Abortion, War and Capital Punishment: One of These Things…
I frequently receive email asking how we can call ourselves pro-life while turning a blind eye to the horrors of war and capital punishment. This is an important question. It has an equally important answer.
The question reminds me of the sets of pictures on intelligence tests (or in children’s activity books) which ask which one of three pictures is different. Sometimes you are so struck by the similarity that you have to look carefully to answer correctly. The pictures in this case are abortion, war, and the death penalty. And the answer is abortion. Abortion is the picture that is not like the others.
Of the three, only abortion is morally wrong in and of itself, all of the time, under every circumstance. That is, only abortion is intrinsically a moral evil. The other two are natural evils whose morality, in each case, depends on the surrounding circumstances.
A look at the Catechism makes clear what Catholics believe—or ought to believe—in this matter:
- Abortion: “Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” (#2271)
- War: “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration…. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” (#2309)
- Death Penalty: “Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense…. [T]he traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty….” (#2266 - 2267)
Please don’t accuse me of leaving out the conditions mentioned in the Catechism which are to govern the morality of war and of capital punishment. My purpose is not to say we must support all wars and executions, or that we may not oppose certain wars or certain kinds of executions.
But equally moral people may legitimately disagree about when we should go to war or when we should execute criminals, because both decisions involve prudential judgments. In contrast, equally moral people may not disagree about abortion.
That’s why good people can oppose abortion without opposing certain wars or certain uses of the death penalty. Similarly, it is legitimate for a person to consider himself pro-life without opposing war or capital punishment in general.
Critics may claim such pro-lifers are turning a “blind eye”. But it is the critics who must look more closely: One of these things is not like the others.
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