“Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As we head toward November, Catholics might profit from recalling a few simple facts.
First, surrounding a bad social policy or party platform plank¯for example, permissive abortion¯with religious people doesn’t redeem the bad policy or plank. It merely compromises the religious people who try to excuse it. One of the more miraculous, or suspicious, side-effects of the 2004 election was the number of candidates in both political parties who suddenly began talking about their religious faith. There’s no doubt that many public officials, regardless of party, do take their religious beliefs very seriously and do try to live by them. That’s a good thing. So maybe this latest trend implies a new Great Awakening. Or maybe, as one of my skeptical friends says, “it’s just another charm offensive to get the shamans off their backs.” Time will tell. Words are important. Actions are more important. The religious choreography of a campaign doesn’t matter. The content of its ideas does. The religious vocabulary of a candidate doesn’t matter. The content of his record , plans, and promises does.
Second, there’s no way for Catholics to finesse their way around the abortion issue, and if we’re serious about being “Catholic,” we need to stop trying. No such thing as a “right” to kill an unborn child exists. And wriggling past that simple truth by redefining the unborn child as an unperson, a pre-human lump of cells, is the worst sort of Orwellian hypocrisy¯especially for Christians. Abortion always involves the deliberate killing of an innocent human life, and it is always, inexcusably, grievously wrong. This fact in no way releases us from the duty to provide ample and compassionate support for unwed or abandoned mothers, women facing unwanted pregnancies, and women struggling with the aftermath of an abortion. But the inadequacy of that support demands that we work to improve it. It does not justify killing the child.
Obviously, we have other important issues facing us this fall: the economy, the war in Iraq, immigration justice. But we can’t build a healthy society while ignoring the routine and very profitable legalized homicide that goes on every day against America’s unborn children. The right to life is foundational . Every other right depends on it. Efforts to reduce abortions, or to create alternatives to abortion, or to foster an environment where more women will choose to keep their unborn child, can have great merit¯ but not if they serve to cover over or distract from the brutality and fundamental injustice of abortion itself . We should remember that one of the crucial things that set early Christians apart from the pagan culture around them was their rejection of abortion and infanticide. Yet for thirty-five years I’ve watched prominent “pro-choice” Catholics justify themselves with the kind of moral and verbal gymnastics that should qualify as an Olympic event. All they’ve really done is capitulate to Roe v. Wade .
Third and finally, national campaigns¯of every political party¯always run on the language of hope, change, and the American Dream. This makes sense. Our leaders should inspire us; they should stir our hearts and call us to live the ideals that make America great. But sometimes the answer to the realities we face is not “yes, we can,” but “no, we can’t.” No , we can’t spend money like hedonists and outrun our debts forever. No , we can’t ignore the poor of the Third World and expect to be loved abroad. No , we can’t allow the killing of roughly one million unborn children a year and then posture ourselves as a moral society. No , we can’t make wicked things right by spinning them in a clever way.
Robert D. Kaplan once wrote that “Americans can afford optimism partly because their institutions, including the Constitution, were conceived by men who thought tragically.” The American Founders, most of them Christians, had a hard and unsentimental understanding of the limits of human reason and virtue. The last thing we need in 2008 is the kind of bogus hope rooted in mystical good feeling.
The real world involves hard conflicts and intractable issues that can’t be talked away or smothered under evasive language. Plenty of very good Catholics inhabit both major political parties. It’s our job as Catholic citizens to press our parties and our political leaders to respect the sanctity of human life¯all of it, from conception to grave¯whether our leaders and party elites like us or not.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Denver and author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (August 2008, Doubleday).