Can a Catholic Support a Law That Allows Some Abortions?
Interview with Ángel Rodríguez Luño, Professor of Moral Theology
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ROME, OCT. 3, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Is it morally justifiable to vote for or promote a law that accepts abortion with restrictions, as an alternative to a more-permissive law already in force or about to be voted on?
This question has profoundly concerned Christian and non-Christian politicians and lawmakers over the last decades.
Ángel Rodríguez Luño, professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, responded to this question in an article in the Sept. 6 Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano. He asked theologians to help people to understand the fundamental question.
Here, he took up the topic with ZENIT.
Q: Voting for a law that accepts abortion partially, even if it improves the situation, has been criticized by some pro-lifers. They believe that abortion is so evil that no exception to its rejection is possible. How do you reply to this criticism?
Rodríguez Luño: What I think and what I have written, is completely in agreement with what is affirmed in this question. A law that legalizes abortion, even if it is for fewer cases than another, is a gravely unjust law, for which no Catholic can vote in favor, and in whose application there can be no formal cooperation and no type of immediate material cooperation.
What No 73 of the encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" says is something very different, namely: If a member of a legislative assembly who is totally opposed to abortion cannot completely abrogate a gravely unjust law, but can abrogate it partially, he can and in general must do so, so long as it does not cause scandal, and he does not make himself responsible for unjust legislative dispositions remaining in force, which he does not succeed in abrogating.
An example will clarify it. Let us think of the legislative assembly of a country, in which a very permissive law of abortion is in force. That assembly has 100 parliamentarians, divided in three groups.
Group A, with 40 members, accepts the current law and does not want to change it for any reason at all.
Group B, with 30 members, thinks that abortion should be legal in some cases, but regards the current law as too permissive and in need of modification; however, B is not willing to approve a law that prohibits any type of abortion.
Group C, with 30 members, is opposed to any type of abortion. If in such a situation, a few parliamentarians of group C, who are Catholics, present a motion to the assembly that abrogates all the articles of the law in force to date that those of group B are willing to eliminate, in such a way that if it is approved abortion in many cases will be illegal, which up until now were legal, although it will continue to be legal in very restricted cases, the parliamentarians of group C -- who are Catholics -- have before them three possible ways to act: to vote against the motion, to abstain, or to vote in favor.
If they vote against the motion, they are responsible for the very permissive law continuing in force, and this is not acceptable for Catholic morality.
If they abstain, the motion for abrogation does not get a majority and is not approved and, consequently, they become responsible in some way for the very permissive law continuing in force, which is not morally acceptable either.
If they vote in favor of the motion, the latter gets the necessary majority vote, the previous law remains partially abrogated, and the resulting new law is far more strict.
What I have written on the basis of what "Evangelium Vitae," No. 73, has said is that parliamentarians who have presented the motion for abrogation have acted well, and are morally correct, and that Catholics of group C may, and generally must, vote in favor of the motion for abrogation, so long as their position of complete opposition to any form of abortion remains clear.
And, the foundation of the moral judgment contained in No. 73 of the encyclical is not that the more restrictive law is acceptable to Catholic morality. This is not the case. It is about a gravely unjust law, with which it is not possible to collaborate in any way.
The foundation of the moral judgment of "Evangelium Vitae" is that the moral object of the action of the parliamentarians who have presented the motion for abrogation, and that of the action of the totality of group C, is not to uphold the articles that remain in force and which they do not have the possibility of abrogating. Rather, the moral object of their action -- "what they really do" -- is only to abrogate the articles of the previous law that it is possible to abrogate, and to avoid upholding with their vote the previous, more permissive law. This is not collaboration with a pro-abortion law -- it is not "cooperation in doing evil" -- but the exercise of the duty to abrogate, to the degree possible, a gravely unjust law.
To say it even more graphically: The parliamentary majority that supports the articles of the previous law that are still in force, after the approval of the motion for abrogation, is made up of group A and group B, that is, 40 plus 30. The parliamentary majority that has abrogated the most permissive articles is made up of group B and group C -- that is, 30 plus 30. Group C, which includes the Catholic parliamentarians, is only responsible for the abrogation of some articles, namely, of having eliminated everything that they could eliminate, and that what they could not eliminate did not continue in force.
This is the first case of the three contemplated in my article. The other two are different, but the moral principle according to which they are resolved is the same. The moral reasoning I have proposed must be read with great care, because it is a difficult and delicate question.
Q: How can we avoid the danger of a growing laxity with the passing of time if we accept the possibility of approving imperfect laws?
Rodríguez Luño: I have never used the expression, which I consider unclear, of imperfect laws in my article. "Evangelium Vitae" does not use that expression either.
Almost all the authors who used it put it in quotation marks, to indicate that it is simply an abbreviated and easy way to refer to a complex problem that everyone knows. In my article it only appears when I quote two publications on the topic. In one, it is in quotation marks, but not in the other. But the reading of that article quoted by me in a note confirms what I say.
Going to the essence of the question, I clarify that the laws that some call imperfect are, as results from my response to the first question, simply unjust, more or less unjust, but unjust nevertheless. They are not morally acceptable under any condition.
What I have proposed is an ensemble of criteria to keep the tension alive and really effective, not only not to grow accustomed to evil, but to go on eliminating it to the degree that it becomes possible to do so, with the idea, of course, of eliminating it completely.
However, it cannot always be eliminated at once. It is worthwhile to take progressive steps, so long as it can be done without becoming, in fact, responsible for gravely unjust laws or actions.
Q: Who is responsible for judging if a specific law satisfies the conditions expressed by the Pope in his encyclical?
Rodríguez Luño: What one tries to judge is not a law, but the real meaning -- the moral object -- of the action of voting in some concrete circumstances. I don't think that that judgment belongs to any one in particular.
What one tries to do is to have the certainty that that action, in those circumstances, is really an act of partial abrogation, and that the voter does not make himself really responsible for what has not been abrogated.
If a politician cannot come to that certainty, and has doubts, he can ask the advice of sufficiently prepared persons to direct him with truth.
This does not impede the bishop of the diocese or the episcopal conference from considering that in a concrete case it is appropriate that they themselves be the ones who give that judgment, for the peace of conscience of all and to avoid confusion; in this case, that judgment of the legitimate ecclesiastical authority is binding on the conscience of a Catholic. However, in itself, I don't think it is a question of authority or permission but of truth and certainty that that truth has been reached.
Q: Can we apply what "Evangelium Vitae" says to other fields, such as genetic research?
Rodríguez Luño: In principle I see nothing wrong in applying it to other fields, so long as it is well understood and that the moral principle mentioned earlier is faithfully applied.
If an unjust law cannot be totally abrogated, it is generally right to proceed to its partial abrogation, so long as it can be done without giving scandal (which requires making one's way of acting comprehensible) and without making oneself really responsible for something unjust.
Q: What advice can you give politicians who must work in a secular state where many do not accept the validity of Christian moral principles?
Rodríguez Luño: The question is too broad to be able to give a complete answer. In my judgment, what is important is to be thoroughly consistent with one's own Christian identity.
There are channels in democratic states for citizens to participate in the election of political leaders and in the formation of sociopolitical guidelines and of public opinion. Politicians and citizens who are Catholics must use these channels -- which are equally available to all other citizens -- to order social and political life according to criteria that, in keeping with their well-formed Christian conscience, contribute more and better to the common good of the country in which they live.
In my opinion, what must be avoided is to let oneself be frightened by slogans that do not hold up to rational examination, or to live with a perpetual breaking down of conscience, a sort of mental schizophrenia, according to which what they regard as good and necessary for the common good is one thing, and what they consider good and necessary for the common good in its public conduct is another quite different and even contrary.
If other citizens are not in agreement with the criteria of a Christian conscience, Catholics should express their own reasons rigorously, and engage in the same civil battle -- using licit and legal means -- for their criteria, that others engage in for theirs.
This does not mean that all Catholics have, in fact, or should have the same political ideas. On many political problems, various different solutions are compatible with the Christian conscience, and each Catholic will support what he thinks best. When I speak of consistency, I am referring to consistency with what the Christian conscience necessarily exacts or prohibits.