Poverty and abortion on an equal footing?

Way back in 2005, then-Msgr. Robert W. McElroy wrote an article published in America in which he argued that Catholic public officials who endorse the legalization of abortion should not be denied communion. The then-Monsignor’s fear? He wrote:

The imposition of eucharistic sanctions solely on candidates who support abortion legislation will inevitably transform the church in the United States, in the minds of many, into a partisan, Republican-oriented institution and thus sacrifice the role that the church has played almost alone in American society in advocating a moral agenda that transcends the political divide.

Msgr. McElroy must have had then-Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in mind when writing that gem.


The Most Reverend Robert W. McElroy
Auxiliary Bishop
Archdiocese of San Francisco

Well, that was then and the-now Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco, the Most Reverend Robert W. McElroy, is once again writing in AmericaThis time, he’s arguing that the Church in the United States “must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the U.S. Catholic community pursues at this moment in the nation’s history.”

With Pope Francis serving as his inspiration, Bishop McElroy writes:

If the Catholic Church is truly to be a “church for the poor” in the United States, it must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment in our nation’s history. Both abortion and poverty countenance the deaths of millions of children in a world where government action could end the slaughter. Both abortion and poverty, each in its own way and to its own degree, constitute an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person, instrumentalizing life as part of a throwaway culture. The cry of the unborn and the cry of the poor must be at the core of Catholic political conversation in the coming years because these realities dwarf other threats to human life and dignity that confront us today.

Arguing that “both abortion and poverty countenance the deaths of millions of children in a world where government action could end the slaughter,” Bishop McElroy asks his readers why, if the sanctity of the unborn human life is a doctrinal issue of the Church and, therefore, requires faithful Catholics to defend it in the public square, Catholics do not feel equally compelled to demand that their government fund social justice programs in the United States and abroad?

To answer that question, a brief review of the reasons McElroy provided in 2005 regarding why political leaders who support abortion legislation should not be denied Holy Communion is necessary:

  • it would be perceived as coercive;
  • it would identify abortion as a specifically Catholic issue and play into the hands of those who accuse the pro-life movement of imposing religious tenets upon Americans;
  • it would make it appear that abortion defines the church’s social agenda; and,
  • it would “cast the church as a partisan actor in the American political system.”

That was then, but now when the issue is “poverty,” McElroy writes in his current piece:

Choices by citizens or public officials that systematically, and therefore unjustly, decrease governmental financial support for the poor clearly reject core Catholic teachings on poverty and economic justice. Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.

Bishop McElroy’s conclusion? The ”categorical nature of Catholic teaching on economic justice is clear and binding” (italics added).

Economic justice trumps justice for the unborn?

In The Motley Monk’s estimation, Bishop McElory is dead wrong for two reasons:

First: In the 2004 memorandum to the U.S. bishops titled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion — General Principles“ then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote:

3. 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. (italics added)

Second: Catholic moral theology holds that moral principles expressed in the negative (“Thou shalt not…”) are generally more binding than moral principles stated in the affirmative (“Thou shalt…”). It’s easy to see why this is the case. A precept expressed in the negative tells me one thing that I may not do, but one expressed in the affirmative does not tell me exactly what I must do; it merely expresses an end goal. For example, the commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother” does not tell me how to do that.

As this principle is applied to abortion, the obligation not to commit abortion has greater moral clarity than, for example, the obligation to provide healthcare for the poor, to solve hunger, or to stop the melting of glaciers. These latter precepts do not imply a clear obligation. Men and women of good will can and will legitimately disagree about the best ways to address issues like healthcare, hunger, and the melting of glaciers.

Congressional as well as United Nations committees debate, and even legislate policies for dealing with issues like these. Individual bishops as well as national bishops’ conferences may very well agree with these policies and propose that Catholics support them. But, bishops cannot morally obligate anyone to do so.

Why not?

If Catholics believe there are better ways to address these issues than through the particular government programs that the bishops support (programs which, by the way, demonstrably involve enormous waste), Catholics are free—arguably, morally obliged—to opt for other ways to reach these laudable ethical goals than the means urged by the bishops.

In contrast, abortion is wrong in an absolute sense. Bishops and national bishops’ conferences can bind the faithful to oppose the legalization and government funding of abortion because the evil involved in the practice is absolutely clear and because defined Church teaching states so.

Examined from this perspective, when Bishop McElory writes that the ”categorical nature of Catholic teaching on economic justice is clear and binding,” and deduces from this an obligation morally binding on Catholics to support specific government policies, he is not only wrong but also is making a mockery of Catholic moral theology as well as Catholic magisterial teaching.

The Motley Monk wonders whether Bishop McElroy wants it both ways, just like those Democrat pro-abortion Catholic politicians.


To read Bishop McElroy’s recent article in America, click on the following link:

To read then-Msgr. McElroy’s article about not denying Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians, click on the following link:

To read then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 memorandum, click on the following link:

To read The Motley Monk’s daily blog, Omnibus, click on the following link:

19 Responses to Poverty and abortion on an equal footing?

  • deltaflute says:

    Perhaps the good Monseigneur forgets that there is a difference between extreme poverty and poverty. I assume he is referring to extreme poverty. Usually thats tied up with political issues in 3rd world contries. Often tyrants steal aid food. So is he advocating alignments with tyrants? How exactly does he hope to accomplish eradicating extreme poverty? War? Not sure he’s thought that through especially since he thinks the US should just share.

  • John 12:1-8

    1* Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. 4* But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii * and given to the poor?” 6* This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. 7* Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. 8 The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

  • Pinky says:

    Even if you were to argue that poverty and abortion are on an equal footing (I say “if” but I don’t think you can), it can’t be denied that the US has done more to alleviate poverty than any nation in history, or that the US has at least since 1973 promoted abortion inside and outside its borders. And this is a question about US politics, right? Let’s have a few years where we spend a trillion dollars per year on anti-abortion programs, then renegotiate the footing of abortion versus poverty.

    Maybe that should be our deal. Put them both on equal footing. Have the UN have anti-abortion conferences, create a Peace Corps for the purpose of eliminating abortion worldwide, and build our tax code around support for those who might otherwise have abortions. Mandate that states match federal spending in anti-abortion programs. Set up a Department of Health and Human Life, and a Bureau of Indian Anti-Abortion Affairs commissioned to eradicate abortion on Indian reservations. Make it a deal-breaker in national politics: if you’re not anti-abortion, you’re not a legitimate candidate. That’d be an equal footing.

  • WK Aiken says:

    The bishop may have gotten something right, without even knowing it. Since most poverty in this country is caused by government programs and waste, then to deny Communion to those responsible for poverty should be on par with denying Communion for those in favor of abortion.

    They’re the same people.

  • Salvelinus says:

    Comments like this bring so much scandal to the Church…. Its not even funny. I cant tell you the number of people that come up to me thinking that “The Church is okay with Abortion now” – When the biggest abortion cheerleaders are catholic (Biden/Pelosi/Cuomo/Kennedy’s, etc) it just makes it so much worse when an auxiliary Bishop confirms and validates the aforementioned.

  • DJ Hesselius says:

    I too think that poverty is a serious issue which deserves a great deal more attention than it gets. Many of my friends are not doing so well for a variety of reasons. TO A PERSON, all of them would be doing better under a less regulated, lowered taxed economy–precisely what the bishops seem not to want.

    I fear for one of my children who is seriously LD. Will there be any jobs he can do when he gets to that point? It is only 8 years away, maybe less. It is nearly impossible to belong to a Church whose leadership is helping to rob your children of their future.

  • Darwin says:

    Along with everything else, he’s simply got his facts wrong when he says “both abortion and poverty countenance the deaths of millions of children in a world where government action could end the slaughter”. The only thing that kills “millions” or even “hundreds of thousands” of children in this country is abortion. One of the wonderful things about our modern age is that so few people die of want anymore. I’m not sure that you could argue that even “thousands” of children die in our country due to poverty anymore.

  • tamsin (was: old girl) says:

    Whenever I hear “poverty causes abortions; end poverty and you will end abortion”, I wonder: okay, how much do we have to pay? Name the price, for a baby delivered to term, at which point we can all agree the mother is not in poverty so she doesn’t have to have to kill the baby. Since the people who push poverty-causes-abortion must believe money-stops-abortions. So let’s put a price tag on it all. Skip all the spiritual wrangling, since it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person anyway. This is a pocketbook issue.

    Just thinking out loud.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour says:


    According to the World Food Programme, “Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year.”

    Although estimates vary, no one seriously challenges that the figure is in the millions.

  • Botolph says:

    As I “argued” on this subject at this site the other day, I don’t think there has to be an “either/or” when speaking of abortion and poverty. However, there can be no doubt or equivocation that abortion or any other form of direct taking of innocent human life is a far greater evil.

    The bishop’s statement concerning poverty reveals a certain reading of “poverty” which sees the subject in a socio-economic category. Certainly thee Gospel tradition would not exclude this socio-economic understanding when it speaks of “the poor” but by no means can be limited by it. For example, “Blessed are you poor” of Luke’s Gospel, and “Blessed are the poor in spirit” found in Matthew’s (see Luke 6 and Matthew 5). There can be no doubt that there is bountiful evidence in the Gospels of the need to respond to the suffering and needs of others. Even simply failing to respond is said to lead to the eternal loss of the Kingdom (the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 17).

    I do have serious concerns however when a bishop or group of bishops make the jump between a moral principle and a particular piece of legislation. For. Example we believe that people have the right to health care. However it is a jump of unbelievable proportions to equate this moral principle with Obamacare, especially when we witness the secularist State’s aggressive stand against the Catholic Health Care System..

    The bishop’s (bishops) role is to teach the moral principle involved on a particular issue. While it is important to move beyond principle to reality, I do not believe an understanding of the bishop’s (bishops) charisma and mission as found in Vatican II, supports a reading enabling the bishop(s) to equate certain pieces of legislation with those principles. For example the bishops need to keep the needs of the poor before legislators when issues of spending cuts is on the table. However, who can rightly argue that any cut back in governmental spending is automatically an attack on the poor. The Gospel mandate does not.call for the establishment of the democratic socialist state.

  • DJ Hesselius says:

    Do people really have a “right to health care” though? If they do, doesn’t that mean that someone is required to be a doctor, nurse, dentist, or other health care practitioner? In many areas, there are ob/gyn shortages, although there may not be shortages in other specialties. Are we going to require the urologists living in areas with ob/gyn shortages to learn how to deliver a baby? (I suspect they have a good idea of how to do so, and may in fact do so in the ER on occasion.) Or do a complicated C-section?

  • T. Shaw says:

    Property and its distribution has been the issue since the day Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden.

    It is all about economics (study the distribution of limited assets/resources/supplies among relatively unlimited wants/demands) and politics, which essentially is coercion and fraud/venality.

    Nowhere in the Bible or the Apostolic Teachings of Church Fathers does it say you may delegate to Caesar those good works which you must perform for your brothers.

    Here is one view of how it has worked since, say, fourth century before Christ Athens.

    There evolve three main groupings.

    The rich strive to preserve their wealth and try to exploit both the regime and the masses for their profit (think too big to fail, Buffett, Gates, Soros). Would we call them the oligarchic extreme?

    The poor strive (through politicians/demagogues) to convert property to the regime and then to themselves (think Obama, Acorn, Democrat party). Would we call this the democratic/populist extreme?

    The middle class: farmers, artisans, productive people are (not for long then or now) comfortabe and satisfied with their work and lives. They, when motivated/organized, generally oppose the democrat and oligarchic extremes. Would that be the reason both the democrat/populist and oligarchic extremes call tea party patriots, “teabaggers”?

  • Missy says:

    I really hate to be such a simpleton and I hate to admit this, but in my own teeny, tiny world, when my taxes & health insurance costs go up, along with all my other bills, my donations go down. To me, it seems very easy to figure out a way to “help the poor” by getting the government out of it. It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when people have less disposable income, they can’t help as much as they’d like. And when the government takes in more money than ever, and poor people are getting poorer, something is wrong.
    Last Sunday at our parish, a man, who is the head of our Homeless Outreach, said that there are more homeless than ever in Baltimore. The first thing that popped into my mind was, “Thanks, Obama.” Unfortunately, no one else really (in real life, at least) seems to see the correlation. I read more than enough liberal comments about how they believe that the government really is taking care of the poor and if you’re against higher taxes then you hate the poor. I cannot understand that. And they cannot understand the opposite view.

  • The Motley Monk says:

    There are a lot of like-minded Catholics and non-Catholics who know exactly what you’re talking about and have been posting and posting and posting in an effort to get more people to realize what Ronald Reagan pointed out decades ago: “A government that is big enough to provide everything you want is big enough to take everything you earn.”

    At least that’s what The Motley Monk attempts to do each day in the Omnibus. Check it out and decide for yourself:

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour says:

    T Shaw

    As to the distribution of property, Saint Thomas says, ”Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement [secundum humanum condictum] which belongs to positive law, as stated above (57, 2,3). Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.” [ST IIa IIae Q66, II,obj 1] This would appear to allow legislators a wide margin of appreciation in framing such laws.

    This view was revived in the 18th century. Thus, we have the great classical scholar, Charles Rollin (1661-1741), “Theft was permitted in Sparta. It was severely punished among the Scythians. The reason for this difference is obvious: the law, which alone determines the right to property and the use of goods, granted a private individual no right, among the Scythians, to the goods of another person, whereas in Sparta the contrary was the case.”

    You can see this principle everywhere enunciated in the French Revolution, often described as a bourgeois revolution. Take Mirabeau (a moderate) “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being [elles la font naître]; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens.” So, too, Robespierre (not a moderate) “In defining liberty, the first of man’s needs, the most sacred of his natural rights, we have said, quite correctly, that its limit is to be found in the rights of others. Why have you not applied this principle to property, which is a social institution, as if natural laws were less inviolable than human conventions?”

  • Jay Anderson says:

    As I said on a similar thread here the other day, I’d be willing to bet that all of us commenting here who are “obsessed” with abortion are also 100% in favor of doing what we can to end (though Jesus said the poor would always be with us) or alleviate poverty, though we may disagree on what is the best solution for doing so.

    Can Nancy Pelosi and her ilk claim the same thing with respect to abortion?

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