The Primacy of the Abortion Issue in the Church
Declaration on Procured Abortion published by the Vatican's Sacred
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated, "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."
Pope John Paul II elaborates on this theme in his 1988 apostolic
exhortation, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the
Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici) in the following passage:
"The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute
inviolability of God, finds 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 of all other
personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination . . . "
In 1989, in their Resolution on Abortion, the US bishops stated,
"At this particular time, abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue
for all men and women of good will. …. For us abortion is of overriding concern
because it negates two of our most fundamental moral imperatives: respect for
innocent life, and preferential concern for the weak and defenseless."
In The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae, 1995), Pope John Paul II
pointed out that there is a wide array of life issues and attacks on human
dignity about which we must be actively concerned. He then, however, points to
abortion and euthanasia as attacks of "another category" and of "extraordinary
seriousness." He explains what he means as follows:
"It is not only that in generalized opinion these attacks tend no longer
to be considered as "crimes"; paradoxically they assume the nature of "rights",
to the point that the State is called upon to give them legal recognition and to
make them available through the free services of health-care personnel. Such
attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any
means of self-defence. Even more serious is the fact that, most often, those
attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the
family—the family which by its nature is called to be the 'sanctuary of life'
In 1998, the US Bishops issued Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to
American Catholics. Paragraphs 21-23 of that document discuss the relative
importance of various issues as follows:
21. "Bringing a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be a
daunting task. There is such a wide spectrum of issues involving the
protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity. Good people
frequently disagree on which problems to address, which policies to adopt
and how best to apply them. But for citizens and elected officials alike,
the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to
intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life,
no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem. In
other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically
incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person
created in His image. Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option.
It is always a grave act of violence against a woman and her unborn child.
This is so even when a woman does not see the truth because of the pressures
she may be subjected to, often by the child's father, her parents or
friends. Similarly, euthanasia and assisted suicide are never acceptable
acts of mercy. They always gravely exploit the suffering and desperate,
extinguishing life in the name of the "quality of life" itself. This same
teaching against direct killing of the innocent condemns all direct attacks
on innocent civilians in time of war.
22. "Pope John Paul II has reminded us that we must respect every life, even
that of criminals and unjust aggressors. It is increasingly clear in modern
society that capital punishment is unnecessary to protect people's safety
and the public order, so that cases where it may be justified are "very
rare, if not practically non-existent." No matter how serious the crime,
punishment that does not take life is "more in conformity with the dignity
of the human person" (Evangelium Vitae, 56-7). Our witness to respect for
life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human
life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others.
The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.
23. "Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of
war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity
must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment,
education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly
involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these
areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues
as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the
human person at all stages of life. But being 'right' in such matters can
never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.
Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages
renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters
affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we
understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" -- the living
house of God -- then these latter issues fall logically into place as the
crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human
life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation.
These directly and immediately violate the human person's most fundamental
right -- the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of
building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social
conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights."
The Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities of the US Bishops has always
pointed out the priority of abortion, and the most recent version of the plan
(2001: A Campaign in Support of Life) explains it this way:
"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.
"This focus and the Church's commitment to a consistent ethic of life
complement one another. A consistent ethic of life, which explains the
Church's teaching at the level of moral principle—far from diminishing
concern for abortion and euthanasia or equating all issues touching on the
dignity of human life—recognizes instead the distinctive character of each
issue while giving each its proper place within a coherent moral vision."
Faithful Citizenship (2003) quotes Living the Gospel of Life 5 as
follows: "As we wrote in Living the Gospel of Life, "Abortion and
euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because
they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition
for all others".28 Abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being
before birth, is never morally acceptable."
Bishop Elio Sgreccia, Vice-President of the Pontifical Academy for Life,
said the following in an interview conducted in May, 2004: "Without respect
for life, without respect for the family, society simply does not exist…all
[other] rights presuppose the right to life. If the right to life is not
defended, the defense of all these other rights is useless. It becomes a lie,
because it would mean that the defense to the right to work, to society, etc.
applies only to some, and not to all."
Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and
Peace, said the following in an interview conducted in May, 2004: "The
Holy Father speaks of the protection of life as the fundamental realization and
respect for human rights. Without that realization, without that respect for the
right to life, no other discussion of human rights can continue; it must be
based upon the foundation of human dignity and the right to life."
Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social
Communications at the Vatican, said the following in an interview conducted
in May, 2004: "Generally, law is needed to protect the weakest members of
society because strong members of society, the rich, the powerful, the strong
can usually take care of themselves but the weakest members of society need the
protections of society itself and the help of society itself. That is why we
need laws to protect the weak against violence form outside. The weakest members
of society are the unborn. They have no other spokespersons except, you might
say, society itself. So we must defend the rights of the innocent unborn...If
we don't have life we don't have anything."
In July, 2004, Priests for Life also interviewed representatives of the
United States Bishops’ Conference and asked whether, in the view of the bishops,
it was true to say that abortion is the number one most urgent moral issue.
Cathleen Cleaver Ruse, Director of Planning and Information for the Pro-life
Secretariat of the US Bishops’ Conference, responded, "Sure,
that's absolutely true. The church has taught on this issue of abortion and its
immorality since the Apostolic Age. It's one of our longest standing moral
public policy issues and it is not like any other issue really. It is, some
might say, it's non-negotiable. There are no instances where it is morally licit
or justifiable. That sets is apart from other issues like capital punishment,
like just war theory and many other social issues that are very, very important
but don't have that kind of no exceptions policy. So, the way the Church looks
at abortion - abortion is one of those fundamental issues. If that right is
taken away, if the very right to life is taken away then no other right matters.
You don't have the ability to hold another right or to have another right taken
away. So, while health care, the right to a good education, housing all of these
issues are very, very important, they are meaningless if the right to life is
not first protected."
"If social issues are like a house then the foundation is the right to life.
An abortion takes away or rips out the foundation. The many other social issues
can be considered the walls of that house but they can't be built unless there's
Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Pro-life Secretariat of the US
Bishops’ Conference, echoed the same theme:
"What the Church has said is that because it is the first gift from a loving
God and the condition for all other human goods, all our other rights - life
itself has to be a top priority it is the most basic gift and if we lose the
right to live we lose everything else. Now within the whole network of issues
about life, the first priority has to be the right of each individual at every
stage simply to exist at all. To be inviolable. To be free from direct attacks.
So the church has said that issues that involve direct attacks on innocent human
life - and in our society today, obviously abortion which takes over a million
lives in the United States every year - issues like euthanasia for the
terminally ill are primary. They are the most basic threats to human life
because they are direct attacks on life because they attack innocent life that's
not doing anybody else harm or attacking anybody else and because they are
attacking life at its most vulnerable and defenseless - the very stages where
children and the elderly should be able to expect the respect and protection of
their families because it is where they are weakest and most vulnerable.
"What the Bishop's said in their 1998 document Living the Gospel of Life, was
that this whole edifice of human goods and ways of enhancing human life are like
a house but the other issues that enhance the quality of life for everyone are
like the walls of the house and protecting the inviolability of life itself from
attack is like the foundation. You cannot have a house anymore if you don't have
a foundation. It's meaningless to say we are going to enhance all these
qualities of human life and say that human life itself has no inherent worth.
Those have to primary. Everything else grows from that. We promote a consistent
ethic of life and at the same time there are priorities, some things are more
fundamental than others."
Following are some statements by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was one
of the key spokespersons on the "consistent ethic of life."
In 1984, Cardinal Bernardin wrote: "Our "Statement on Political
Responsibility" has always been, like our "Respect Life Program," a multi-issue
approach to public morality. The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum
of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood
as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective…As
I indicated earlier, each of the life issues—while related to all the others—is
distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis. " (A Consistent
Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St.
Louis University, March 11, 1984).
"A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g.,
through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity
(through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a
consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as
moral questions" (Wade lecture, as above).
A year later, he declared, "The fundamental human right is to life—from
the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights,
including the right to health care" (The Consistent Ethic of Life and Health
Care Systems, Foster McGaw Triennial Conference, Loyola University of
Chicago, May 8, 1985).
On Respect Life Sunday, 1 October 1989, Cardinal Bernardin issued a statement
entitled "Deciding for Life," in which he said, "Not all values,
however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this
Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more
fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying
freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between
protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their
existence and life itself, human life must take precedence. Today the
recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this
clearer than in the case of elective abortion. At present in our country this
procedure takes the lives of over 4,000 unborn children every day and over 1.5
million each year."