During “election season” we receive many many questions in our Catholic Responses department on Catholics’ participation in the political sphere. These questions most frequently involve abortion. Last week, for example, one CUF emailed this seemingly simple question: “Can you call yourself a Catholic if you are pro-choice?” Here is the response I sent:
Those who espouse a “pro-choice” position can call themselves “Catholic” and, as we well know, they frequently do so. But should they?
First, let’s define our terms. I’m defining “pro-choice” as meaning the viewpoint that abortion is a fundamental human right that must be safeguarded by all branches of the government. Any restriction of a woman’s access to abortion must be carefully scrutinized to ensure that this basic right isn’t being infringed upon.
The Church, however, is “pro-life,” and considers abortion a grave evil. Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), sums up the Catholic position:
“[B]y the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops–who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine–I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
“No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”
From this, we can clearly see that one cannot be both “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” as they represent opposite sides of the abortion issue.
For a Catholic, this is not merely a political matter where one usually has the legitimate freedom to select from a range of competing viewpoints. On the question of abortion, it’s a matter of life and death, of right and wrong. And so it’s also a matter of fidelity to Christ, who teaches us through His Church. Catholics who reject the Church’s teaching on abortion are sinning against faith, and thus against the First Commandment (see Catechism, nos. 2087-89). And if they act upon such rejection, either by having an abortion or by formally cooperating with an abortion, they are also sinning against the Fifth Commandment (see Catechism, nos. 2270-75). So, this is a most serious matter.
However, one who is in a state of habitual sin doesn’t cease to be “Catholic” in a strict sense. A Catholic who regularly misses Sunday Mass, a Catholic couple that is living together outside of marriage, a Catholic employee who is regularly stealing from his employer are all living in an objectively sinful state. Yet, they haven’t ceased to be Catholics. But they do need repentance and conversion of heart—and surely the grace of sacramental Confession.
The same is true for those Catholics who dissent from the Church’s teaching on abortion. I know firsthand, because I considered myself “pro-choice” when I first returned to the Church in the early 80s. Click here for more about my journey on that issue.
Obviously this subject gets complicated in a hurry. For one thing, I’m not in a position to judge the state of any particular individual’s soul. Also, one might not be “pro-choice,” but might be in a situation where there are no satisfactory alternatives in a given election, and the separate issue arises as to whether such a Catholic may vote for a pro-choice candidate. Click here for my most recent post on that subject.
The bottom line is that dissent from the Church’s core teachings on the value and dignity of all human life is not a “Catholic” position, using “Catholic” as an adjective. Those who adhere in some fashion to those views may be Catholics (using the word as a noun), but their position is objectively opposed to Catholic teaching, and for their own spiritual well-being as well as for the common good they should be urged to repent.
Let us pray that in our time we will foster the development of a civilization of life and love where all human life is cherished.