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.
Well, that was then and the-now Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco, the Most Reverend Robert W. McElroy, is once again writing in America. This 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.
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: