No Catholic can responsibly take a ‘pro-choice’ stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life. But a couple of supposedly “good” Catholics seem blissfully unaware that the Gospel of Life must be implemented by certain forms of social activity and commitment in the political field as a way of defending and promoting the value of life in our ever more complex and pluralistic societies.
During the election campaign at St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in Barrie, Ontario, Prime Minister Chrétien said: “For me, I’m a Roman Catholic. Personally, I don’t have to, you know, I’m not at the age anymore to have my wife have abortion, but the reality ... is that it is the choice of not the husband to decide in my judgment, it is the judgment of the woman according to the value that this person have.”
Joe Clark, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, on a Calgary radio program stated that he is ‘pro-choice’ and supports a ‘woman’s right to choose.’ “It is simply unacceptable that there should be a suggestion that 400,000 men in the country could force a referendum, on a woman’s right to choose.”
The conduct of both men is scandalous. Civil leaders have a duty, says Pope John Paul II, “to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures ... No one can ever renounce this responsibility, especially when he or she has a legislative or decision-making mandate which calls that person to answer to God, to his or her own conscience and to the whole of society for choices which may be contrary to the common good.” [E.V. 90]
For citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: we must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill or collude in killing of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate the life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in his image.
The church-state separation complex has been invoked time and time again in the abortion debate, especially by government officials and candidates who are Catholic. Seeking to imply adherence to church teaching but inability or unwillingness to allow their personal moral convictions to influence their behaviour, they have repeatedly resorted to “I’m opposed to abortion but I cannot force my morality on others.” Such statements are inherently problematic. It’s like saying “I’m opposed to child abuse, but I cannot force my morality on others.” That’s utter nonsense!
Furthermore, if on one issue the voice of conscience is stifled for political expediency, how can we be sure that this will not happen time and again?
Another ploy is for a candidate to claim that he or she is in agreement with the church, at least for the moment, on a wide range of other issues but not on the life issues. Some have sought to find refuge for this in the consistent ethic of life, though in fact their claim is an open contradiction. The consistent ethic of life is founded on the sanctity and value of human life and our responsibility to sustain, enhance and protect human life at every stage and in every circumstance from conception to natural death.
Every politician and would-be politician would do well to reflect on the unity of life of St. Thomas More. In him, there was no sign of a split between faith and culture, between timeless principles and daily life but rather a convergence of political commitment and moral conviction.
Italian Senator and former President Francesco Cossiga recently noted that in the humanistic activity which found More roaming from English to Latin and to Greek, and from political philosophy to theology, he united study with piety, culture with ascetical life, and the thirst for truth with the quest for virtue through a strict but joyful interior struggle.
As a lawyer and judge, he established the interpretation and formulation of laws which safeguard true social justice and build peace between individuals and nations. More eager to eliminate the causes of injustice than to repress it, he did not separate his passionate but prudent advocacy of the common good from the practice of charity: his fellow citizens called him the ‘patron of the poor.’ An unconditional and benevolent dedication to justice with regard to the human person and liberty was the guiding rule of his conduct as a magistrate. While serving all, St. Thomas More knew well how to serve his king, that is the state, but wanted above all to serve God.
Absolutely faithful to his civic duties, he exposed himself to extreme risks for the service of his own nation. He managed to become a perfect servant of the state because he struggled to be a perfect Christian. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but unto God the things that are God’s.” He understood that these words of Christ, while affirming the relative autonomy of the temporal from the spiritual sphere, call upon the Christian conscience to bring the values of the Gospel to the civil sphere, rejecting any compromise, even if this means martyrdom faced with profound humility.
Politics was not, for him, a matter of personal advantage, but rather a difficult form of service, for which he had prepared himself not only through the study of the history, laws, and culture of his own country, but also and especially through the examination of human nature, its grandeur and weaknesses, and of the ever-imperfect conditions of social life.
Politics was the overflow of a tremendous comprehension and he was able to show the proper hierarchy of ends to be pursued by government, in the light of the primacy of Truth over power and Goodness over utility. He always acted from the perspective of final ends, those which the shifting sands of historical circumstance can never nullify.
St. Thomas More, pray for Chrétien and Clark, and for all of us!
☩ Frederick Henry