Avery Dulles

In general terms, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which was issued by John Paul II last March, is an analysis of the “culture of death” and an exhortation to promote the “culture of life.” The obligatory force of a pastoral analysis and exhortation of this type is difficult to pin down. Reflections on the “signs of the times” do not have the same kind of authority as specific doctrines that are traced to the apostolic Deposit of Faith. The Pope is exercising personal insight from a Christian perspective and proposing a pastoral plan of action. The authority of his statements consists above all in their persuasiveness to the audience he is addressing-not merely Catholics, but all persons of good will. By and large, the reception has been positive. Many commentators recognize the threats posed by moral relativism, hedonism, and the like. Some, however, think that the Pope’s account of contemporary culture is too unrelievedly negative. This difference of opinion is a matter of judgment; it cannot, I think, be settled by arguments from authority. The properly doctrinal part of EV comes in the third chapter, and especially in the three italicized statements within that chapter, in which the Pope condemns the taking of innocent human life, abortion, and euthanasia. In these italicized condemnations the language is very strong, approaching that of infallible definitions. After claiming the authority of natural law, Scripture, tradition, the previous teaching of the magisterium, and the unanimous agreement of the bishops today, the Pope appeals to his own authority as successor of Peter and issues a solemn declaration. The consultation of bishops preceding this encyclical reminds one of the consultations undertaken by Pius IX and Pius XII before the definition of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. According to Cardinal Ratzinger and others, earlier drafts of the encyclical did contain infallible definitions, but the language of dogmatic definition and infallibility was dropped in the final text. Ratzinger says that it was considered unnecessary to define dogmatically what was already so clear from Christian faith and tradition. Another motive for avoiding an ex cathedra definition may have been the ongoing debate about whether papal infallibility extends to specific principles of natural law unless they are clearly taught in revelation itself. On abortion and euthanasia the testimony of Scripture and early tradition is relatively weak. It may also be said that the Church’s position with regard to these practices is still evolving as new scientific knowledge and technology become available. Whatever the reason for the amendment, it seems clear that EV does not define any irreformable dogmas. On the other hand, the Pope evidently judges that the positions he takes on the three crucial points are irreversible. I expect that Catholic theologians who wish to be considered loyal to the Church will seek to show that their teaching is in line with the italicized statements. The first statement, which has to do with the taking of innocent human life, is the least controversial of the three. I do not know any moral theologian who denies the Pope’s teaching, although it might be possible to imagine some moral dilemmas; for example, if one were ordered to kill an innocent hostage as the price of saving an entire city from destruction. Beginning with the murder of Cain, the Bible repeatedly condemns the shedding of innocent human blood. A few difficult texts can be proposed-for example, the passages describing the ban practiced in the time of the Judges and Samuel-but such practices do not violate the general principle, since populations placed under the ban were not regarded as innocent. In connection with the slaughter of the innocent, the Pope mentions that killing in self-defense or in defense of others is quite another matter, since the aggressor is at fault. Here the Pope speaks in line with a long Catholic tradition and will not be opposed except by a few absolute pacifists. Another connected statement has to do with capital punishment. The Pope says that society has a right to defend itself against criminals, but that in our time such self-defense hardly ever justifies executions. Here the Pope seems to be opposing a long tradition, based on Scripture, which has defended capital punishment for its value as retribution for the evil done and as a deterrence against future crime. Cardinal Ratzinger in his press conference said that the Catholic doctrine on this point is undergoing development. I doubt that the Pope’s rather summary treatment settles the matter of capital punishment definitively. [See Cardinal Ratzinger’s clarification in The Public Square-Eds.] The second pronouncement, on abortion, enjoys little if any direct support from Scripture, but is confirmed by early Church tradition and by the constant teaching of the magisterium, at least in our century. While all Catholic moral theologians seem opposed to the direct killing of human persons, some maintain that the embryo in the early stages is not yet a full human person, and therefore does not have the same rights as, for instance, the mother. The question is particularly difficult at the stage between conception and implantation, when the zygote is still capable of dividing into two or more parts, each of which can become a person. Some Catholic bioethicists argue that this divisibility is proof that a single human person does not yet exist. On this ground they would allow the expulsion of the fertilized ovum shortly after rape or incest. This opinion is not compatible with the Pope’s teaching, especially in view of his citation from the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (1974), but there may still be some room for further discussion on technical issues of this type. In connection with abortion, the Pope condemns in vitro fertilization, partly because it produces “excess” embryos which are then used for medical research or simply discarded. He likewise rejects the use of “defective” fetuses or anencephalic babies for organ transplants, practices which he regards as barbaric and “absolutely unacceptable.” The third proposition, dealing with euthanasia, raises similar issues. The Pope clearly and absolutely condemns the direct killing of the aged and infirm, whether with or without their consent. He explicitly rules out assisted suicide. On the other hand, he does allow for the discontinuation of medication and life support when such measures achieve no proportionate benefit. He even allows the use of pain relievers that may somewhat shorten human life, provided that they are used to alleviate pain and not to shorten life. On these points the Pope’s position is moderate, and may disappoint some moral rigorists. Toward the end of the third chapter, the Pope takes up the relationship between the moral and juridical orders. He insists that the civil law should protect the right to life, and that laws that deny such protection, even when passed by majority votes, are invalid. Since it is always morally wrong to destroy innocent human life, persons who are ordered to do so by doctors or state officials have a duty to object in conscience and to refuse compliance. In ruling out formal cooperation and placing limits on material cooperation, the Pope is following traditional casuistry. His teaching, however, could raise problems for some Catholic politicians and judges, since their election or appointment might depend on their willingness to support permissive practices, especially regarding abortion. The Pope does not allow them to separate the realm of private conscience from that of public conduct. His only concession is that elected officials may support proposals aimed at reducing abortions when it is not possible to ban them entirely. In chapter four the Pope calls upon bishops to make sure that the doctrine of EV is handed on in its integrity, making sure that it is accepted in theological faculties, seminaries, and Catholic institutions, in which “sound doctrine is taught, explained, and more fully investigated.” This fuller investigation would seem to permit serious discussion of some of the more technical and detailed teachings of the encyclical, though of course the Pope would discountenance public protests and efforts to erect a “parallel magisterium” of theologians. My expectation is that few teachers of moral theology will deny the main points of the encyclical, including the three italicized propositions, but that cautious speculation regarding the beginning, development, and end of life will continue, even in Catholic institutions.


Avery Dulles, S.J. , is author, most recently, of The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (Oxford University Press).
Russell Hittinger

If in 1864 one had surveyed the prospect of harmonious relations between Rome and the new secular governments of the West, the situation would not have seemed promising. In that year Pius IX issued the infamous Syllabus of Errors , listing some eighty erroneous propositions. More than fifty concerned matters of civil governance. The concluding canon condemned the belief that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” Measured against that era, the years 1945 to 1989 witnessed remarkable cooperation between Rome and the secular democracies. Reflecting in Centesimus Annus (1991) on the past century of papal social teachings, Pope John Paul II notes that some truths about the political order are learned experientia historica , “by historical experience.” The Second World War and its immediate aftermath gave the Church much to consider. Rome’s interpretation of that experience led it to make common cause with the secular democracies against the totalitarian governments of Eastern Europe and Asia. But it also led to a common ideological commitment to the virtues of constitutional democracy and to inalienable human rights. These ideals represent more than a merely rhetorical adjustment to political modernity. They were enshrined in the decrees of Vatican II and the Code of Canon Law. This relationship now seems to be entering a new and very troubled phase. At the International Conference on Population and Development at Cairo last year, the Vatican challenged the developed countries on abortion. Less than a year later, the encyclical Evangelium Vitae refers ominously to a “conspiracy” against human rights. The Pope speaks of the “disintegration” of governments that permit abortion and euthanasia, characterizing them as “tyrant states” which poison the “culture of rights.” Quoting Pius XII’s Radio Message of Pentecost 1941, the Pope insists that “any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” Although EV names no particular governments or states, no one can doubt that these criticisms are directed toward the constitutional democracies of the West. How did it come to pass that papal admonitions against Nazis are now being cited against the constitutional democracies? We can here give only a superficial outline of the history that constitutes at least part of the answer to this question. From 1789 until well into this century, the popes viewed the secular, constitutional democracies as interlopers in the house of Christendom. Even for Leo XIII, who is rightly credited with trying to understand modern social and political problems on their own terms, the Holy Roman Empire was still the paradigmatic polity: the prince limited from above by God and the Church and from below by the customs and traditions of private law. The popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries thus saw two problems with the secular democracies. On the one hand, they worried that the secular democracies lacked limits. These new governments did not recognize, from above as it were, the authority of God or the Church; nor did they adequately restrain, from below, the will of the people. (The popes were still very much influenced by the French Revolution.) The new secular state appeared to be a limitless organ of power. Hence, encyclicals like Diuturnum (1881), Immortale Dei (1885), and Quas Primas (1925) emphasized the need of states to recognize limits from above. On the other hand, the secular democracies were also criticized for the quite different problem of relinquishing to mere private parties and interests the powers proper to the state. In this respect, “liberalism” meant a system of unrestrained laissez-faire, where the political state refused to protect the poor and the weak. Encyclicals like Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) make the point that when the state relinquishes power to protect the poor and the weak, it fails to be a state in the proper sense of the term. Although Quadragesimo is often cited for the principle of subsidiarity, we should not forget that Pius XI’s main argument is that the state must “watch over the community and its parts.” Like anyone else, the Vatican learns by experience. After World War II, Jacques Maritain contended in Man and the State (1951) that the modern, democratic experiment got two things right, in principle, at least, if not always in practice: (i) the principle of constitutionalism, which prevents the juridical state from being equated with the common good; and (ii) the principle of inalienable rights, which sets certain moral limits on how the state can conduct its business. Maritain, of course, was not the only Catholic who urged this line of analysis, but his work was especially influential. The first two sentences of Dignitatis Humanae (1965) paraphrase Maritain on the need for constitutionally limited government and the recognition of inalienable rights-in this case, the right of religious conscience. The encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) and the conciliar decree Gaudium et Spes (1965) no longer judge the constitutional democracies according to the specific cultural and political pattern of Christendom, but rather in the light of their own principles of limited government and recognition of human rights. A remarkable period of cooperation between the Vatican and the secular democracies followed. This occurred in no small part because Rome stopped lecturing these democracies as though they were the prodigal children of Christendom. If this period can be measured by encyclicals, the high water mark is certainly Centesimus Annus (1991)-an encyclical that celebrated the demise of the totalitarian regimes of the East and enthusiastically recommends the ideal of constitutionally limited government, recognition of inalienable rights, and the civic virtues of the free society. The Pope went so far as to cite the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. EV, however, has a different tone; in it one senses the Pope’s anguish when he writes: “A long historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to discovering the idea of ‘human rights’-rights inherent in every person and prior to any Constitution and State legislation-is today marked by a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.” “Paradoxically,” John Paul continues, what were once crimes now “assume the nature of ‘rights,’ to the point that the State is called upon to give them legal recognition.” It is “sinister,” he says, that states are “departing from the basic principles of their Constitutions.” For, by recognizing as moral rights the right to kill the weak and infirm, the “entire culture of human rights” is threatened. “It is a threat capable, in the end, of jeopardizing the very meaning of democratic coexistence.” As these remarks suggest, the evaluation of the constitutional democracies has come full circle. Recall the two problems that initially made Rome cautious about these new regimes: that without recognizing the authority of divine moral law, or the authority of custom and tradition, the power of the state was without limit; and that the just interests of the weak could be abandoned to the caprice of private parties. Today, this is precisely the criticism asserted in EV on the issue of abortion and euthanasia. The states, contrary to “the basic principle of their Constitutions,” recognize no limit to how they can effectuate social and economic policies. By transforming what were once crimes into individual rights, the states permit private parties to determine the status and merit of the weak, and even to effectuate that judgment by way of lethal force. The Pope observes that “this is the exact opposite of what a State ruled by law, as a community in which the ‘reasons of force’ are replaced by the ‘force of reason,’ historically intended to affirm.” Moreover, at the international level, vague and ideologically infused declarations on rights, combined with indirect threats concerning humanitarian aid, easily provide a pretext for nongovernmental organizations to cross jurisdictional boundaries and, in effect, determine social and economic policies without any ordinary legal or political accountability. The causes of this “surprising contradiction” are complicated. One of the causes, however, demands immediate and ongoing attention. For three decades, the Vatican proceeded as though the language of human or natural rights was unproblematical. Maritain taught an entire generation of prelates and theologians that there could be a practical agreement about human rights even in the absence of a common philosophical framework-not to mention the absence of stable systems of positive law. Perhaps this idea was plausible after the trauma of World War II. In times of crisis, there is often an abundance of good will and common aspiration. But the Cairo Conference showed the unreliability, and indeed the corruptibility, of talk about human rights. Morally fraudulent rights claims have not only damaged the constitutional orders of the Western states; they also pose a nearly insurmountable barrier to the emergence of stable constitutional regimes in the developing world. Alleged “rights” to kill the unborn and the infirm are not likely to facilitate constitutional order in countries where violence and arbitrary uses of power are the political coin of the realm. Even where the political and philosophical language is not morally corrupted, it is very difficult to integrate the abstract concept of human rights with the concrete requirements of constitutional order and the rule of law. Articles Twelve and Thirteen of the recent UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, demand “the child’s right to express an opinion in matters affecting the child and to have that opinion heard,” and “the right to seek, receive, and impart information through any media.” Having listed some forty rights of this sort, the Convention then approves the power of the state “to translate the rights in this Convention into actuality.” The Vatican approved this statement even though these “rights” are not unrelated to the problem addressed at Cairo and in EV. Rather than directing and limiting the state with respect to the needs of the weak, such “rights” can have the opposite effect: in this case, dissolving parental authority and rendering children vulnerable to precisely the kind of social policies the Vatican fought at Cairo. The two recent encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae , indicate a more cautious approach to the issue of rights. While not retreating from the belief that there exist fundamental moral rights, the Pope clearly recognizes the problem of counterfeit versions-and perhaps even the problem of authentic rights stated too generally. One hopes that Vatican policies will catch up to the encyclicals. Having taken two centuries to set aside the older model of political Christendom, and having only recently passed through a kind of honeymoon with the secular constitutional democracies, Rome is now prepared to take a more realistic measure of the situation.


Russell Hittinger teaches in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.
Richard M. Doerflinger

Besides condemning abortion and euthanasia as attacks on human life, Evangelium Vitae addresses other hotly debated issues in medical ethics that implicate the value and dignity of human life. The timeliness of this encyclical is apparent when I recall the issues I have been asked to address recently as a staff member at the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. In May the American Medical Association published a proposal by its own Ethical and Judicial Affairs Council that physicians should be able to transplant vital organs from anencephalic infants before they are dead. In August the House of Representatives approved an appropriations bill that would forbid federal funding of experiments on human embryos outside the womb. Congress was also beginning to debate whether to require pregnant women to undergo prenatal testing for HIV. The reponse of EV to such issues is no superficial rejection or distrust of modern medicine or technology, but it is a challenge to the way such technology is being used. Regarding transplants, John Paul II says donating organs is a “particularly praiseworthy” gesture when “performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope.” Such donation is a striking illustration of a central theme of the encyclical: that we truly come to fulfillment as persons by making “a sincere gift of self.” Yet, when condemning the killing of sick and disabled people, the Holy Father also denounces “other more furtive, but no less serious and real, forms of euthanasia.” One example of these occurs “when, in order to increase the availability of organs for transplants, organs are removed without respecting objective and adequate criteria which verify the death of the donor.” Thus, in the view of the encyclical, the AMA plan to harvest organs from anencephalic infants is in direct conflict with the organization’s claim to be against euthanasia. A deliberately lethal transplant operation is euthanasia. On embryo research we see a similar distinction between use and misuse of medical advances. Experimental procedures can be licit if they “respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but rather are directed to its healing, the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival”; but the mere “use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation” is “a crime against their dignity as human beings.” Finally, methods of prenatal diagnosis have to be judged not only by their own risks to the subject but also by the intended use of the information obtained. Is it sought “to make possible early therapy or even to favor a serene and informed acceptance of the child not yet born”? Or is it being used with “a eugenic intention which accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of children affected by various types of anomalies”? Confronted with modern techniques for analyzing and changing human beings, the Holy Father asks: When we use this technique in this way, are we on our way to or from human dignity? Are we doing something for a person, or are we doing something to that person to treat him or her as a mere means for the good of others? It is easy to understand one theme present here. Technology in and of itself is morally neutral; it can be put to good or bad uses. But John Paul II’s analysis runs deeper. His comments on the dangers of modern technology go beyond past statements about the need for technical advance to be matched by moral maturity. He knows that technical progress has made possible “new forms of attacks on the dignity of the human being,” and he even speaks of a new “Promethean attitude” that has helped make possible “a war of the powerful against the weak.” Modern technology (or a misplaced reliance on technology) has fed this war against the weak in two ways that, at first, may seem contradictory. Technological progress has invited us to imagine that human knowledge can solve any problem and control any situation. It has tempted us to think of ourselves as gods. At the same time, the technological view of the world is increasingly applied to man himself in his physical reality. The body is reduced to “pure materiality,” to “simply a complex of organs, functions, and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency.” The human person is divided against itself, as the body is increasingly relegated to a mere instrument for the fulfillment of human wishes and desires. The person is freed from all restraints on personal freedom, and at the same time reduced to an object. This “ghost in the machine” view of the person has distorted many people’s views of themselves with respect to sexuality and reproduction. But this encyclical is especially concerned with what such dualism does to relations between one person and another. For if only mind and will truly count, and the body is a mere object, then those who have strong intellects and wills can have no compunction about manipulating and even killing less intelligent or less “productive” humans for the greater good. Anyone who doubts the existence of such attitudes in the U.S. should have attended the recent deliberations of the National Institutes of Health regarding experiments on human embryos. The NIH Human Embryo Research Panel’s chief ethicist, Professor Ronald Green, proposed that the intelligent and articulate members of a society should vote on whether other members of the species deserve the status of “personhood.” This judgment should be based on enlightened self-interest: Would a vote to grant personhood benefit the rest of us, or harm us (for example, by preventing us from doing lethal experiments on this human that could add to our medical knowledge)? Amazingly, though Green’s ethical system is clearly intended for application to humans after as well as before birth, it was accepted by the nineteen members of the NIH panel without a dissenting voice. This destructive trend, in which the elite of a society judge whether its weaker members have lives worthy to be lived, is not entirely new. The Holy Father alludes to “those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience”-and he points out that the crimes would be no less horrific if approved by popular consensus. Two generations ago, as England and the U.S. were congratulating themselves on their victory over the Nazis, C. S. Lewis warned his countrymen not to fall into attitudes that would create a purely instrumental view of human life. It is one thing to talk about man mastering nature, he said-but when we turn our technologies back upon fellow human beings, we will not advance knowledge and power for some people without denigrating and exploiting other people. Ultimately the class of “used” people might become very large indeed-encompassing almost everyone who is not part of an increasingly amoral technical elite. When Lewis spoke in this context of “the abolition of man,” many undoubtedly saw this as poetic exaggeration. The Holy Father sees it as a real possibility-and he thinks the beginning of the third millennium might be a good time for society to decide whether that is the road it wants to travel. The alternative path is one that he only sketches-a world in which medical research studies people without manipulating them, in which bodily life is respected as inherently good, and every person has an equal claim on the right to live. Filling in the consequences of this vision for the way we do medicine and medical research is a task for all of us.


Richard M. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariate for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Robert P. George

In the Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas famously teaches that “human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain, and chiefly those that are injurious to others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained.” Human law need not, and according to St. Thomas should not, enforce every obligation of the natural or moral law. In certain cases it is better for the civil and criminal law of a community to permit immoral acts, lest the legal prohibition of those acts bring about worse consequences for society than a policy of legal toleration. For example, certain Catholics have legitimately appealed to this teaching in support of the “decriminalizing” of marijuana and other drugs. Their argument (though I myself remain unpersuaded by it) is that the unintended bad consequences of drug prohibition-higher rates of street crime, more police corruption, the diversion of law enforcement and other resources from more urgent matters-are worse for society as a whole than any increases in drug abuse that might result in the event of decriminalization. People who appeal to the teaching of Aquinas in making this argument typically do not deny that “recreational” drug use is immoral; nor do they suggest that people who wish to use drugs have “a moral right to do moral wrong.” Their claim, rather, is that drug prohibition should be abandoned because it is an unreasonably costly, probably futile, and possibly even counterproductive policy. Their challenge to prevailing drug policy is not, strictly speaking, a moral one. To properly assess its soundness is to make a prudential judgment based on an accurate understanding of the costs and consequences of drug prohibition as opposed to legalization. Is it equally legitimate for Catholic apologists for legal abortion, and even its facilitation by public funding, to appeal to Aquinas’ teaching about the toleration of evil, as Mario Cuomo, for example, has done? In Evangelium Vitae , the Pope declares that any such appeal is illegitimate. Explicitly citing the passage from the Summa that I have quoted, the Pope affirms the proposition that “public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which-were it prohibited-would cause more serious harm.” He immediately goes on to say, however, that law may never “legitimize as a right of individuals . . . an offense against other persons caused by the disregard of so fundamental a right as the right to life.” The first and most urgent obligation of law and government is to protect the fundamental rights of every human being within their jurisdiction. The first and most fundamental human right is the right to life, or, to be more precise, the right of an innocent person not to be deliberately killed, whether by public authority or private license. Although this understanding of the most basic purposes of law and government has been constantly affirmed in the tradition of papal social teaching, it is by no means peculiar to Catholicism. Indeed, as Mother Teresa recently reminded us in her plea to the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade , this understanding is at the core of the American political tradition as expressed by our nation’s founders in the Declaration of Independence. The grave injustice to the unborn of laws permitting and funding abortion makes it illegitimate for citizens or public officials to support such laws. They can never be justified, as, say, drug legalization could, conceivably, be justified, as a “lesser evil” that one may reluctantly support as a matter of prudence. The prudential toleration of evil simply has no application in cases of radical injustice. So, as the Pope says, “in the case of intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is never licit to obey it or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.” A problem that has vexed Catholics and others in the pro-life movement, however, is the question whether it is legitimate to support a less than perfectly protective legislative proposal restricting abortion, euthanasia, and like injustices, when the only politically realistic alternative at the moment is a proposal that is even less protective of the rights of the unborn, elderly, or handicapped. Can one legitimately judge, as a matter of prudence, that the imperfect, though more protective, proposal is a “lesser evil”? Here the Pope says yes: “When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.” So, though the Pope offers no comfort to “pro-choice” Catholics such as Governor Cuomo or Senator Ted Kennedy, he in effect blesses the efforts of Governor Bob Casey and Congressman Henry Hyde to work incrementally toward the full equal protection of the unborn. The Pope does not provide an extensive argument in behalf of his teaching about the permissibility of sometimes supporting imperfectly just laws. If I may presume, however, to speculate about the ground of his teaching, I would suggest that the key to the matter is the application of the Golden Rule of fairness to the question of supporting such laws. While it can never be fair to will that members of a disfavored class-whether the unborn, the disabled, or members of some racial or religious minority group-be excluded from legal protections one wills for oneself and those dear to one, a legislator or voter is personally responsible for no unfairness to the victims of an objectively unjust law where he supports that law precisely, and only, because the alternative is even less protective of its victims. Here, as Bishop John J. Myers of Peoria observed in his Pastoral Statement on the Obligations of Catholics and Rights of Unborn Children, the voter or legislator need will only the law’s protections, while accepting, though not willing, the injustices that he is powerless to remove. A legislator or voter is justified in supporting a law whose protections fall short of all that justice requires where the unjust aspects of the law do not figure in his deliberation and choice as reasons for his decision to vote for it. Rather, they figure as reasons to oppose it-albeit reasons that are defeated in these circumstances by the protections it affords to victims who would otherwise be left even more vulnerable. Of course, as the Pope makes plain, one can never rest content with such a law. One may not support it unconditionally. One must resolve, and, as the Pope says, publicly make manifest one’s resolve , to continue working for the full equal protection of the unborn and other victims of legal injustice.


Robert P. George is Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (Oxford University Press).

Articles by A Symposium

Loading...