Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Abortion isn't the only issue: the argument for moral equivalence

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 13, 2012

In an America magazine commentary—with the curious title, “Don’t Vote for the ‘Better Catholic’”—Father James Martin, SJ, comments on the Biden-Ryan debate. His argument is a familiar one: that abortion is not the only moral issue for Catholic voters. But he makes the argument in a way that exposes its weakness.

Let me quote the key paragraph in full. This is, again, a reaction to the vice-presidential debate:

Their commentary last night (and beforehand) also points out that no one party fully embraces the entirety of Catholic teaching. And for those of you who would say that abortion is the only “intrinsic evil” that is at issue in this campaign, I would point you to Blessed John Paul II’s great encyclical Veritatis Splendor, in which he speaks of a great many intrinsic evils, many of them often overlooked today, including “whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit.”

Perfectly true. Subhuman living conditions, slavery, prostitution, etc. are intrinsically evil. If you find a politician who openly advocates subhuman living conditions, who calls for arbitrary imprisonments, who attends fundraisers for the human-trafficking industry, who endorses government subsidies for prostitution, who demands legal protection for slavery, you cannot in good conscience vote for him. That would be as bad as voting for a politician who supports legal, government-funded abortion.

So there’s a valid argument for moral equivalence. The politicians who favor unrestricted abortion are no worse than the politicians who favor slavery and human trafficking. Except in this one respect: the latter don’t pose much of a threat to contemporary America, because they don’t exist.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Feb. 10, 2017 2:17 PM ET USA

    I believe that if each of us, in our hearts, follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, we should have a clear conscience in that area of our lives.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Feb. 05, 2017 5:23 PM ET USA

    I appreciate commentaries like this that give me a clearer understanding of the Pope's proper role. Years ago, when my father was alive, he couldn't understand why the Pope didn't just take a broom and broom out all the liberal bishops. At the time, even though I was vaguely aware that Popes do not normally govern like that, I didn't have any clear way to respond to him. So I just listened while he sounded off.

  • Posted by: Archpriest - Feb. 03, 2017 5:47 PM ET USA

    Amen, Amen, and Amen!

  • Posted by: DCpa - Feb. 01, 2017 10:28 PM ET USA

    Here is a major problem: Francis' claimed desire to evangelize the alienated & marginalized cannot take place if we fail to transmit and infuse Christ's teaching. Instead of the classic "Turn away from sin, and sin no more," we now hear "Turn way from "judgment' and sin some more. God luvs u as u are." This is not good news and it is NOT Christ's Gospel or the apostolic kerygma. This "Nothing is a Problem" mentality does not foster, but PREVENTS transformation in Christ and evangelization.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 01, 2017 3:40 PM ET USA

    rfr46 summed up the situation brilliantly. I quote: "I look at the state of the pope and pray for the church." In as much as the pope is a part of the Church, praying for the Church is by default praying for the pope.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Feb. 01, 2017 5:46 AM ET USA

    "By its very nature the Pope’s role is conservative..." Finally! It's very gratifying to see someone with impeccable orthodox credentials have the courage to use the term "conservative" properly. Thank you, Phil.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Feb. 01, 2017 4:08 AM ET USA

    That Francis has broken with Scripture, the Magisterium of earlier popes & even Canon Law (1387) is beyond question. And, yes, we should pray for him. But we must also recognize how he fits Jesus' complaint against "an evil & adulterous generation" (Mt 12:39). No, Francis isn't asking for a sign like them, but like them he is faithless - the broader meaning of adulterous - at least when it comes to Amoris' Chp 8. Thus, ironically, the pope who is too lenient wrt adultery is himself an adulterer.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Feb. 01, 2017 3:38 AM ET USA

    To paraphrase the words of a Senate chaplain many years ago, I do not look at the state of the church and pray for the pope. I look at the state of the pope and pray for the church.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jan. 31, 2017 7:11 PM ET USA

    Keep the faith, Brother Phil, keep the faith. The pope speaks authoritatively only in concert with the magisterium -- cardinals, archbishops and bishops. There is another "magisterium" of sorts (although a lowly one) and we are legion. We are the people who keep the faith. We obey the Holy Father when he speaks ex cathedra. Seems he's been speaking away from the Chair of Peter a lot these days. We roll our eyes, smile knowingly, and go on about our business of being good Catholics.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jan. 30, 2017 12:17 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis does much that is good and totally in line with the traditional Church adherence to the truth, which is why it is very confusing and disconcerting to see his undeniable lapses into some of the errors decried and condemned by past pontiffs. I pray for him daily, and I ask the Lord to show me the error in my thinking if I am incorrect in this assessment, but I sincerely believe that I am not.

  • Posted by: vboast4348 - Jan. 29, 2017 2:59 AM ET USA

    You are voicing my thoughts. I also pray for the Pope daily, and all the priests who are loyally carrying out their vocations, despite their misgivings at his leadership. Division and confusion are not the hallmarks of the Magisterium. Thank God for Catholic Culture, giving us reliable news, we are getting mixed messages from the Vatican press.

  • Posted by: Erpecom - Jan. 28, 2017 6:09 PM ET USA

    I do not like it, but I agree with you completely. Deus, omnium fidelium pastor & rector, famulum tuum Franciscum propitius respice: da ei, quæsumus, verbo & exemplo, quibus præest, proficere; ut ad vitam, una cum grege sibi credito, perveniat sempiternam. Pet Christum, Dominum nostrum.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jan. 28, 2017 4:41 PM ET USA

    Your comments reflect my anguish at a situation that we should not be facing, especially at this time, when we have to simultaneously battle the secular, anti-Christian forces attempting to have us surrender to the current zeitgeist, and, now, our own Pontiff, who is supposed to be leading the Church to resist those secular forces. Does Pope Francis, for whom I also pray daily, actually want to cause such division, or does his rigidity and contempt for tradition blind him to it?

  • Posted by: visions - Jan. 28, 2017 2:57 PM ET USA

    If we have died with him If we persevere we shall also reign with him But if we deny him He will deny us If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself

  • Posted by: hc11386742 - Jan. 28, 2017 10:58 AM ET USA

    It seems that the decisions which are coming out of the Vatican these days is being directed to THE FORGOTTEN CATHOLICS those of us who have always remained faithful to the teachings of OUR HOLY MOTHER THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.The westwardly flowing winds not only reeks of I'm Ok ,your'e OK but has begun to slowly dilute & delude our true Catholic Faith. True evidence based Catholicism is based on the Magisterium. GOD SAVE OUR TRUE CHURCH..Harry D. Carrozza,MD.Tucson Cath.Physicains Guild

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 28, 2017 1:36 AM ET USA

    Our Lord built the Church upon the rock of Peter. Keeping that in mind, I do need to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit even in the most challenging news coming from the Vatican. And sometimes those news can be challenging to the extreme, with name-calling being the least of the problems. Perhaps, it's divine invitation to all Catholics to pray more fervently and trustingly for the Vicar of Christ? Perhaps, Pope Benedict resigned because he was not receiving sufficient support of our prayers?

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Oct. 18, 2012 11:22 AM ET USA

    Excellent point Mr. Lawler. I would only add that it would be refreshing if those who throw the unborn under the bus in order to support liberal democrats, actually looked at the results of the liberal economic and social programs that "help the poor". I see very little evidence that the Catholic left does this. There is all kinds of evidence that many of these programs are either ineffective or harmful. Does the social just crowd ever address this argument?

  • Posted by: richardols3892 - Oct. 17, 2012 1:29 PM ET USA

    I disagree with Bishop McElroy's saying that abortion is the first among many issues for Catholics. It appears to be the ONLY issue for Catholics; not the economy, not jobs, not poverty, not the prospect of being dragged into another Middle East War. Our faith has, I'm afraid, become, in the United States anyway, a one-note Johnny, that single note being abortion. If anyone doubts that, let them ask any cleric what issues might be as important to the Church.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Oct. 17, 2012 12:43 AM ET USA

    Does anyone still read America magazine? They have been printing trash like this for at least fifty years! When will it stop Oh Lord?

  • Posted by: sparch - Oct. 15, 2012 2:14 PM ET USA

    It is not just using the litmus test of abortion as a political sign post. It is an indication of general moral degredation and an inability to see that life must be the priority of any government. It is not a one issue approach it is an indication of character.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Oct. 15, 2012 10:43 AM ET USA

    EXCELLENT rebuttal, Phil. This one should be passed along.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Oct. 14, 2012 9:00 PM ET USA

    It's clear that Fr. Martin is just bending over backwards to make it OK to vote Democrat.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Oct. 14, 2012 3:22 PM ET USA

    Good one. I wish I had seen it yesterday before I got dragooned into going to a meeting with Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy at my parish, on telling Catholics to vote their consciences. Abortion, for him, is the first issue among many. Underline among many.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 14, 2012 1:26 PM ET USA

    Agreed! The general societal view of Life & personhood is well skewed. Fr. Spitzer does an execllent job defining the problem & offering a solution in, "Ten Moral Principles". However, problems cited by JPII do pose a real & significant threat to our society! All result from degredation of personhood & life within our culture. Support must go to the candidate with the best chance for freedom, recognition of a person, and our right to life. That chance is clearly better with one of the two.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Oct. 13, 2012 8:24 PM ET USA

    Well put. I think this point needs to be hammered home repeatedly until people like Fr. Martin get it. Unfortunately, the logic of the argument is not easily reducible to a sound bite, so a lot of people may never get it.