What does the Church teach about the political duty of Catholics concerning abortion?

In advance of the presidential election, the following is the second of three questions and answers regarding what the Catholic Church teaches about elections. See the first question here.

The Church teaches that,

It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the licitness of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it, moreover, he may not collaborate in its application [4].

babyThis teaching applies to all persons not just to Catholics. However, it is evident that politicians, and above all Catholic politicians, have an even greater responsibility. Therefore, if we must not vote for or support in any way pro-abortion laws, we also may not vote for or support pro-abortion candidates, since, once elected, they have power regarding laws.

This serious duty of also includes the duty not to vote for laws that deny the right of conscientious objection of those who in no way want to cooperate with abortion. Regarding this point the Church teaches that,

It is, for instance, inadmissible that doctors or nurses should find themselves obliged to cooperate closely in abortions and have to choose between the law of God and their professional situation [5].

It is true that abortion is not the only problem that exists. However, the Church teaches that,

The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others [6].

Saint John Paul II expressed this truth very eloquently when he said,

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination [7].

The Bishops in the United States have reiterated this truth in their Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life activities, saying:

Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. Abortion, the direct killing of an innocent human being, is always gravely immoral (The Gospel of Life, no. 57); its victims are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family. It is imperative that those who are called to serve the least among us give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice [8].

It is in fact the case that abortion is the crime that destroys the largest number of innocent human beings. Yearly, abortion kills between 36 and 53 million unborn persons worldwide [9]. All the wars put together in a year have not killed that many innocent people. In the United States, the annual number of abortions is 1.1 millions [10].

Moreover, abortion is an intrinsically and gravely evil act, and as such its prohibition does not admit of any type of exceptions. There are other problems in society that admit legitimate solutions, and there can be a legitimate diversity of opinions concerning said solutions: social justice, education, health, immigration. But in the case of abortion, there is no other course of public action but to prohibit it by law.

It is not a matter of excluding the rest of the social issues, but rather of prioritizing them. And the most frequent and gravely immoral is abortion. Therefore, it does not matter what position a candidate has on the rest of the issues, his position in favor of abortion automatically disqualifies him. For this reason, the Church teaches that,

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia [11].

The only occasion in which a Catholic (or any person of will, for that matter) might vote for a pro-abortion candidate is when the opponent is even worse in this same matter, and there is not a third pro-life candidate with a realistic chance of winning the election. This is what in moral language is called “proportionally grave reason”. Regarding this, the Church teaches that,

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can only be permitted in the presence of proportionally grave reasons [12].

From this teaching, we can clearly deduce that voting for a pro-abortion candidate, knowing that he or she is pro-abortion, and not having a proportionally grave reason, and knowing what the Church says about this, constitutes a mortal sin, even though it is argued that you are voting for “other reasons”. In that state or condition Catholics cannot receive Communion, unless they go to Confession first and do what is possible to make reparation for the terrible example they have given to others.

Adolfo Castañeda, S.T.L., is the director of education for Hispanic outreach for Human Life International and HLI's Hispanic outreach arm Vida Humana Internacional. He has a Masters in Theology from St. Vincent de Paul Regional (Major) Seminary, in Boynton Beach, Florida, where he studied as a lay student. He also has a Licence in Moral Theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome. From 1989 to 1993 he taught moral theology at St. Vincent’s. Since 1993, he has been working for Human Life International’s Hispanic Division, Miami-based, Vida Humana Internacional (VHI), as Director of Hispanic Education and Research. In that capacity Adolfo is the host of two weekly Spanish radio programs: one live though Mother Angelica’s World Catholic Radio and the other one pre-recorded through Radio Peace of the Archdiocese of Miami. He is the editor of VHI’s email newsletter, and of VHI’s printed newsletter. Adolfo is also the author of books, articles,and reports.
Articles by Adolfo:

Dr. Felipe E. Vizcarrondo attended Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia, PA. He completed a residency in Pediatrics at University Hospital, University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus and subspecialty training in Pediatric Cardiology at University Hospital, Puerto Rico and Kings County Medical Center, New York University. An active duty US Air Force officer, he held the positions of Chair, Department of Pediatrics and Program Director, Pediatric Residency, and Chief of the Medical Staff at major medical centers of the Department of Defense and was on the faculty at the Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Vizcarrondo was Affiliated Scholar, Georgetown University Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University Medical School, Washington, DC. He is Associate Professor (voluntary), University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and member of the UM Ethics Programs. He completed a Masters Degree in Bioethics and has written on a variety of issues ranging from freedom of conscience of healthcare workers to the doctor patient relationship.
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