By Patricia Pitkus Bainbridge
Director, Respect Life Office
The dictionary defines “opinion” as “the view somebody takes about a certain issue, especially when it is based solely on personal judgment.” “Truth,” on the other hand, is defined in that same dictionary as “a statement that corresponds to fact or reality.”
Often, in our complex world—especially one in which so many individuals depend on the media for information—it is difficult to distinguish between truth and opinion. Even media that purports to reflect Catholic teaching often blurs the line between what the Church actually teaches and what a particular journalist believes or wants to believe the Church teaches.
We have a responsibility as Catholics to know the difference between truth and opinion—between a well-formed and an ill-formed conscience. As Francis Cardinal George wrote on October 10, 2004, “Participation in the Church is based upon Baptism and the profession of the Catholic faith. The common faith shapes personal consciences, so that a Catholic conscience, even as it directs an individual believer’s actions, is never individualistic.”
One has to look no further than to the continuing debate raging over the recent elections to recognize that an abundance of confusion about the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church in regard to the life issues still lingers. Some Catholics are confused. Others are obstinate in their refusal to accept what the Church teaches—choosing instead to believe what they want to believe. They refuse to acknowledge that some issues are fundamentally more important than others,
One More Time
On a number of occasions, I have referred to the statement from the Bishops included in the 2001 USCCB Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities which addresses the interrelated, but morally disproportional issues of the various assaults on human life. Because of its clarity and importance, I include it again:
“To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion and euthanasia is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion and euthanasia “does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care.While the above statements should settle the debate, there are still those who place capital punishment and war on the same moral level as abortion, euthanasia/assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, and cloning. The latter offenses against life are intrinsically evil—in other words abortion, euthanasia/assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, cloning are always wrong. There are no exceptions.
We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas. “But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).”
Always Wrong vs. Almost Always Wrong
Yes, we need to “resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment,” but the Church does not teach that either is intrinsically evil. They are not always wrong.
The Church’s teaching on the death penalty is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #2267: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” While this for all practical purposes eliminates any use of the death penalty (especially in the United States), it is important to recognize that the Church is not saying that capital punishment is intrinsically evil.
Arthur Hippler, Ph.D., director of Peace and Justice for the Diocese of LaCrosse, writes, “. . . while circumstances might render capital punishment just, no circumstances could ever make abortion or euthanasia just, for the lives in question are innocent. . .” The Holy Father in Evangelium Vitae writes, “. . . the commandment ‘you shall not kill’ has an absolute value when it refers to the innocent person.”
What About War?
The CCC #2308-2310 states that “. . . governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed. . . the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy [“just war” doctrine] belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.” [emphasis in original]
Whether the Iraqi war meets the criteria for “just war” is not settled. Contrary to what some have reported, there has been no definitive ruling from the Vatican, so it is an open question whether or not it is “just.” It is an issue where faithful Catholics may hold opposing views—where, unlike with abortion, euthanasia/assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, and cloning—there can be legitimate differences of opinion.
Cardinal Dulles Speaks
In an interview with Zenit news service, Avery Cardinal Dulles explains, “The Church recognizes that there are occasions when war and the death penalty are justified, even though such measures are undesirable and should be kept to the necessary minimum . . . Catholics who fully accept the doctrine of the Church can sometimes disagree about whether a given war or death sentence is morally defensible . . . Abortion is in a different class. As the deliberate taking of innocent human life, direct abortion can never be justified. About the moral principle, there can be no debate in the Church. The teaching has been constant and emphatic.”