Bishop McElroy: Abortion and climate change both crucial, voters must be prudent

mcelroy Bishop Robert McElroy. CNA file photo.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego made a speech Thursday that attempted to explain his criticism of the elevation of abortion over other political issues.

The speech, titled "Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting," discussed the "moral nature and structure of the act of voting for specific candidates," at the University of San Diego on Feb. 6.

Catholics, McElroy said, have to consider a multitude of social issues and the Church's teachings on these issues when deciding who to vote for. These issues include abortion, euthanasia, immigration, poverty, and a whole host of other concerns.

McElroy said the idea that one social issue in particular has "a unique priority" among others in regard to voting in an election is something that "deserves deeper scrutiny."

As an example of two issues that many American Catholics consider to be "preeminent political imperative," McElroy put forward abortion and climate change.

Abortion, he said, has led the United States "moving toward becoming a nation split in two," and climate change has the potential of "stealing the future from coming generations."

"Against the backdrop of these two monumental threats to human life, how can one evaluate the competing claims that either abortion or climate change should be uniquely preeminent in Catholic social teaching regarding the formation of Americans as citizens or believers," asked McElroy.

"The designation of either of these issues as the preeminent question in Catholic social teaching at this time in the United States will inevitably be hijacked by partisan forces to propose that Catholics have an overriding duty to vote for candidates that espouse that position. Recent electoral history shows this to be a certainty," the bishop said.

"The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from unchecked climate change is larger and threatens the very future of humanity," he added.

Noting the competing claims of those and other issues, he said that "the drive to label a single issue preeminent distorts the call to authentic discipleship in voting rather than advancing it."

In November, McElroy sparked controversy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Fall General Assembly when he objected to language in a letter that was to be published as a supplement to the 2015 document  "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."

McElroy said he was opposed to a line which said "the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself."

McElroy called that line "at least discordant" with what Pope Francis had taught, but he did not explain as to what particular teaching he thought this violated.

"So either we should get rid of 'preeminent,' or, if we're going to keep 'preeminent' in there, let's at least give the pope a fighting chance with his view, to keep that whole paragraph in there, because that's where he articulates his vision of this very controversial question," said McElroy in November.

"It is not Catholic that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic social teaching. It is not. For us to say that, particularly when we omit the pope's articulation of this question, I think is a grave disservice of our either we shouldn't have preeminent in there, or we should have the pope's full paragraph where he lays out his vision of this same question, delicately balancing all of it in the words he does," McElroy said at the assembly.

In January, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas said that when he relayed this story to Pope Francis during his ad limina visit, the pontiff was confused and reiterated that abortion was indeed the preeminent political issue faced in the United States. Similarly, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis, who was on the same ad limina delegation, said that Pope Francis had labeled two issues as particularly important in the United States: abortion and transgender ideology.

Francis "certainly talked about abortion as a preeminent issue, at the same time he said there's another significant issue and that would be 'transgender,'" said Carlson.

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During his speech Thursday, McElroy also discussed character.

"Much focus is placed on individual policy issues and their moral implications in Catholic social teaching," said McElroy. "If the primary role of citizens were to vote on specific issues, this might be sufficient."

However, McElroy continued, that is not how voting works. A vote for a candidate, he said, "inevitably encapsulates a wide range of policy options," including differing abilities to actually bring these policies into fruition.

McElroy seemed to allude to President Donald Trump when he stressed that a politician's character "represents a particularly compelling criterion for faithful voting in 2020."

Character is "even more essential element in effective faith-filled voting at the present moment, and another reason why faith-filled voting cannot be simply reduced to a series of competing social justice teachings."

The San Diego bishop also claimed that Catholic voters have to discern the difference between something that is intrinsically evil and morally grave matters, and that these are not always the same thing.

"It is a far greater moral evil for our country to abandon the Paris Climate Accord than to provide contraceptives in federal health centers," said McElroy, even though the use contraceptives in the nuptial act is considered by the Church to be intrinsically evil.

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To navigate the competing moral issues voters face, the bishop called for the virtue of prudence.

"Prudential judgment is not a secondary or deficient mode of discernment in the Christian conscience," he said. "It is the primary code."

Dr. Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America and the executive director of the Institute for Human ecology, told CNA that he agreed in part with some of McElroy's opinions.

"I agree with Bishop Mcelroy that we should not pit social justice teachings against each other: The Catholic view of morality is a coherent whole," said Capizzi.

"Opposition to abortion and care for the environment are both aspects of our obligations towards God's creation. I agree as well that the character of politicians is an important concern in considering whom to support."

Capizzi said that while McElroy's points about character are important, they "cannot be placed above a candidate's advocacy for positions opposed by consistent Church teaching," as a metric for deciding whether to support a candidate.

And Capizzi said that while he understood McElroy's argument regarding gravity and intrinsic natures of evil, "we also have to factor the voter's relationship to the wrong committed" in addition to considering the specific issue.

"Regardless of its gravity, settled moral teaching reminds us we cannot cooperate in another's commission of an intrinsic evil," he said. This would include supporting policies that provide federally-funded contraceptives, or expand legal protection or funding mechanisms for abortion.
"To be clear, I'd love to vote for a candidate who agrees we must protect the environment and humans at every stage of life," Capizzi  said.

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