The National Catholic Review

I have never before encountered, either in correspondence, after Sunday liturgies or just in casual conversations, such intense concern and confusion over faith and politics as I do nowadays. The issue is abortion. Unlike most of the moral imperatives that Jesus articulates in the Gospel, unlike the seven deadly sins and unlike the challenges of popes and bishops concerning injustice, world poverty and wars—all of which seem so easily ignored or relativized—abortion somehow commands moral attention.

While it is always a mistake to fixate ethics on one aspect of life (this easily allows people to ignore the rest of faith and morals), it is understandable that abortion has become such a divisive and disturbing issue in America. We have the most permissive abortion laws on the face of the earth; and any attempt to provide restrictions like those in Europe is decried by pro-choice extremists as an assault on womanhood. It is difficult to imagine any open-minded person believing a 12-week fetus is anything but a living being, a human being, but we have legalized the right to kill such human beings brutally if only someone wants to do it. This should be troublesome to any thoughtful person.

As it turns out, there are some Catholic politicians who see no problem. Senators Kennedy, Kerry, Durbin, Harkin and Mikulski, among others, all receive 100 percent ratings from a major abortion rights organization.

In an effort to challenge the false but growing impression that it is acceptable for a Catholic to support abortion on demand, the American bishops have recently released Catholics in Political Life. Taking up their duty to teach the faith clearly, the bishops counsel Catholic public officials that their acting consistently to support abortion on demand risks making them cooperators in evil in a public manner. Reiterating their commitment to advocacy in public dialogue as well as direct action on behalf of life, they also state that Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. As for the reception of the Eucharist, we are reminded that we are all required to examine our consciences, including our fidelity to the moral teaching of the church, lest we receive the body of Christ unworthily.

I hope that every Catholic in the nation can have a copy of this document. Equally valuable would be Archbishop William Levada’s Reflections on Catholics in Political Life and the Reception of Holy Communion, also made available by the Conference of Catholic Bishops in June on their Web site (www.usccb.org/bishops/reflections.htm).

Archbishop Levada’s article is important for the following reasons: a) it responds to questions raised by 48 Catholic members of Congress who wrote to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick about the withholding of Communion; b) it addresses the relationship between faith, ethics and politics; c) it explains why opposition to abortion is so central to Catholic ethics; and d) it offers a timely discussion of what it means to cooperate in intrinsically evil actions.

This last point is particularly significant for the present controversy. Archbishop Levada explains that a Catholic voter may not formally cooperate in evil by directly participating and intending to abet the killing of innocent life, but if the intention to support abortion is not one’s reason for supporting a candidate, it would not be sinful cooperation.

The cogency of this distinction, however, seems lost in much of the confusion and concern I mentioned above. The bishops, not wanting to constrain any among themselves, noted in their document that individual bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action. Thus, at least according to news reports, there now seem to be divergent judgments about formal cooperation. Some bishops are reported to have announced that all Catholics who vote for a candidate who supports embryonic stem cell research or abortion rights should themselves refrain from Communion unless they repent.

A bishop may claim that he is not telling anyone how to vote, but he is telling you that you are mortally sinning if you vote for Kerry or Pataki. Catholics cannot, without grave threat to their souls, even vote for the current governor of New York or California, no matter his party. The pro-life Senator Rich Santorum, who supported his fellow Republican Senator Arlen Specter against a pro-life challenger, should repent before he receives Communion. And president Bush, who also supported Specter, should not be voted for, since support of a candidate presumably entails support of all that candidate’s positions. The Democratic party may honor its pro-choice politicians, but what shall we say of a Republican Party convention that now honors its pro-choice moderates with prime-time speaking slots?

Some Catholics have wondered whether mortal sins vary according to states and dioceses. Others question whether they should vote at all. It is urgent, then, that bishops continue to provide clear teaching. They should make the case in the public square for the inviolability of human life, even at conception, without appealing to their own authority. They should demand that Catholic Democrat and Republican candidates who legally tolerate but do not ethically approve abortion under certain circumstances (rape, incest, threat to life of the mother) provide leadership and strategies to reduce abortions. Finally, they should help us reflect on the moral challenges of citizenship in a secular society. Without such continued and unified clear teaching, neither formation of conscience nor protection of the unborn will be well served.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Charles R. Gellner | 7/21/2004 - 10:23am
Inspired by John Kavanaugh's article I would like to point out that there could be some difficulty persuading at least some present and future some U.S. Government officials (elected or appointed) plus U.S. Government employees, not to support, obey and defend constitutional law, directives and documents that are pro-abortion Many thouands of such persons in the U.S. Govenment have been required as a condition of their employment to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution of the United Stats recognizes in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that a woman under her "right of privacy" has a right to abort a fetus according to certain conditions described in the Supreme Court decision Roe v.Wade. So we have a head-on collision between the moral teaching of the Catholic church and those Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, who observe the oaths they take as a condition of their employment. So does this mean that a Catholic, as well as others who are anti-abortion cannot conscientiously serve in the U.S. government? I pose a question. Do the Bishops have an answer?
Claire Bangasser | 7/18/2004 - 4:31pm
Dear Father Kavanaugh,

Thank you for your column. I usually enjoy very much what you have to say. In the case of the issue on abortion, I find the position of the Catholic Church, and particularly the men in the Catholic Church, obscene.

I am pro-choice and against abortion. Can you understand that most people who are pro-choice are also against abortion? Abortion is one part of the jigsaw puzzle. It cannot be 'fixed' on its own. Social and economic injustice have to be addressed. Poverty, domestic violence, un-level playing fields, child abuse. Education, health care, single women heads of household, etc...

Until empathy is shown to these other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, women (and men) like me will defect in place and stop contributing to our parishes. We will contribute to genuinely charitable organizations -- those that help teenage mothers, e.g.

Also the day the Church understands that it takes a man and a woman to have an abortion, the day the Church condemns the rapist, the incest perpetratror with excommunication -- that day I might start listening. Until then, you can preach until you're blue, even purple in the face, I will still support pro-choice organizations and political figures.

Please think also of our political figures who stand against abortion but send our daughters and sons to their death in Iraq -- or who endorse capital punishment.

Finally, please tell me why our Savior Jesus Christ never addressed sexual sins, never condemned 'sinful women', but just turned the condemnation around to those men who wanted to stone the woman? When will the men in our church see that?

Mary Margaret Flynn, MD | 7/11/2004 - 2:40am
Kerry at least is hoping to get single payer, national health plan enacted, just as Clinton did, unhappily choosing to have his wife as the point person on it. As I have always worked in public medicine serving the uninsured and poorly insured and remember Ted Kennedy at an AMA meeting courageous enough to call for universal one payer National insurance back in the 1960s, how now can I not support the party that in most of it enactments has served life? Now seniors go to Canada to get their meds. We have health services for the rich and for the poor, not for the all. Bush has brought back segregation; Those who have, get more; those who don't--well get chairty, work three jobs, but don't expect government to help. Rich people can't afford taxes! The Congress didn't enact Roe vs Wade--the Supreme court made it law of the land. No preemptive war at least under any Democratic president. So with clear conscience I will vote for Kerry and work for more Rachel homes and an end to abortion.
Fr. Michael Lydon | 7/27/2004 - 11:38am
Fr. Kavanaugh hits the nail on the head again! I am very grateful for his cogent, concise, and accurate rendering of the American bishops' documents--in many less words. That certain, few bishops would ignore or blur the difference between material and formal cooperation in the evil of abortion as they judge the sinfulness of voters is unfortunate, confusing and misleading. Kavanaugh's article, as well as the longer episcopal documents, clarify the real issue. He has provided genuine moral guidance. Thank you, Fr. Kavanaugh.
Laurence J. Gillis | 7/22/2004 - 10:27am
Our failure to draw a bright line in the sand around abortion is appalling. This has led to an intolerable unacceptable moral confusion on the part of many.

For example, a woman recently wrote an article in the NY Times Magazine about her decision to abort two of the three triplets she was carrying, on the basis of her personal convenience. The article is utterly devoid of any ethical considerations. No soliliquy here: three kids was two too many, so she aborted them.

It is, unintentionally, a VERY instructive article. It can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/18/magazine/18LIVES.html

Read it and weep.

Kelly Jean McEntee | 7/16/2004 - 5:19pm
Is the life of an unborn child of greater importance than the life of a prisoner on death row? Is the life of an unborn child of greater importance than an Iraqi family having their home destroyed and their lives taken from them by American weapons? Living in this era, Catholics must pray for answers to such questions, and unfortunately, those answers never come in black and white, but in shades of gray.

No one political candidate will ever meet the religious wishes of Catholics on all issues. Therefore, it is our responsibility to pray and to examine our conscience and to make decisions as voters that will bring about the most overall good in the world. It is not the responsibility of any one Bishop or a group of Bishops to do that praying and examining and decision making for us.

As to the statement in the column, "I hope that every Catholic in the nation can have a copy of this document ," a good start would be to also give the web address for "Catholics in Political Life" in addition to the one provided for Archbishop William Levada’s document.

Editor's Note: Links to all these documents are avaiable at www.americamagazine.org/CatholicPoliticians.htm

Joe Daus | 7/11/2004 - 3:20pm
A recent conference afforded me the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia and take in many attractions including the Liberty Bell. I wasn’t much surprised when I found myself choking back heavy tears as I viewed the Bell and considered my many freedoms, including that of religion. Truly, I’m the devoted son of two parents, Roman Catholicism and America. Both have provided me tremendous gifts, the most sacred from each being the Eucharist and the right to vote.

Too bad my separated Church and State folks so often quarrel and force me to pick sides.

Recently, my Archbishop has insinuated that I will be in a state of grave sin and should not receive Communion if I vote for Kerry. While the Archbishop of course would never fathom naming Kerry directly (He is simply teaching the non-partisan Faith after all), I consider myself bright enough to connect the dots. What I’m not smart enough to figure out is, what happened to informing one’s conscience and the difficult but important process of prayer and discernment? Another one that stumps me is what exactly is pro-life about unjustified, unilateral warfare? Moreover, I wasn’t aware that these and other complicated matters of state and soul could be so easily swept away by an Archbishop’s edict. As one who has demonstrated with and contributed to anti-abortion efforts, I feel devalued. Perhaps the Archbishop feels that pro-choice Catholic politicians pose such a grave and looming threat that a pre-emptive strike is required via the laity’s own fear of potential damnation. I’m glad that the Archbishop so loves and shepherds me.

As you can see from my tone above, I’m like the alienated and angry youth, conflicted more strongly each passing day as November approaches. In my more acrimonious moments, I think of voting for Kerry, not in spite of my Archbishop’s edict, but because of it. Fortunately, Fr. Kavanaugh, like a compassionate counselor working with kids of divorce, provided me an article that helped me to better appreciate the Church’s unwavering and adamant teaching while suggesting to one of my folks that they find a better way of making a point.

Charles R. Gellner | 7/21/2004 - 10:23am
Inspired by John Kavanaugh's article I would like to point out that there could be some difficulty persuading at least some present and future some U.S. Government officials (elected or appointed) plus U.S. Government employees, not to support, obey and defend constitutional law, directives and documents that are pro-abortion Many thouands of such persons in the U.S. Govenment have been required as a condition of their employment to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution of the United Stats recognizes in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that a woman under her "right of privacy" has a right to abort a fetus according to certain conditions described in the Supreme Court decision Roe v.Wade. So we have a head-on collision between the moral teaching of the Catholic church and those Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, who observe the oaths they take as a condition of their employment. So does this mean that a Catholic, as well as others who are anti-abortion cannot conscientiously serve in the U.S. government? I pose a question. Do the Bishops have an answer?
Claire Bangasser | 7/18/2004 - 4:31pm
Dear Father Kavanaugh,

Thank you for your column. I usually enjoy very much what you have to say. In the case of the issue on abortion, I find the position of the Catholic Church, and particularly the men in the Catholic Church, obscene.

I am pro-choice and against abortion. Can you understand that most people who are pro-choice are also against abortion? Abortion is one part of the jigsaw puzzle. It cannot be 'fixed' on its own. Social and economic injustice have to be addressed. Poverty, domestic violence, un-level playing fields, child abuse. Education, health care, single women heads of household, etc...

Until empathy is shown to these other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, women (and men) like me will defect in place and stop contributing to our parishes. We will contribute to genuinely charitable organizations -- those that help teenage mothers, e.g.

Also the day the Church understands that it takes a man and a woman to have an abortion, the day the Church condemns the rapist, the incest perpetratror with excommunication -- that day I might start listening. Until then, you can preach until you're blue, even purple in the face, I will still support pro-choice organizations and political figures.

Please think also of our political figures who stand against abortion but send our daughters and sons to their death in Iraq -- or who endorse capital punishment.

Finally, please tell me why our Savior Jesus Christ never addressed sexual sins, never condemned 'sinful women', but just turned the condemnation around to those men who wanted to stone the woman? When will the men in our church see that?

Mary Margaret Flynn, MD | 7/11/2004 - 2:40am
Kerry at least is hoping to get single payer, national health plan enacted, just as Clinton did, unhappily choosing to have his wife as the point person on it. As I have always worked in public medicine serving the uninsured and poorly insured and remember Ted Kennedy at an AMA meeting courageous enough to call for universal one payer National insurance back in the 1960s, how now can I not support the party that in most of it enactments has served life? Now seniors go to Canada to get their meds. We have health services for the rich and for the poor, not for the all. Bush has brought back segregation; Those who have, get more; those who don't--well get chairty, work three jobs, but don't expect government to help. Rich people can't afford taxes! The Congress didn't enact Roe vs Wade--the Supreme court made it law of the land. No preemptive war at least under any Democratic president. So with clear conscience I will vote for Kerry and work for more Rachel homes and an end to abortion.
Fr. Michael Lydon | 7/27/2004 - 11:38am
Fr. Kavanaugh hits the nail on the head again! I am very grateful for his cogent, concise, and accurate rendering of the American bishops' documents--in many less words. That certain, few bishops would ignore or blur the difference between material and formal cooperation in the evil of abortion as they judge the sinfulness of voters is unfortunate, confusing and misleading. Kavanaugh's article, as well as the longer episcopal documents, clarify the real issue. He has provided genuine moral guidance. Thank you, Fr. Kavanaugh.
Laurence J. Gillis | 7/22/2004 - 10:27am
Our failure to draw a bright line in the sand around abortion is appalling. This has led to an intolerable unacceptable moral confusion on the part of many.

For example, a woman recently wrote an article in the NY Times Magazine about her decision to abort two of the three triplets she was carrying, on the basis of her personal convenience. The article is utterly devoid of any ethical considerations. No soliliquy here: three kids was two too many, so she aborted them.

It is, unintentionally, a VERY instructive article. It can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/18/magazine/18LIVES.html

Read it and weep.

Kelly Jean McEntee | 7/16/2004 - 5:19pm
Is the life of an unborn child of greater importance than the life of a prisoner on death row? Is the life of an unborn child of greater importance than an Iraqi family having their home destroyed and their lives taken from them by American weapons? Living in this era, Catholics must pray for answers to such questions, and unfortunately, those answers never come in black and white, but in shades of gray.

No one political candidate will ever meet the religious wishes of Catholics on all issues. Therefore, it is our responsibility to pray and to examine our conscience and to make decisions as voters that will bring about the most overall good in the world. It is not the responsibility of any one Bishop or a group of Bishops to do that praying and examining and decision making for us.

As to the statement in the column, "I hope that every Catholic in the nation can have a copy of this document ," a good start would be to also give the web address for "Catholics in Political Life" in addition to the one provided for Archbishop William Levada’s document.

Editor's Note: Links to all these documents are avaiable at www.americamagazine.org/CatholicPoliticians.htm

Joe Daus | 7/11/2004 - 3:20pm
A recent conference afforded me the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia and take in many attractions including the Liberty Bell. I wasn’t much surprised when I found myself choking back heavy tears as I viewed the Bell and considered my many freedoms, including that of religion. Truly, I’m the devoted son of two parents, Roman Catholicism and America. Both have provided me tremendous gifts, the most sacred from each being the Eucharist and the right to vote.

Too bad my separated Church and State folks so often quarrel and force me to pick sides.

Recently, my Archbishop has insinuated that I will be in a state of grave sin and should not receive Communion if I vote for Kerry. While the Archbishop of course would never fathom naming Kerry directly (He is simply teaching the non-partisan Faith after all), I consider myself bright enough to connect the dots. What I’m not smart enough to figure out is, what happened to informing one’s conscience and the difficult but important process of prayer and discernment? Another one that stumps me is what exactly is pro-life about unjustified, unilateral warfare? Moreover, I wasn’t aware that these and other complicated matters of state and soul could be so easily swept away by an Archbishop’s edict. As one who has demonstrated with and contributed to anti-abortion efforts, I feel devalued. Perhaps the Archbishop feels that pro-choice Catholic politicians pose such a grave and looming threat that a pre-emptive strike is required via the laity’s own fear of potential damnation. I’m glad that the Archbishop so loves and shepherds me.

As you can see from my tone above, I’m like the alienated and angry youth, conflicted more strongly each passing day as November approaches. In my more acrimonious moments, I think of voting for Kerry, not in spite of my Archbishop’s edict, but because of it. Fortunately, Fr. Kavanaugh, like a compassionate counselor working with kids of divorce, provided me an article that helped me to better appreciate the Church’s unwavering and adamant teaching while suggesting to one of my folks that they find a better way of making a point.