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Essay In Theology?

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November 2007

In a recent Essay In Theology, Catholic priest Richard McBrien argues that it is acceptable for Catholic politicians to be pro-life on moral grounds but pro-choice on legal grounds. McBrien bases his argument on the theological writings of the great St. Thomas Aquinas. According to McBrien, Aquinas recognized that civil law should not incorporate moral law unless there is a consensus to enforce the law. In other words, does the public really want a given moral standard to be part of its civil law? But McBrien misreads Aquinas, and worse, he fails to provide authentic Catholic witness now so desperately needed.

Moral law is not rooted in consensus. It is rooted in our relationship to God, the Source of all good. God speaks His law directly to the hearts of all people, religious and non-religious. He has done so since the creation of man. This is the natural law, the fundamental rules of moral conduct. He has codified those rules in the Ten Commandments, with “Thou shall not kill” being the most remembered of all.

Precisely because our moral code comes from God, it is universally accepted. Mankind has learned that without it, we cannot live in true freedom and peace. The moral code is the basis of civil and criminal law worldwide. This includes the command not to kill the innocent and so includes abortion, the killing of the unborn.

Contrary to McBrien’s view, Aquinas did not suggest that we need a consensus to enforce such a universally recognized wrong as abortion. Aquinas cautioned against incorporating minor morals into human law without establishing a consensus. That is why alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s failed: it lacked a consensus. But Aquinas exempted major evils like murder and robbery because society could not function without prohibiting them (Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 96, art. 2). We’d kill ourselves off the planet! So as to abortion, there is no theology of consensus.

Besides, if a consensus against abortion is needed, it has always existed. At the time of Roe v. Wade, 31 states prohibited it. The views of the political parties were indistinguishable on the subject. So how did we get Roe? The Supreme Court wrongly stripped the states of their constitutional power to ban abortion. Even legal scholars unconcerned with abortion recognize that the Court overstepped its bound. A mere five judges have rendered as legally meaningless a consensus against abortion.

But even after Roe, the consensus against abortion has still held. Pro-lifers make up half, if not more, of the population. Then there are those people, presumably like McBrien himself, who view abortion as morally wrong yet do not vote their view. So with an overwhelming consensus against abortion, why can’t Roe be changed? It is because that will require a change in judicial philosophy that, in turn, requires a change in the Court’s makeup. Different judges are needed. When judges leave the Court, the president nominates new judges; senators confirm them. Getting right-minded judges requires like-minded elected officials. That makes the election process critical.

If the parties’ thinking on abortion were indistinguishable, change would be no problem. But in 1976, the Democratic Party abandoned the core values of its faithful by supporting the right to abortion as part of its platform. Ironically, there was no consensus favoring the switch. Since then, support for abortion has been a litmus test for would-be national candidates. In 2008, its presidential nominee will be one of three people absolutely committed to appointing judges who will keep the right to abortion as the law of the land. For Democrats to win the presidency and control Congress, Catholics must vote for pro-abortion candidates who will continue the killing of our own people. McBrien knows it. He just won’t say it.

It doesn’t need to be this way. In the 60’s Democrats and Republican bridged partisan divides to pass civil rights law needed to heal a racially divided nation. They understood that by protecting the worth of each person, we would eventually realize that each person is worth protecting. For whatever problems we still face, we have become a better nation because they joined hands in combating evil.

In the end, the cryin’ shame of McBrien’s essay is that it is an opportunity squandered. He could have used his priestly influence to give courage to those who must break traditional voting patterns or re-prioritize issues so that abortion can be stopped. Instead, he casts himself as a Pharisee of old—a religious leader using a misguided notion of religion to excuse his not lifting a finger to help the most defenseless of all. Worse yet, he is willing to support candidates committed to stoke a machine that has killed over 48.5 million unborn and chewed up their mothers. And make no mistake: he wants you to do the same.

Somewhere in Heaven, a great saint is probably spitting mad that his wisdom, a gift of God, has been used to excuse voting for those who will continue the slaughter of God’s innocents. Rest assured, there will be hell to pay if we cannot muster the courage to join ranks in ending the American Holocaust.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2008. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.
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© 2008 Paul V. Esposito