Abortion is the most flagrant and widespread offense against the basic
right to life of all human persons in the United States. A country that“legally”
kills over a million of its children each year is fundamentally disordered and,
despite any material or technological successes, cannot be considered
peaceful or just, let alone a moral authority in world affairs.
The recent election and consequent confirmation hearings brought into
even a clearer light a specific dimension of this problem: the complicity of
Catholics. Much has been written concerning the fact that a majority of those
who identified themselves as “Catholic” voted for a presidential candidate who
unabashedly endorsed abortion rights. There currently are approximately 70
Catholics in Congress who consider themselves “pro-choice.” What can be
done to reverse this negative Catholic witness?
While there are many aspects to the abortion problem, this position paper
is limited to addressing the particular issue of Catholic legislators who
support abortion rights. We will first briefly review magisterial teaching on the
subject. Then we will examine the particular situation in the United States and
the U.S. bishops’ response. After that we will examine specific issues raised
by the Ashcroft hearings and identify particular concerns voiced by our
members. We will then conclude with some practical, constructive steps for
lay people to take in addressing these serious concerns.
I. Church Teaching
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2270-75) clearly spells out
the Church’s perennial teaching that abortion is always and everywhere an
abominable crime. Paragraph 2271 of the Catechism provides:
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil
of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and
remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion
willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the
The same paragraph of the Catechism also quotes Vatican II’s Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which
similarly does not mince words:
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of
safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner
worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost
care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide
are abominable crimes.
In his 1995 encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Pope
John Paul II confirmed “by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter
and his successors, and in communion with the bishops of the Catholic
Church,” that “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human beingis
always gravely immoral” (no. 57). It is a grave act of disobedience toGod, the
author of human life, and “contradicts the fundamental virtues of justiceand
charity” (ibid.). The Pope goes on to say that no authority can legitimately
recommend or permit such an action.
In the specific context of legislation that favors abortion rights, theHoly
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting
abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to
“take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote
for it” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 73, quoting a 1974 document from
the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).
The Pope recognizes that upholding the right to life of the unborn maybe
difficult for the Catholic legislator, perhaps even requiring “the sacrificeof
prestigious professional positions or the relinquishing of reasonable hopesof
career advancement” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 74). Even so, Catholic
politicians who actively promote abortion rights are cooperating in evilactions.
“This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect forthe
freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits itor
requires it” (ibid., emphasis added).
Much more can and must be said concerning the dignity and value of
each human person, created in the image and likeness of God. We also
affirm the absolute need to present this teaching charitably, sensitively,and in
a way that promotes reconciliation and healing in the Church. However,for
our purposes here, as will be set forth at further length below, we believeit is
important to highlight at the outset the Church’s firm, unchanging moral
teaching concerning abortion.
II. The American Context
With the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade (1973), as
well as subsequent cases that have affirmed and expanded the ruling, such
as Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) and Stenberg v. Carhart (2000),
abortion is considered a constitutional right. This situation is abhorrentto
many Christians and others who recognize and value the right to life ofthe
Sadly, many of the legislators and judges who have championed and
upheld abortion rights publicly identify themselves as Catholics. We haveno
desire to judge the sincerity of the thought processes or motives thatunderlie
their position, nor do we fail to recognize some of the values these individuals
seek to uphold in other areas. It is simply an empirical fact that thereare
prominent politicians who publicly identify themselves as practicing Catholics
who nonetheless support—some more zealously and completely than
others—the “right” to abortion. In fact, they use their Catholic heritageto their
political advantage while advancing the goals of their pro-abortion
This situation has far-reaching implications and the problem will only
become more acute with each year that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the
III. The Teaching of the U.S. Bishops
The prophetic stance of the U.S. bishops in response to this state of
affairs has been increasingly clear. Individual bishops and bishops of
individual states or regions have labored privately and publicly to formthe
consciences of their flocks and to exhort wayward Catholic politiciansto
defend the lives of the unborn. In 1997 there was the historic petitionto
President Clinton signed by all the U.S. cardinals and then-NCCB President
Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, imploring him not to veto legislation banningmost
Even more to the point when it comes to the problem of Catholic
politicians, the U.S. bishops published in 1998 a document entitled Livingthe
Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. This document had some
important things to say to Catholic politicians:
In a special way, we call on U.S. Catholics, especially those in
positions of leadership—whether cultural, economic or
political—to recover their identity as followers of Jesus Christ
and to be leaders in the renewal of American respect for the
sanctity of life. . . .
Bringing a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be
a daunting task. There is such a wide spectrum of issues
involving the protection of human life and the promotion of
human dignity. Good people frequently disagree on which
problems to address, which policies to adopt and how best to
apply them. But for citizens and elected officials alike, the
basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment
never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any
innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled
or desperate that life may seem. In other words, the choice of
certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with
the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in
His image. Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option. It
is always a grave act of violence against a woman and her
unborn child. . . .
[S]ome Catholic elected officials have adopted the argument
that, while they personally oppose evils like abortion, they
cannot force their religious views onto the wider society. This
is seriously mistaken on several key counts. First, regarding
abortion, the point when human life begins is not a religious
belief but a scientific fact—a fact on which there is clear
agreement even among leading abortion advocates. Second,
the sanctity of human life is not merely Catholic doctrine but
part of humanity’s global ethical heritage, and our nation’s
founding principle. Finally, democracy is not served by silence.
Most Americans would recognize the contradiction in the
statement, “While I am personally opposed to slavery or
racism or sexism I cannot force my personal view on the rest
of society.” Real pluralism depends on people of conviction
struggling vigorously to advance their beliefs by every ethical
and legal means at their disposal (original emphasis).
IV. The Aftermath of the Ashcroft Hearings
We strongly desire that the Attorney General of the United States be
pro-life. The recent confirmation process of John Ashcroft had several
troubling aspects, which bring to the forefront the complicity of Catholic
politicians in the promotion of abortion rights.
(1) It was clear to objective viewers of the evening news and congressional
commentators alike that what was really fueling the opposition to Ashcroft’s
nomination was his personal opposition to abortion.
(2) The opposition to Ashcroft’s nomination was led by several prominent
Catholics—both on the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the Senate itself.
Eight Catholic senators voted against Ashcroft’s nomination. A few other
Catholic senators, known for their support even of the grisly partial-birth
abortion procedure, reluctantly voted for Ashcroft’s confirmation.
(3) The opposition to Ashcroft made a point of using the confirmation
proceeding as a show of strength. They vowed to block any Supreme Court
nominee who opposed abortion, irrespective of his or her qualificationsor
positions on any other issues. In other words, they would provide a
pro-abortion litmus test that would derail the nomination, inter alia,of any
nominee who took to heart the bishops’ 1998 teaching. It is ironic thatwhile
those who support the right to life of the unborn are pejoratively dismissedas
being “single issue,” the fact is that pro-abortion congressmen, including
those who are Catholic, can be “single issue” when it comes to defendingthe
(4) The basis for their strong stance, according to one of the Catholic
senators in question, is to uphold the right to choose abortion as a “core
value” in our nation. This perverse logic is rooted in the eclipse of thesense of
God and of man in our society. When we call “evil good and good evil,”our
Holy Father writes, we are “already on the path to the most alarming
corruption and the darkest moral blindness” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 24).
(5) Despite their apparent knowledge of the Church’s teaching onabortion
and the frequent admonitions of the U.S. bishops, there are Catholic
lawmakers who believe they can systematically block attempts to protect
human life on Friday and worthily receive Holy Communion on Sunday. This
duplicity has the ostensible blessing of the Church to the extent thissituation
is permitted to continue unabated.
V. Concerns of Catholics United for the Faith
CUF members have several concerns with regard to Catholic politicians
who support abortion. Before listing such concerns, we want to emphasize
that they are completely divorced from partisan considerations. It is notour
place as a lay Catholic apostolate to advocate affiliation with a particular
political party (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 76) or to take a collective standon
matters in which Catholics rightfully reflect a diversity of opinion. However,we
see abortion as a pressing human rights issue and not as a
liberal-conservative or Democrat-Republican issue. The Holy Father
emphasizes our “moral duty” to oppose laws that legitimize the direct killingof
unborn children and thus deny the equality of everyone under the law
(Evangelium Vitae, nos. 72, 74). Given this context, we have the following
(1) The salvation of the Catholic politician. Our faith tells usthat Catholic
politicians who aid and abet abortion on a massive scale are participatingin a
grave offense against God and against human life. Again, we do not judgeany
particular Catholic politician, but prudence and charity dictate that webe
concerned about the state of his or her soul.
(2) The scandal to the faithful. Catholics who publicly championthe cause of
abortion give grave scandal to the faithful. Obviously it is confusingto the laity
to see a politician maintain such views while purporting to be a Catholicin
good standing. Catholic students are taught one thing in their religionclass
and then hear another message from their Catholic heroes or leaders.
Eventually the faithful become inoculated to the discussion, and
believe—along with their elected politicians—that it’s okay for a Catholicto
favor abortion rights.
(3) Ecumenical and evangelistic concerns. When it comes to abortion,many
Catholic politicians stand with the secularists over and against devout
Christians who strive to instill a sense of morality in our culture. This,we
believe, is exactly the type of counter-witness discussed in Gaudium etSpes.
After identifying atheism as one of the most serious problems of our day,this
Vatican II document says that “[b]elievers can . . . have more than a littleto do
with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their
instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even failin their
religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather thanto
reveal the true nature of God and of religion” (no. 19).
(4) Violence in society. A society that countenances the killingof one class of
vulnerable citizens will surely set its sites on other classes as well,such as
the elderly and handicapped, among others. At some point we must reverse
the cycle of violence that manifests itself in so many ways today.
(5) Future generations. The threat of Catholic legislators to blockattempts to
reverse or even minimize the scope of Roe v. Wade places at grave risk
future generations of Americans who will be unjustly deprived of the
fundamental right to life if these Catholic legislators are successful.
VI. Recommendations to our members
While we acknowledge the gravity of this situation, and the need for
action, even more we recognize the plenitude of God’s grace and the needfor
prayer. This outlook, shaped by the writings of CUF founder H. Lyman
Stebbins and the rich spiritual tradition of our Catholic faith, enablesus to
encourage all those who share our fundamental goals and concerns to take
the following practical steps:
(1) Our founder rightly emphasized that our zeal must first of allbe directed
to the renewal of our own hearts. We all need to be more deeply converted;
we all need to strive for holiness. As helpful as pro-life judges, journalists,and
legislators can be, even more we need more pro-life saints and heroes,such
as St. Maximilian Kolbe and Pope John Paul II, Bl. Gianna Beretta Mollaand
Mother Teresa. We exhort all our members to strive for holiness as theirfirst
and foremost duty as Christians.
(2) We need to pray fervently and daily for all those in public office(cf. 1 Tim.
2:1-4), especially for our fellow Catholics. We must resist the real temptation
to harbor uncharitable thoughts about Catholic politicians who fail touphold
the right to life, and instead we should offer extra prayers and mortifications
for their conversion on this issue.
(3) Both the Holy Father and the U.S. bishops have emphasized therole of
the laity—and particularly the family—in the political arena. For example,in his
1981 apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern
world (Familiaris Consortio), Pope John Paul II writes: “The social roleof
families is called upon to find expression also in the form of political
intervention: families should be the first to take steps to see that thelaws and
institutions of the State not only do not offend but support and positively
defend the rights and duties of the family” (no. 44).
This role can be manifested in many different ways, depending on one’s
state in life, occupation, talents, etc. Certainly as Catholic laity weshould be
involved—both formally and informally—in the education of society on life
issues and foster an informed, responsible use of the right to vote. Evenmore
in this context, we encourage the faithful to call and/or write Catholicsin
public office, charitably but firmly expressing our disapproval of theirsupport
of abortion rights, and calling upon them to support specific measuresand
judicial nominees that will protect the lives of unborn children.
(4) We encourage pastors of souls who have pro-abortion Catholic
legislators within their jurisdiction to exercise their moral and, if needbe,
canonical authority to bear prophetic witness to the truth in a way orderedto
the salvation of the Catholic legislator and indeed the good of all thefaithful
entrusted to their pastoral care and protection. Canon 1371 of the Codeof
Canon Law, particularly as amended by Pope John Paul II in Ad Tuendam
Fidem (1998), provides that one who publicly repudiates Church teaching,
and who does not retract after being legitimately warned, is to be punished
with a remedial penalty. In this regard, the lay faithful play an importantrole by
praying for their bishop and encouraging him with respectful communications
to take appropriate, decisive action to protect the flock entrusted tohim.
It is our prayer that, united in Christ and ever faithful to His bride,we will
help the “Gospel of Life” flourish in our beloved homeland, so that allpeople,
without exception, may enjoy the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuitof
happiness” which our Founding Fathers sought to guarantee for future
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