Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

What big teeth you have! Why abortion IS a defining issue

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 05, 2021

Each year at election time in America, and especially during the quadrennial Presidential election season, we hear a chorus of Catholic voices lamenting “single issue voting” or the tendency of pro-life Catholics to make abortion some sort of a “litmus test”. One of the more recent examples of this type was San Diego Bishop McElroy’s statement of concern about this very problem among even some of his brother bishops. But is it really a problem? Let’s take a closer look.

Actually, I have never heard a Catholic in any position of authority argue that the sin of abortion is greater than any other conceivable sin. Rather, as a serious intrinsically evil act of murder, abortion is rightly regarded as a very serious moral matter. In this sense, it will be properly weighed in relationship to other very serious intrinsic evils. Moreover, abortion is practiced on an enormous scale, and in this sense it will be properly weighed in relationship to other very serious intrinsic evils that are dominant sins within our own society. Finally, abortion is pressed upon us in today’s culture as a human right to be both upheld and facilitated by government, and so in this sense, it will be properly weighed in relationship to other very serious intrinsic evils that are dominant within our own society and both protected and encouraged by law.

It is, then, not because abortion is one of many social issues faced by our culture that it is often regarded as a litmus test for politicians, but because in the present circumstances the abortion problem has the following characteristics:

  • It is intrinsically evil, that is, direct abortion is always morally wrong;
  • It is the sin of murder, which means it is always gravely wrong;
  • It is practiced on an extraordinarily grand scale in our contemporary society;
  • It is both guaranteed as a right and directly facilitated by government, making it a pre-eminent political issue.
  • And since this evil can be known through both Divine Revelation and the Natural Law, every person of good will ought to recognize it as evil, making it a clear basis for significant judgments about the moral credibility of any person, including any candidate for public office.

To this we could easily add some additional social dimensions, such as the many ways in which abortion tears apart the very fabric of the family, which is the only sound basis for a healthy society.

Tricks of moral blindness

Of course, no pro-lifer would argue that it would be unfair to vote against an “anti-abortion” candidate who proposed to launch a nuclear strike against non-combatants or advocated widespread use of euthanasia to reduce the burden of the elderly and the ill on the rest of society. These would also be large-scale sins of murder which, along with abortion, could be weighed carefully by authentically Catholic voters, including priests and bishops, in deciding which candidates to support or oppose. In reality, of course, such a bifurcation has never presented itself to the electorate.

Instead, Bishop McElroy and so many others who typically wring their hands over “single issue” voting are consistently guilty of an abject failure of moral analysis, and this on two levels. First, as I have frequently pointed out, they fail to differentiate between intrinsic evils and prudential judgments. For some astonishing reason, those who are uncomfortable with the moral demands made on them by intrinsic evils almost always muddy the moral waters by pretending that the issue of abortion is on the same level as prudential questions about which people are morally free to disagree. What economic policies will promote the common good most effectively? What social service programs are most needed by the poor? What political posture will be most effective in preserving international peace? What is the best way to balance environmental concerns with practical human realities? How much can government effectively do to promote equal opportunity for people of all backgrounds? And so on.

Second, these same single issue hand-wringers pretend that because the motives which lead to abortion are varied and complex, the legal solution to abortion is just as complex, rendering it very difficult—as with the prudential examples offered previously—to make judgments about any particular proposal on the subject. But this is abject nonsense. When we ask what government can do to enhance the common good in one way or another, including strengthening the family and helping the distressed, we may justly decide that (a) what government can do is sadly limited; and (b) that it is difficult to decide among the various alternatives which have been conceived and promoted. But when we ask what government can do to save the lives of innocent children who are daily slaughtered in their mothers’ wombs, then the answer is absolutely clear: First, stop promoting, facilitating, defending and legally protecting the murder of the unborn—a matter of the utmost simplicity; and second, prosecute as criminals those who engage in the business of murdering the unborn, a normal step in the repression of any serious crime (though a step which, as with all enforcement of the law, will never be wholly successful).

I should mention in passing that some have tried to highlight the changing Catholic reflection on the death penalty as just as important as the abortion issue. This is handy because those who favor abortion tend, in disproportionate numbers, also to favor the elimination of the death penalty. Indeed, some bishops are far harder on Catholics who defend the use of the death penalty than on Catholics who defend the government protection of abortion.

But this is argument by sleight-of-hand to prove a case that is very difficult to make: (1) It is eminently arguable that the position on the use of the death penalty outlined by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Francis is primarily a matter of prudential judgment rather than moral law (a position generally favored by otherwise orthodox Catholic moralists, and by many ordinary Catholics, who in fact agree with this prudential argument). And (2) More to the point for this discussion, and taking the United States as an example, it is significant for our moral priorities that in 2018 (the last year for which I could find reliable information), there were 619,000 reported* abortions as compared with 25 executions. (* Not all abortions are reported; and increasing numbers of abortions are being induced through “medication”, which is far more difficult to track.)

A Failure of Will

The widespread confusion among Catholics on the issue of abortion owes much to Catholic professors, priests and bishops who refuse (and I use this word advisedly) to make the most rudimentary moral distinctions whenever it comes to the issues on which the dominant secular culture wishes to act contrary to the natural law and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Indeed, I suspect it would be hard to find any issue on which our modern secular culture did not wish to go contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, were it not for the popularity among too many prelates of demonstrating how perfectly, in areas in which they have no Divine authority (such as solutions to environmental problems and economic policy), their positions accord with what the dominant culture favors.

If I were to stray from my topic for just a moment, I would argue that the bishops should get out of the secular policy-making business altogether, both individually and through the USCCB, and stick to instructing the faithful in a principled understanding Catholic faith and morals, including its authoritative sources in Divine Revelation and the Natural Law, without constantly stating their preferences for one particular government policy among others. This should include a clear exposition of Catholic social teaching, but Catholic social teaching leads us to recognize a series of foundational principles, in reference to which a great many differing prudential policies may be morally proposed. These principles include the priority of human life and the dignity of the human person, stewardship over creation, the universal destination of goods, and the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

In addition to offering proper instruction, devoid of political advocacy, the bishops must find a way to make nominally Catholic universities Catholic again, to reform or dissolve wayward religious orders and those seminaries which are still heterodox, to insist on sound doctrinal and moral preaching in every parish, and thus prepare the laity to play their proper role which, in contrast to bishops, includes politics.

But of course I have no intention of straying from my topic. My only point is that we must not be fooled. The first political response to the grave moral evil of abortion is simply for government to stop promoting, facilitating and protecting this extraordinarily evil. We do not need to figure out in advance how to make a perfect world in which abortion will seldom or never be sought, which in any case would require total conversion and perfect trust in God. Nor need we be confused by such prudential problems, for at the first stage of this vital matter, prudential questions do not yet enter in.

I was struck during the last days of the Trump Administration that a few of our users cancelled their registrations because they interpreted our pro-life stance to be an indicator of not taking racism seriously. Now I don’t know any pro-lifers who are racists, but I do know that “minority” children are disproportionately aborted. I also know that racism is one of those problems on which equally moral people differ as to exactly when, where and how it is operative. Moreover, we don’t fully understand how to eliminate racial prejudice or how to ameliorate its long-term effects even with the best will in the world. But for abortion, which is a specific heinous act (just as lynching a person of another race would be), the immediate political solution is very clear: We must first stop the political encouragement of murder, second outlaw murder, and third, insofar as it is reasonably possible, punish it.

In other words, the immediate decision is simple: Cease all political and legal complicity with the murder of unborn babies. The task begins by making it politically very clear that there is no such right. However, when we ask for this we cannot help but recall a question once raised by Jesus Christ Himself: “Is it lawful…to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” Sadly, most of those who heard the question “remained silent” (Mk 3:4). Apparently, not much has changed.


One final objection might be a prudential argument that goes like this: (a) I don’t think anything can be done about abortion right now; (b) But I do think we might make some progress on another issue (call it Issue X); (c) And I think the pro-abortion candidate has better ideas about Issue X.

This is, of course, theoretically possible. But it is just here that we must recall the difference in the moral grounding of the pro-life candidate as compared with the pro-abortion candidate. The first recognizes the natural law as providing the fundamental guiding principles, according to which all politics must operate, and on which the justness of every human enactment depends. The second lacks this recognition and is either deeply committed to evil (under the guise of good, of course) or is a moral imbecile. That is, he or she is objectively, in this candidacy, either a knave or a fool.

This ought certainly to be a disqualification. When we elect someone to public office, we are not hiring unskilled labor to complete a particular task for us, like polishing our shoes or running errands to the store. We are commissioning someone to superintend a wide range of issues in ways that best serve the common good—against which the taking of innocent human life is the most fundamental of all crimes. What could possibly possess any sentient and moral voter to entrust the commonwealth to a person devoid of the most fundamental moral understanding?

So let us neither be disingenuous nor accept that quality in those who claim the Catholic name, including some bishops. It is certainly possible for Western governments to directly endorse and engage in moral evils greater in severity and scope than abortion is now. But in our time, the denials of reality which are fostered through direct governmental manipulation all tend to be rooted in the same refusal to accept the most fundamental moral realities which our human nature imposes upon us. Moreover, we must not allow ourselves to pretend to be uncertain in our judgment because of prudential concerns which, at the first level of analysis and response, are fundamentally irrelevant.

Instead, we must simply call a halt. It is perfectly legitimate to demand, as a serious moral test, a sincere political opposition to such a grave intrinsic evil that is currently promoted on a massive scale precisely through government and law. I have often observed that shepherds who attempt to undermine so simple and straightforward a perception betray a shameful desire to be considered “players” by the dominant secular culture. In reality, however, they simply reveal to their flocks the size and sharpness of their teeth.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: grateful1 - Feb. 11, 2021 2:05 PM ET USA

    YES, Jeff--exactly right: way too many in the hierarchy absolutize the relative/prudential & relativize the absolute. They then compound the problem by equating their opinions on matters political/economic/scientific (areas often well outside their personal & moral competence, not to mention their divine/doctrinal authority). I can't help but think that the problem is basically one of pride. Though you're speaking to the choir here, I thank you for the encouragement & sustenance.

  • Posted by: Eric - Feb. 08, 2021 9:28 AM ET USA

    Wonderful piece!!!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 06, 2021 7:39 PM ET USA

    You ought not lump St. JPII's position on capital punishment with Pope Francis'. JPII's was in line with the 1,900-year Magisterium and with Jewish and other moral codes. Francis' broke with the previous Magisterium. You have allowed me to post often about this issue. In order to not be misunderstood, I will say that I oppose all forms of capital punishment that do not serve the purpose of self defense or defense of the innocent. Those who commit capital crimes while incarcerated must be stopped

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Feb. 06, 2021 6:45 PM ET USA

    I wholeheartedly agree. This is one of the finest explications of the most pressing moral/theological/political issue facing the Catholic Church today. It will continue in that rank of importance until it is settled; the only question remaining is who has the fortitude to carry the day. In your brief excursus you've identified the two issues which the bishops must change. Until they get out of the political lobbying business my financial contributions will stay in my pocket, ditto the schools.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Feb. 06, 2021 7:29 AM ET USA

    Our primary concern should be saving ours and the souls of as many of our b's and s's in Christ as we can. The 10 C's is a good how to guide, but Jesus distilled that down to two, and lib politicians and bishops who refuse to teach properly, who help murder babies and destroy businesses, will not be able to stand before Him and say, I loved my neighbor as myself, I killed and destroyed for the good of my country. I can't see Jesus falling for that. But libs and bishops don't seem to care.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Feb. 05, 2021 10:59 PM ET USA