By Douglas LeBlanc
Catholic News Agency, as part of EWTN’s global media family, has a charism for making plain what is often obscured by political rhetoric. A recent example is a news report by Matt Hadro: “Biden campaign downplays abortion, ‘preeminent priority’ of US Catholic bishops.” Hadro’s report followed an online “national call to action” sponsored by Catholics for Biden.
A letter issued by the political advocacy group Faith in Public Life Action offers a précis of the Catholics for Biden argument: “There is nothing pro-life about spreading disinformation about COVID-19, sending refugees and asylum-seekers back to certain death, reinstituting the federal death penalty, policies that worsen climate change, and exploiting racism for political advantage.”
None of this will surprise anyone who has followed the political debate that has surrounded abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973. One political fact is clear: Democrats and Republicans have landed on opposite ends of this debate.
Still, this year’s election gives greater visibility to a constituency long represented by the laity-heavy Catholics for Choice, because candidate Joseph R. Biden leads in the polls and speaks frequently and with affection about his lifelong faith.
Much of the resulting debate centers on language from both camps about how a faithful Roman Catholic should vote. That debate is, for the most part, irrelevant because Americans are free to vote as they wish, and they do. There is no ecclesial police force for identifying and driving out those who feel duty-bound by conscience to vote one way or another. The occasional bishop or priest speaks of possibly denying Communion to certain politicians. That cleric faces rebukes from other clerics, and the matter ends there.
Some Christians will vote for Biden because they believe abortion is best addressed through policies that decrease the need for it. Some Christians believe abortion is but one of many other pro-life concerns. Some Christians do not believe any laws should limit women’s access to abortion.
The real debate centers on these points:
- What does the Church teach?
- Is abortion solely an issue for Roman Catholics and other Christians?
- What bearing should this have in the life of a Christian who votes?
What the Church has taught, dating back at least to the Didache, is resolutely opposed to abortion. See especially Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World by Michael J. Gorman. The Vatican and Eastern Orthodoxy have affirmed this teaching more consistently than many Protestant churches. This has led some people to think of the Church’s teaching solely as a doctrine that an individual may affirm or reject, like choosing how often to abstain from eating meat.
This is especially evident when a Christian politician or activist identifies as personally pro-life but pledges not to enact these beliefs into civil law. The Vatican is clear: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication” (Canon 1398); “Accomplices who are not named in a law or precept incur a latae sententiae penalty attached to a delict if without their assistance the delict would not have been committed, and the penalty is of such a nature that it can affect them; otherwise, they can be punished by ferendae sententiae penalties” (Canon 1329).
There is a debate about whether these two canons mean politicians have helped procure an abortion. I am unsure what else we should call it if a politician pledges to leave all abortions unrestricted, compels public funding for abortions, and pledges to renew lawsuits against the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Opposition to abortion is far from confined to Roman Catholicism or even Christianity. The Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians is one of the most vivid illustrations of American diversity. Likewise, in an interview with Crisis magazine in 1998, the celebrity atheist and provocateur Christopher Hitchens made a materialist case for opposing abortion.
While a group like Secular Pro-life distances itself from President Trump, it recognizes the basic facts of biology: a baby in the womb has the complete DNA of any other human being, from the moment of conception. Dissenting appeals to medieval debates about ensoulment are a distraction from that reality.
What, then, are individual Christians to do with these realities? As Americans, we are gloriously free to make this choice for ourselves. As Christians, what we choose depends on what we want for the future of the United States and how our faith in the Lord Jesus informs our voting.
It is not scandalous for any Christian to invoke the teachings of the Church in an effort to influence a fellow believer’s vote. Innumerable Christians engage in moral suasion every day, across the political spectrum and across the range of moral concerns.
Consider the blunt language of Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, speaking with the Chicago Sun-Times a year ago: “There is a conflict between the politics of Jesus and the politics of Trump. … Dehumanizing immigrants isn’t just racist — it’s anti-Christ. Demeaning women isn’t just sexist — it’s anti-Christ. At some point, Christians have to ask themselves: Are the teachings of Christ going to be followed or not?”
His question is no less relevant to abortion. Throughout Church history, the Vatican has identified abortion as a grave moral evil. It has indeed given preeminence to abortion over capital punishment or labor rights or immigration policy.
How each Christian responds to the weight of this history is a matter of conscience and theology. God will hold all of us accountable for the choices we make. What we say to another in the meantime is of less consequence, though in that too we should strive for both clarity and compassion.
Douglas LeBlanc, a former senior editor of The Living Church, lives and works in Charleston, SC