When it comes to the Church’s pro-life witness, consistency matters. Ignoring or denying human dignity in one sphere, undermines our defense of human dignity in other spheres. When we emphasize only one note, we lose the harmony of the whole symphony of truth.
As Catholics, we are called to proclaim the fullness of the truth, including in public life and in our role as citizens.
Earlier this week, Senate Democrats outvoted a bill—the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act—which would have effectively banned abortions after the twentieth week of pregnancy. The bill’s failure was not a surprise. No one thought that the bill would receive the 60 votes required to overcome the filibuster. In the end, it failed, 51-46.
Notably, out of the 24 Catholics currently serving in the Senate, 14 of them—12 Democrats and two Republicans—voted in defense of abortion rights. They are: Senators Cantwell (WA), Collins (ME), Cortez Masto (NV), Durbin (IL), Gilibrand (NY), Heitkamp (ND), Kaine (VA), Leahy (VT), Markey (MA), McCaskill (MO), Menendez (NJ), Murkowski (AK), Murray (WA), and Reed (RI).
Given that Catholic legislators were actually decisive in a move protecting abortion, Monday’s vote was particularly damaging to the credibility of Catholic witness to the sanctity of human life.
Many of these senators, no doubt, proudly and sincerely claim that their Catholic faith has taught them to see public policy as a means for defending the vulnerable and promoting the common good. And yet when it comes to abortion, their bold conviction about the moral imperatives of their faith suddenly evaporates, and zeal for justice gives way to timid excuses about “personally opposed” and “wouldn’t want to impose.”
This inconsistency leads otherwise sensible people to espouse the least defensible and most monstrous of all positions on abortion: Professing that, as Catholics, they believe abortion is just what the Catholic Church says it is—“an unspeakable crime” (Vatican II) and “the murder of an innocent person” (Pope Francis)—and then, without missing a beat, fighting tooth and nail to ensure that nothing endangers the legal protection of this same atrocity.
One can already hear the objections: This sort of inconsistency isn’t just a problem for Catholic Democrats! There are pro-choice Catholics in the Republican Party, too! And there are any number of issues on which Republican-preferred policies aren’t with the Church. What about immigration? Or economic justice? Or the environment?
The point here isn’t about parties, it’s about priorities. There are many ways that human dignity and life are attacked. But the scale of the slaughter—almost a million abortions every year—and the gravity of the evil demand that ending or curbing abortion be a top priority.
There has been a revival recently, in part thanks to Pope Francis, of the “consistent ethic of life” (or “seamless garment,” as it’s sometimes called) popularized by the late Cardinal Bernardin. It begins from the premise that all issues affecting the dignity of the human person are essentially interrelated: Yes, life in the womb is precious and deserves legal protection, the theory goes, but the same commitment to human dignity that leads us to protect that precious life also requires us to defend human dignity elsewhere—in the sick and poor, the elderly, immigrants and refugees, even those who have been convicted of terrible crimes and are sitting on death row.
This is the consistent ethic of life in its best and truest form: a powerful (and much-needed) reminder of the integrity of Catholic moral teaching.
But as even Cardinal Bernardin lamented, this is not always how the idea of a consistent life ethic is put to use:
“I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it. But the misuse does not invalidate the argument.”
Rather than a defense of the integrity of Catholic doctrine, the “consistent ethic of life” has too often been abused as a way to deflect criticism away from pro-abortion politicians and those who support them.
And this brings us back to those 14 Catholic senators who voted to protect, not life, but its destruction.
The greatest, most glaring inconsistency in Catholic witness to human dignity and the sanctity of life is the widespread Catholic facilitation of, and support for, the killing of innocent children through abortion. Nothings shreds the seamless garment of Catholic moral witness more wantonly. Nothing undermines the preciousness of every human life more dramatically.
Working to protect the unborn must be a priority, not despite our need to be consistent in our defense of dignity and life, but precisely because of it. We all need to examine ourselves and, with the Church’s guidance, work to ensure we have our priorities are straight. It’s not just our consistency that’s at stake; millions of lives, and millions of souls, are, too.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of “Red, White, Blue, and Catholic.”