A Catholic Bishop’s Confusing Assessment

Over the years, I have seen Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, specifically section 73, paragraph 3, used to defend all manner of incrementalism in supposedly pro-life legislation. I have also seen it cited as the measuring stick for deciding which candidate(s) to vote for in an election. Here is what the Holy Father wrote in section 73, paragraph 3: 

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

The portion of this excerpt that appears to give solace to those who want to accept compromise that leads to the killing of certain preborn babies is this: “[W]hen it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.”

Taking these lines out of context and using them to argue in favor of flawed political proposals has become the norm among many Catholics and those of other faiths who want to justify their position on any number of matters. But most recently, this language was used in a way that I had not seen previously. Since this has to do with the recently issued Manhattan Declaration, I will put it into proper context.

When news of the Manhattan Declaration came out, many pro-life Americans eagerly reviewed the document. We did the same at American Life League. After our internal review, we decided not to sign it. At the time of our decision, we also determined that there was no need to make a public statement about it, one way or the other.

We understand the honorable intentions of those who drafted the document, and we applaud any effort that brings public attention to the moral morass in which this nation finds itself. However, that does not mean that we automatically lend our organization’s name to such an activity. In the case of the Manhattan Declaration, the problematic statement is this:

The President says that he wants to reduce the “need” for abortion—a commendable goal. But he has also pledged to make abortion more easily and widely available by eliminating laws prohibiting government funding, requiring waiting periods for women seeking abortions, and parental notification for abortions performed on minors. The elimination of these important and effective pro-life laws cannot reasonably be expected to do other than significantly increase the number of elective abortions by which the lives of countless children are snuffed out prior to birth.

Our difficulty with this language is, quite simply, that the words “The elimination of these important and effective prolife laws" endorse incrementalist legislation that leads to the conclusion that what pro-lifers are saying to expectant mothers is, “Do (this or that) and then you can kill the baby.”

It is a historical fact that legislation that seeks waiting periods and parental notice or consent is based on the premise that, since abortion is protected by law, pro-life Americans have to accept that fact, and work to control how and when the killing occurs. We find such a position contrary to the natural law and common sense, and we believe it is undermining the pro-life movement’s ultimate goal, which is to restore human rights to all persons, regardless of their stage of development. This is why we chose not to sign the Manhattan Declaration.

At the same time, we are aware of a number of noteworthy public figures who have signed it. Among these are several Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, “who learned about the statement at a marriage summit in Manhattan at the invitation of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.” Robert Kumpel reported on the archbishop’s comments, which I, for one, found rather troubling. Kumpel reported,

“I was very much impressed by its threefold commitment to the sanctity of life, the effort to preserve the beauty and truth of marriage and to insure religious liberty,” said Archbishop Kurtz, who is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Marriage and Family. …

Archbishop Kurtz is not troubled by these perceived flaws: “In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II said that we can never be satisfied with imperfect legislation. We know that abortion is wrong. Is it possible for a good Catholic to support a bill that has limited gains—restricting abortion—and John Paul said that if the legislator is pro-life and makes it known and if he is committed to continuing to work toward legislation to correct this, then it would be morally possible, in fact, required, to support that legislation. Some people look at imperfect legislation like it is a final state of affairs. Obviously, they are misinterpreting the strategy.”

“The reason I signed the declaration is because I felt it is a solid pro-life statement. I wouldn’t sign it if that wasn’t the case,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “We have a commitment to working hard in these three important areas. This declaration speaks from the convictions held by its authors and signers — and it is something worth fighting for, and it’s a recognition that our resolve needs to be stronger.”

The archbishop brings up the very same language from Evangelium Vitae that I have discussed above. However, he is using it to justify signing a document, not passing a law, not electing a public official and certainly not addressing the very individual to whom the Holy Father directed his comments, namely "an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known" (emphasis added).

The most disturbing aspect of Archbishop Kurtz’ interpretation of Pope John Paul II’s message to elected officials, however, is his claim that the lawmaker not only may support incrementalist legislation, once his total opposition to procured abortion is well known, but that the lawmaker is required to support it. The Holy Father never made such a statement and, in fact, wrote that nuanced paragraph in section 73 for the precise purpose of making it clear that a legislator could go either way in his decision regarding flawed legislation.

It has always been my contention, along with many fellow members of the Pontifical Academy for Life and other thoughtful Catholics, including Patrick Delaney, Dr. Arthur Utz and Colin Harte, that had the Holy Father known that this language would be used to justify votes in favor of certain abortions, he would never have written it. I remain convinced of that to this very day.

In fact, this most recent misrepresentation of this language, as set forth by Archbishop Kurtz, confirms my suspicions beyond a doubt. Whatever made the archbishop think that signing a piece of paper was the equivalent of deciding whether or not to vote for a law designed to regulate abortion is beyond me.

However, one thing is crystal clear.  As the seeds of confusion regarding section 73, paragraph 3 of Evangelium Vitae continue to be sown, one can now look at Archbishop Kurtz’s statement as proof positive that a statement, even if written by the pope himself, can mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean, depending on the question at hand. No wonder so many Catholics remain in a state of confusion! God save us from such gobbledygook.