Prudence and Bishop McElroy

Published February 12, 2020

The Catholic Thing

In my last column, I argued that the American bishops, in their collective guidance about the responsibilities of voting, haven’t provided a rhetorical silver bullet. They haven’t told us who to vote for, but they have given us what we need: the guidance to make prudent decisions.

Last week, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego delivered a talk in which he reflected at length on the role of prudence in applying the principles of Catholic social doctrine to the work of Catholic citizenship. His remarks provide an opportunity to elaborate on the proper role of prudence in voting.

Specifically, Bishop McElroy’s remarks – contrary to his intention – show why prudence is precisely the grounds on which abortion ought to be – must be – considered the gravest threat to the common good of our nation. Consider the following passage from Bishop McElroy’s talk:

Some Catholic commentators on voting have in recent years portrayed prudential judgment as having a deficient dignity and grasp of the truth. They say that there is a categorical claim to support candidates who legislatively oppose intrinsic evils, but only a secondary claim for candidates whose proposals rest on prudential judgment for their moral discernment.

To say this is to miss the central element of Catholic teaching about conscience and prudence. As the Catechism notes, “With the help (of prudence), we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to be avoided.”

Prudential judgment is not a secondary or deficient mode of discernment in the Christian conscience. It is the primary mode. (Emphasis added.) This is certainly true in voting for candidates for public office. The constellation of substantial moral elements that are relevant to deciding which candidate is most likely to advance the common good during her time in office can only be morally comprehended through the virtue of prudence.

As Bishop McElroy points out elsewhere in his remarks, abortion is an intrinsic evil, but this is not what makes abortion such a grave threat to our common life. Other moral evils, such as lying, are also intrinsically evil. Would anyone suggest that a politician’s affinity for fibbing ought to weigh as heavily on the consciences of voters as his support for legal abortion? Not likely. The point here is not that lying is no big deal – it is – but that what sets abortion apart is the gravity of the evil and the scale of the slaughter: more than 60 million killed since Roe v. Wade.

Of course, it does matter that abortion is intrinsically evil. It matters as a reminder that there are no conditions under which procuring or performing an abortion could ever be justifiable. It also means that a politician who insists that abortion is a positive good or a “human right” is making a claim that utterly inverts morality and justice – a claim that no appeal to “prudential judgment” can rectify. But, as Bishop McElroy points out, voting “involves choosing a candidate for public office, not a stance, nor a specific teaching of the Church.” We don’t always support every position or decision of the men and women we choose to represent us. It is here that prudence is decisive.

And it is precisely here that prudence ought to reveal abortion as the greatest threat to the common good, and the top priority in making judgments about voting.

Abortion is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more lives than heart disease or cancer. Of course, in the cases of heart disease and cancer, a sickness does the killing; in the case of abortion, it is human beings doing the killing.

Bishop McElroy compared abortion to climate change (a threat he sees as comparable to abortion) this way: “The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from unchecked climate change is larger and threatens the very future of humanity.” This is almost certainly false. The Guttmacher Institute estimates there are some 50 million abortions performed globally each year.

But even if it were true – even if the death toll from abortion and climate change were comparable in the long term – there is a vast moral difference between someone dying, even from preventable causes, and someone being intentionally killed. To compare the direct, intentional killing of innocents to the remote, unintended consequences (however foreseeable) of complex global phenomena like climate change clarifies next to nothing.

Meanwhile, institutional advocacy for our abortion regime resides overwhelmingly in one political party. The leadership of one of our major parties – the Democratic Party – not only wants to secure and expand this abortion regime, they want to use taxes to pay for abortion, and enlist the clout of the United States government to advance the abortion regime overseas. Exceptions among elected Democrats are vanishingly rare.

The support for abortion at the highest levels of the Democratic Party is not something embraced reluctantly. These candidates vie to outdo one another in public signs of devotion to Roe v. Wade. These men and women boast of their dedication to the abortion license – which they see as a fundamental human right – and hope you will vote for them because of it. The frontrunners for the Democratic nomination are telling pro-life Democrats that they are no longer welcome in the party.

It is true that there are many issues with a claim on our consciences as citizens. Many are suffering and all have a claim on us. The unborn child, mothers facing unwanted pregnancies, migrants and refugees, the poor, the sick, the aged: each of these lives is sacred. As is just, we prohibit the use of lethal violence against all of them. Our laws – however imperfectly – protect each of them.

All, except the unborn child.

Make no mistake: abortion is the preeminent threat to the common good in our country. It is prudence, under the guidance of the Church, which tells us so – and which places corresponding demands on our consciences.

© 2020 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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