October 06, 2009
The 'Common Ground' Non-Argument
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Many within and without the Catholic Church have suggested of late that a "common ground" approach is the way to resolve our sharp cultural divide on the issue of  federal funding for abortions.  Within current debates over healthcare reform, "common ground" has taken on a more specific meaning, namely, to maintain the status quo on federal funding.  Supposedly this would be a reasonable way ahead, especially to open a path for healthcare reform we could all live with.  

Among advocates of such reasoning, Christopher Korzen, president of a group called Catholics United has been particularly vocal in drumming up support for such thinking.  "[I]n order to reach consensus on the larger issues," affirms Korzen, "reform ought to preserve policies that are currently in effect regarding federal support for abortion services." Korzen, like many Catholics, appears to be convinced that when the day is done any healthcare reform legislation will remain "abortion neutral."

I find a number of problems with such reasoning.  First of all, "common ground" reasoning is tactically wrongheaded. Contrary to Korzen's faith in the proposed legislation, it clearly will fail to maintain the status quo on abortion funding. As I explained last week, that should be apparent after an honest and careful reading of the Capps amendment to the current House bill, and elements of which have been worked into the Baucus Senate proposal.

More importantly, the search for "common ground" entails an error in moral judgment. It assumes we are all beholden to some moral imperative to pass healthcare reform legislation, no matter what. On such a view, Catholics in good conscience would have no other option than to seek this putative "common ground" on the abortion issue as a way forward.  But there simply is no such imperative. Much less can the issue of healthcare reform (with its many well intended good effects) be placed on an equal footing with the genuine moral imperative to curb the abortion license in the U.S.

I wrote last year attempting to explain why and in what sense abortion remains the most pivotal of contemporary cultural issues, and also tried to expound this in an op-ed published in National Review Online (October 8, 2008 "Economy Matters, Life Matters").  It will not hurt to revisit a Catholic and natural-law-based account of why this is so.

Not all moral issues have the same "moral weight" as the natural law tradition makes clear and, among others, the bishops of the United States have reminded the lay faithful (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (www.faithfulcitizenship.org).  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.

Here, "weighing of issues" means 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. Some things are gravely evil in and of themselves, no matter what the circumstances in which they happen.  The natural law tradition refers to these as intrinsically evil actions. Such are, for example, homicide, rape, genocide, human trafficking, adultery, euthanasia and procured abortion.

Now one might argue: there are many forms of intrinsic evil; why should we consider abortion to be the "worst" among them, and consequently the "most important" issue?  To which the natural law tradition replies: first and foremost there is the issue of magnitude -- 50 million innocent (fetal) human lives deliberately destroyed. Secondly there is the way abortion, like no other threat to human life, constitutes not only an attempt at the unborn, but at the very fabric of our civilization.
In sum, there is no absolute imperative to reform our healthcare system.  And we simply cannot support legislation that will set the stage for broader federal funding of abortions and further ensconce America's abortion license.  Rather, we must urge Congress to take the time necessary to work out legislation that all Americans can live with, especially the 67% of us who oppose using federal tax money to fund abortions.

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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