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October 14, 2008
The Most Important Issue - Revisited
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

My column from last week, and an accompanying op-ed published in National Review Online (October 8, "Economy Matters, Life Matters") seem to have struck a nerve. I attempted (in under a thousand words) to explain from a Catholic perspective (which is to say, a natural law perspective), why the abortion issue should still be considered the dominant issue of our times on the eve of Election Day.

Numerous email responses reminded me of just how difficult an enterprise I was undertaking. I was reminded of what a noted moral philosopher once told me: "Fr. Thomas, if someone were to ask me today what my opinion is on abortion, do you know what my response would be? My response would be to ask him or her: 'Do you have three days?' Because it would take about three days for me first, to help this person understand where his or her own opinion on abortion comes from -- what its philosophical antecedents are. And then, once all that was clear, I would be in a position to explain the tradition of moral thought within which my judgment of abortion makes rational sense."

So, do we have three days?

Realizing most readers don't, and at the risk of infuriating or alienating a few more, let me take another stab at this. Why and in what sense ought we -- as rational human beings -- consider the continued exercise of the current abortion license in the U.S. to be the central and most pivotal issue in this election year? Or to formulate it differently, and broadening it out to include other closely related issues, why and in what sense are life issues the "weightiest"?

The fact that not all moral issues have the same "moral weight" has been the very cusp of the argument repeated more than once in recent months by Catholic bishops across the country. I referred last week, for example, to Bishop Joseph F. Martino's pastoral letter for Respect Life Sunday:

Another argument goes like this: "As wrong as abortion is, I don't think it is the only relevant 'life' issue that should be considered when deciding for whom to vote." This reasoning is sound only if other issues carry the same moral weight as abortion does, such as in the case of euthanasia and destruction of embryos for research purposes. (Emphasis my own.)

Similarly, the bishops of New York recently stated (in the pastoral letter Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty):

As the U.S. Bishops' recent document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (www.faithfulcitizenship.org) makes clear, not every issue is of equal moral gravity. The inalienable right to life of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all.

"Carry the same moral weight"..."Outweighs other concerns": it's these affirmations that require a three-day-long explanation (or even a semester-length course in natural law theory 101). Again, lacking that luxury, let's attempt an answer in brief.

First let's consider what "moral weight" does not mean in this context. That one issue has more "moral weight" than another does not mean weighing up all the bad consequences of one and the other -- say of an unjust immigration policy, and of legalized abortion-on-demand -- and of judging which issue, on the whole, renders a greater net-amount of moral evil. (Oh that morality were so simple!) Unfortunately -- given our inability to foresee all possible consequences, not to mention there being no reasonable way to assign value to them even if we could foresee them all -- such "weighing" of issues is not possible.

Here, "weighing of issues" means rather perceiving the degree and kind of malice each brings about. X, Y, and Z might all be moral evils, but they are not so in the same way. Lots of otherwise sensible people seem to miss this point.

Some things are gravely evil because they involve greater magnitudes of goods (as when a CEO pilfers millions of dollars from his company, an act much greater in malice than snitching a candy bar from a drug store). Some things may acquire a greater degree of malice because of some circumstance or motive (as when a young woman announces to her fiancé that she is breaking things off having waited precisely until the anniversary of their engagement to do so in order to hurt him all the more). Some things may be gravely evil because of poor prudential judgment or the lack of truly grave reason for moving ahead with a proposed action (such as when a country engages in what many might presumably consider a just military intervention, but without truly reasonable (grave) cause; or as when legislation -- such as an immigration policy -- comes into effect, bringing about considerable hardships that could have been precluded had there been greater foresight, better prudential judgment, and a greater sense of human solidarity; one could say the same of such issues as welfare, care for the environment and economic policy).

Other things are gravely evil, not by reason of magnitude or circumstance, motive or lack of judgment. Rather, they are evil in and of themselves, and gravely so, because of the manner in which they reach to the core of one's personhood, attacking the very good of the human person in him or herself. The natural law tradition refers to these as intrinsically evil actions. Adultery, homicide, euthanasia, human trafficking of all sorts, torture, abortion, the creation and destruction of human embryos for research purposes: all these name actions which are gravely -- intrinsically -- evil.

Now one might argue: there are many forms of intrinsic evil going on daily in this country. To say that abortion is an intrinsic evil still does not explain why we should consider it the "most important" issue facing us as we approach election day.

To which I would respond that first and foremost there is the point of magnitude: 50 million innocent (fetal) human lives deliberately destroyed.

Beyond that, there is another distinguishing point which George Weigel took a good stab at explaining in yesterday's USA Today:

When the Pope and the bishops teach that the right-to-life is inalienable from conception until natural death, they're defending a first principle of justice that binds everyone, not just Catholics: in a just society, innocent and defenseless human life deserves the protection of the laws. What's at stake here is not some peculiarly "Catholic truth," but a truth of reason that can be known by anyone. Thus no politician, Catholic or otherwise, can claim to stand for the common good and defend the abortion license decreed by Roe vs. Wade, or the euthanizing of the elderly and the "burdensome," or the creation and destruction of human embryos for medical research. You can't square the circle. Just law must recognize the inviolable dignity of every human life.

That's the difference with this particular intrinsic evil: abortion (along with other closely related issues which place unborn human life at stake) constitutes not only an attempt at the unborn victims, but at the very fabric of our civilization. America's abortion license puts millions of human lives at stake but also imperils our own continued civilized existence, attacking as it does the most fundamental right on which any attempt at an ordered, democratic form of civic life must be based.

It would appear that such affirmations have become mere platitudes however -- even to the ears of otherwise pro-life Catholics who, I am afraid to say, have simply thrown in the towel, who appear convinced that we've lost this battle. While I certainly share the sense of frustration, I would also respectfully remind them that we give up this battle to our own peril.

 

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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