protestant and Jewish intellectuals, many religious leaders, and even avowed secularists, who have challenged the abortion liberty.

Nor should pro-abortion activists who welcome the support of the Catholic hierarchy on issues of nuclear weapons policy, Central American policy, or welfare reform policy deny that same hierarchy its legitimate and constitutionally protected voice on matters of abortion policy.

(3) In our democracy, religious people ought to make their arguments in ways that can be heard by fellow-citizens who do not share their religious convictions.

Thus, I would urge my fellow Californians to understand that the abortion liberty violates more than Catholic moral teaching: it violates the classic American tradition of hospitality to the stranger. Roe v. Wade was not a “liberal” decision. Rather, it broke a two-hundred-year-old pattern of expanding the community of those for whom we as a people assume a common responsibility of protection.

Americans fought a civil war, adopted a more inclusive right to vote, generously funded Social Security, and made our public buildings and streets accessible to the handicapped—all in the name of expanding the boundaries of the community of mutual responsibility. Then there was Roe v. Wade: the first decisive break with this pattern of enlarging the community of the commonly protected. Viewed through the lens of history, Roe v. Wade was not a “liberal” decision, but a profoundly reactionary one. The analogies to the U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott case (which defined slaves of African descent not to be “persons” in the meaning of the Constitution) are not strained, and we would all do well to ponder what we have said about ourselves as a people when we radically constrain the protections we afford to the weakest in our midst.

This point was made vividly by Pope John Paul II to President George Bush during his recent visit in Rome: “The ultimate test of her [America’s] greatness [is] to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn.”

In light of these considerations, it seems clear to me that Catholic officeholders—Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives—have a positive moral obligation to work for an America that is hospitable to the stranger, the alien, and the weak; to work for an America in which the abortion liberty has been repealed, in our culture and in our laws; to work for an America in which the community, with compassion and care, helps meet the needs of all those involved in an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles stands ready to back its convictions on the matter of the right-to-life of the unborn with effective social and health services. This is a solemn commitment which I proclaimed on January 22, 1986—my first year as Archbishop in Los Angeles—and a commitment which continues.

All our Catholic people, and I, expect our Catholic public officials (for whom it is no more possible to divide their consciences on this matter than on any other matter where grave moral issues touch public policy) to back their convictions in the arena of the legislature—both state and national. We expect them to speak clearly about the moral imperative to protect all human life from the moment of conception until natural death, and we expect them to support legislation which guarantees, supports, and safeguards that right to life.

The debate that is certain to ensue in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Webster case is a fundamental and unavoidable test of our generation’s adherence to the central proposition of the American experiment: that all people are created equal, and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is one of the great graces of life in the United States that this proposition has been defended, in and out of season, by men and women of many religious faiths, or of no religious faith. I believe that the new abortion debate after Roe v. Wade can be the occasion for a new birth of freedom in these United States. And I pray that all Catholic public officials will be found in the forefront of the quest for a nation which promises, and delivers, liberty and justice for all, born and unborn.

A Response to Mahony: Zeal and Politics

Archbishop Roger M. Mahony’s recent policy statement on “Catholic public officials and the new abortion debate” is an unwise and unwelcome clerical intrusion into the political process.

The archbishop began his statement by noting that it was issued in anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that would “intensify” the debate over abortion and throw it back into the legislatures of the 50 states. In that debate, Mahony wrote, all Catholic officeholders have a “positive moral obligation” to seek the repeal of laws permitting abortion. “All our Catholic people, and I,” he wrote, “expect our Catholic public officials (for whom it is no more possible to divide their consciences on this matter than on any other matter where grave moral issues touch public policy) to back their convictions in the arena of the legislature—both state and national… We expect them to support legislation which guarantees… the right to life.”

No one imagines that lawmakers can or should ignore the voice of their own convictions. But our non-sectarian democracy presumes that the voice will come from their own conscience and not from the pulpit. Are Catholic legislators similarly obliged to oppose capital punishment as their bishops, including Mahony do? Must they oppose nuclear deterrence and military aid to Central America, as their bishops have? More to the point, are the church’s solemn teachings on the indissolubility of marriage and the intrinsic immorality of all artificial contraception also binding on Catholic officeholders? If not, Mahony’s statement looks less like moral instruction and more like a little political arm-twisting.

In a lecture on the church and censorship the great Jesuit theologian and exponent of religious liberty, John Courtney Murray, once argued that “The law, mindful of its nature, is required to be tolerant of many evils that morality condemns.”

In our pluralistic society, as Father Murray’s discerning remark suggests, the boundary between church and state is not always a clear line one can walk with sure-footed confidence. More often, it is a kind of social precipice approached across treacherous, shifting soil that may give way at any moment. Prudent people stay well back from such an edge.


Los Angeles Times

June 6, 1989

A Response to the Times: The Real Issues in the New Abortion Debate

Recent events, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of Missouri’s Webster case and the nationwide attention raised by the Operation Rescue movement, have intensified the public debate over abortion liberty. Even if the Court should drastically limit abortion liberty as defined in Roe v. Wade—the problem of securing the right to life of the unborn will not be solved, nor will the argument cease over abortion. It has become the preeminent moral and civil rights issue of our time.

Rather the debate will be multiplied as state legislatures may be required to reconsider state abortion statutes abolished by Roe. These laws, in the main, represented local community consensus on the right to life of the unborn.

That consensus remains clear. Every available reputable piece of survey research—including a recent Los Angeles Times poll—tells us at least 75 percent of the American people reject abortion as a means of contraception, reject abortion because an unplanned pregnancy would involve economic difficulties, and reject abortion to resolve problems of personal relationships between a man and a woman. Since these “contraceptive abortions” account for approximately 99 percent of the abortions now performed, it seems apparent the American people have rejected the abortion liberty as defined by Roe v. Wade.

The abortion debate is not the only pressing “life issue” confronting us today. But the seriousness with which we conduct that argument will speak volumes about our ability, as a free society, to make morally-informed choices about such “hospitable society” issues as fetal tissue research, treatment of handicapped infants, genetic engineering, the severely retarded, the comatose, and care of the elderly.

We also need to reflect on the foundations of law in a just society. Belief in democracy does not mean that the truth, the good, and the just are always what the majority says they are. To the contrary—our Bill of Rights means that some things in our democracy aren’t up for a vote—like freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to petition government for a redress of grievances.

Viewed from another angle, our democracy’s laws are bounded by a higher law: all of us, as human beings and as citizens, are accountable not simply to civil law, but to concepts of truth and justice that stand in judgment on our laws, and on us. Jim Crow laws may have been duly enacted by legally-elected legislatures, but they were morally hateful: they violated our common sense of justice, and were thus legally indefensible in the full meaning of “the law.”

The American Founders were referring to this higher law when they spoke of inalienable rights, and included among them the right to life. Living and legislating in what is often the tension between justice and legality is no easy business, to be sure. Catholic social thought has traditionally affirmed that prudence—the skill or habit by which we calculate how our moral norms should be embodied in practice—is the highest of political virtues. But we misunderstand the virtue of prudence if we reduce it, on the one hand, to legislating morality, or on the other, to splitting the difference between opposed positions. Prudence is a matter of calculus, not arithmetic.

Living the virtue of prudence has something to do with pluralism in these United States. Pluralism does not mean indifference to issues that divide us. Rather, pluralism means engaging our differences, forthrightly and frankly, within the bond of democratic civility. When we do that, we won’t find easy answers to the dilemmas of public policy, domestic or foreign. But we may find a measure of political wisdom—something we surely won’t find if we reduce our opponents’ positions to caricatures.

I would urge all of us, as Americans of many faiths and political convictions, to reflect on this fact: the number of deaths caused by abortion every year in this country is the equivalent of losing a city the size of Detroit to a nuclear attack. What does this say about us as a people committed to building a hospitable society? What does this say about us as a people who have traditionally welcomed the gift of life, cherished it, and defended it against its enemies?

What has happened in America since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973 is not merely offensive to Catholic sensibilities. It is deeply unworthy of us as a people. We have to think that through, carefully, and with mutual candor and mutual charity, if the new abortion debate is to strengthen American democracy and help us continue the Founders’ and Framers’ task of building a community of character to which we can pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Archbishop Roger Mahony

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