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The Culture of Life and Public Policy


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was excerpted from Cardinal Wuerl’s recent book, Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Faith (OSV, 2012, osv.com).

To be Catholic is to admit of a wide range of opinions and methods. There is no Catholic position on the management of public utilities. Devout Catholics may hold an almost infinite variety of opinions on taxation.

We must observe a clear distinction between dogmas of the faith, such as the resurrection of Jesus and the assumption of the Blessed Mother into heaven, and those moral principles proclaimed by the Church that are rooted in creation and written on the human heart as the natural moral law. We do not ask the state to impose or even recognize our dogmas. The principle of the free exercise of religion clearly prohibits the state from doing this. But that principle does not prevent us from advocating the recognition of universal moral principles — accessible by reason alone — as a valid rationale for public policy and as the norm against which such policy should be measured.

Laws require a point of reference. Every law assumes the existence of right and wrong and prescribes behavior accordingly. Every law is cast in terms of “ought”: you ought to do this and ought not to do that. Thus, every law is implicitly and unavoidably moral. Life does not and cannot unfold in a moral vacuum. Human beings have a moral north star that guides our moral compass. There is a moral order built into God’s creation and into human nature. Just as there are physical laws that are a part of the created order — the law of gravity, for example — so there is also in humanity a law that leads us to admire moral goods such as justice, courage and temperance. Philosophers for millennia have recognized it.

Deep within our heart and conscience is the recognition, for example, that you must not kill others, just as you do not want others to feel free to kill you. The injunction “You shall not kill” — rooted in our human nature, proclaimed by our conscience and confirmed in God’s revelation — applies to all innocent human life.

In a democracy, every citizen must accept some responsibility for the direction of the country. When we vote, we may not check our integrity at the door of the polling place. We need to bring our moral values and vision to the process. Otherwise public policy would soon have no moral coherence — and no moral authority.

Integrity requires the same consistency in elected or appointed officials. If one has been chosen for a job, it should be assumed that both vote and behavior will follow on one’s conscience. Citizens vote for persons whom they believe will exercise good judgment and prudence, and will follow their conscience.

Every member of the faithful, especially those engaged in political activity, must act out of a well-formed Christian conscience. Lawmakers have to consider the moral implications of their votes. As Aristotle pointed out many centuries ago, the law is a teacher. For many people, what is legal becomes what is right. It should be, but it is not always so. Slavery is one historical example. Abortion is a current one. We live in a culture now that has been formed by laws that permit the casual destruction of the most innocent and most vulnerable human lives. What do such laws teach? What sort of culture are they forming?

It is the job of the bishops to make clear how the Gospel message applies to the circumstances of our day. But it is the task of the laity to make an effort to understand those teachings — especially those that are most relevant to their work and apply them to the practical order of public policy. It is for this reason that the bishops have so consistently taught that abortion, which takes the life of an unborn human being, is intrinsically evil. It can never be justified. Abortion is an action clearly and decisively condemned in the teaching of the early Church. …

Certainly no position has been so clearly and strongly stated by the bishops of the United States. It is as clear today as it has always been: the Catholic Church opposes abortion because abortion is a moral evil.

As abortion is wrong, so — quite logically — legislative support for abortion is wrong. The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, citing the teaching of Blessed John Paul II, recently clarified that voting for legislation supporting abortion is gravely wrong.

So often the attempt to justify voting for pro-abortion legislation is made by the claim that the legislator, personally, is opposed to abortion but wants to allow people a choice. The flaw in this argument is obvious. When you choose, you choose something. When you say “I choose,” you have to complete the sentence. As Pope John Paul II reminded us, ours is a choice “between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death.’”

No one would take seriously the claim of a legislator that he or she is personally opposed to child pornography but feels that it really should be left to the choice of the individual. We don’t even do that with smoking in most public places.

Support for abortion is in a category far beyond other politically driven decisions, such as the rate of taxation or the advisability of a new bond issue. There is no natural moral law written in the hearts of all people regarding public funding of a new transit system or about a new sales tax. But there is about killing innocent human life.

All of us have an obligation to be informed on how critical the life-and-death issue of abortion is, and how profoundly and intrinsically evil is the destruction of unborn human life. If our nation was founded upon the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” then abortion renders null the most fundamental right hallowed by America’s founders: the right to life.

CARDINAL DONALD W. WUERL is archbishop of Washington and a member of The Catholic University of America Council 9542.