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Living the Gospel of Life -- Study Guide

Chapter Four

Paragraph Twenty-one


Policy and principle

This paragraph invites us to reflect on the distinction between a "policy" and a "principle." Understanding the difference can make it less confusing to sort out the political debates and competing claims of candidates for public office.

An example will clarify this. We are rightly concerned about the poor, and need to develop programs and policies to advance their rights and enhance their lives. Parties and candidates will often disagree about what programs and policies best achieve that objective. But the disagreements are over "how" to help the poor, not "whether" to help them. In other words, there is agreement on the principle of solidarity with the poor; there is disagreement about the policies that implement the principle.

Love of God, and faithfulness to the Gospel and Catholic teaching, bind us to the principle, but not necessarily to any particular policy that seeks to carry it out. Faithful Catholics could conceivably disagree strongly on policies while adhering to the principle.

But on the question of abortion and euthanasia, the policy is the principle. Here, we are not talking about disagreements on how to secure people's rights, but on whether they have those rights at all! The disagreement goes much deeper, right to the question of whether these people should live or die. Either they need to be protected, or they can be killed. A policy allowing them to be killed necessarily violates the principle that the innocent may not be killed.

To make a truly equivalent parallel between the plight of the poor and that of the unborn, one would have to imagine a policy whereby a) the poor were officially declared to be devoid of "personhood" under the Constitution (as Roe vs. Wade did to the unborn), and b) over 4000 of the poor were put to death daily against their will (as is the case regarding the unborn). It is one thing to assert that a particular policy does or does not advance the rights of the poor; it is quite another to assert that the poor have no right to exist. Debates about the poor are in the first category; the debate about the unborn is in the second.

The starting point, then, is adherence to what the document calls "the basic principle" -- "never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life." This is where we start in evaluating any candidate, policy, or program, and if this principle is violated, we need go no further. There can be no counterbalancing values that would ever justify killing the innocent.

The content of love

This paragraph also points out that "love" has a content. Some moral theories that say love is just an intention, not bound to specific actions. In other words, I can do what I want as long as I doing "in a loving way" or "with the intention to love." On the contrary, no matter what my intentions or methods are, "certain ways of acting [are] always and radically incompatible with the love of God." Killing the innocent is one of them.

Note that this cannot be said of capital punishment or war. There can be circumstances in which both are justified, in order to stop someone who is killing others. Here we see the meaning of "innocent," from Latin words meaning "not harming." As soon as one starts deliberately harming others, he may be stopped, and if the only way to stop him causes him harm or death, that is morally permitted. This does not break the principle of never intentionally killing the innocent. Obviously, capital punishment carried out on the innocent, or attacks in war on innocent civilians, would never be justified.


This paragraph mentions the pressures that women are subjected to relative to abortion. A review of the testimonies of those who have had abortions reveals clearly that this is not a matter of "freedom of choice," but of "no freedom and no choice." These women feel trapped, abandoned, desperate, afraid, and sadly, they feel they have nobody to help them except the abortionist. An extensive series of examples can be found in the testimonies online at

Discussion Questions

What is the key moral principle found at the heart of all "life issues?"

Why can we say that some actions are always wrong?

What are some other examples of the difference between a "policy" and a "principle?"

Do women really "choose" abortion?

Further reading

Frederica Matthews-Green, Real Choices (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1997)

Click here for an overview and explanation of the most common reasons that women get abortions.

Click here for resources for those who have had abortions.

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