Saturday, March 16, 2019

Ending the Standoff


Anyone who has paid attention knows that Catholics [*] in the prolife movement in America are deeply divided these days to the point that some view discrediting the other as more important than defeating the culture of death. This division is largely over politics. Members of the factions disagree over how to vote: what issues are important and what issues can be sacrificed for a greater good. The factions like to accuse each other of betraying the defense of life in favor of politics. Unfortunately, both are blind to the fact that they share the same error and merely tolerate different evils in doing so. This error is that they have moved from fighting the gravest evil first to excusing the evils of the party they tend to agree with. 

What the Church Teaches

We should first consider the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, #27:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. 

It is clear that there are many issues that the Church considers intrinsically evil (can never be made “good” no matter what the circumstances). Catholics are forbidden to defend any of them. Unfortunately, two factions in the Catholic prolife movement do end up defending the indefensible. They are OPLM and the NPLM.

What’s Wrong With the OPLM?

The Old/Original Pro Life Movement (OPLM) tends to think that voting to oppose abortion is the only thing that matters and every other issue can be sacrificed to insure that laws are passed that restrict abortion and judges are appointed that will overturn legalized abortion as a “constitutional right.” The problem is, they forget that their obligation to evangelize the world can’t be set aside until abortion is banned and these other injustices must be opposed too. They also forget the danger of being so invested in that party that they begin to treat the whole political platform with the Christian Faith. They support politicians who have no problem with some of the issues on the list the Church condemns as infamies, and when bishops speak out, accuse the bishops of getting involved in politics. They forget what the Church says:

Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience. 

Apostolicam actuositatem 5

In other words, they cannot use the (very real) importance of the abortion issue to justify ignoring the other teachings of the Church or the candidates who go against them. The bishops who speak in the Public Square about these evils outside of abortion are not “being political.” They’re carrying out their task.

What’s Wrong With the NPLM?

On the other hand, the New Pro Life Movement (NPLM) focuses on the other issues to the point that opposing abortion is sometimes treated as unimportant. If enough social programs are set in place, women won’t need abortions. Therefore they claim that their vote for a pro-abortion candidate is justified because on the whole, this candidate is “more pro-life” while their opponents only care about life up to birth. They tend to forget that the Church insists that the right to life must include the opposition of legalized abortion. They also run the risk of confusing their party’s platform with the Christian Faith. They remember that the Church defines the right to life as more than just abortion, but err in inventing a moral calculus where issues A+B+C+D > abortion and therefore they vote for candidates who think abortion is a moral good(!) on the ground that they think they’re still defending life because these candidates do other things. They forget the teaching of St. John Paul II:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

Christifidelis Laici #38

In other words, many of the issues they cite to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate are not part of the right to life, even though important. They cannot be justify supporting a candidate who supports abortion.

What Needs To Be Done

People sometimes ask which faction is the right one to follow. I think that’s a mistake. Both are fatally flawed and must be rejected. Both downplay a vital part of the right to life. Of course, we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good. We can’t hold out for the ideal candidate to the point that we’re rejecting qualified defenders of life because they’re wrong on some issues. But we can—and MUST—reject candidates who support intrinsic evil unless there is an evil that is so bad that we must fight it with all the strength that we would normally use to defend life.

And before you say, that your issue or issues outweigh the other abortion, remember that the Church has gone so far as to put abortion on the same level as murder, genocide, euthanasia and wilful self-destruction. So you can’t use a moral calculus to claim a bunch of smaller issues outweighs it in seriousness. But neither can you say that the other Church teachings can be sacrificed because of the weight of abortion. If you’re going to vote for a politician who supports an intrinsic evil, it had better be for a proportionate reason. As archbishop Chaput put it

One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so— that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions— as we someday will.

Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (p. 229)

Unfortunately, when I see one of these factions argue that they are following the Church in voting for their candidate, they never show that their justification is proportionate to the evil they are tolerating.

I think the first step in ending this standoff between two erring factions is to reject both of them. Neither one is the “good guy” here. They might be sincere, but both are willing to sacrifice what they have no grounds to concede. The second step is to understand that the Church teaching is not an opinion. When the Church condemns something, we cannot call it a political opinion that can be rejected. It’s binding.

Second, I think we need to stop abusing the term “prudential judgment.” Prudential judgments are not about whether to obey Church teaching. It is about how to best obey Church teaching. When the Church teaches that something is evil and must be opposed, our task is to decide how to apply it. If we’re trying to avoid the hard conclusions by claiming “prudential judgment” that actually ignores the teaching, that’s just disobedience.

Third, I think that we have to have the courage in our conviction to trust God when it feels hopeless. If we reach the point where we recognize that a candidate we favor is opposed to the teaching of the Church, and we recognize that a properly formed conscience is formed by the teachings of the Church, then we must trust in God if we fear that the candidate we loathe might get in. We cannot do evil so good might come of it, and violating our properly formed conscience is doing exactly that.


[*] There are more than just Catholics in the prolife movement. But since this is a Catholic blog and deals with the Catholic view, this is the group I will focus on.


  1. As you said, there more than just Catholics is assorted prolife movements. And I'm pretty sure quite a few Catholics are like me: Catholic, prolife, and not in either of the two factions you discussed.

    About OPLM, NPLM, and politics - I figure that an issue can be vitally important without being the only important issue. Finding a candidate - - - that's another topic.

    1. Agreed. These two groups try to act as if only they represent the prolife movement, but they are derailing it with their political fights.

      And definitely agree about the difficulty in finding a candidate.

  2. Thank you for this. Both factions rub me the wrong way, and you've elucidated why very well. People in the OLPM seem to throw a slew of important moral teachings under the bus with the excuse, "But abortion!" and folks from the NLPM often do the opposite, or even positively support the continued legality of abortion, claiming to be faithful to Church teaching, when the Catechism teaches otherwise: that the state has an obligation to ensure justice for the unborn. (Catechism 2273 seems pretty clear on this.)