In her book, Public Dimensions of a Believer’s Life:  Rediscovering the Cardinal Virtues, Monika K. Hellwig (2005) claims that accusations against public figures, most notably politicians, of being unfaithful to their Catholic identity because of their voting record on a particular issue is unjust and narrow-sighted.  She urges for more compassion towards all of our lawmakers who have been charged with the task of grappling with the complexities between their conscience and governing a pluralistic society.  The tension between conscience and compromise is something we all must navigate on a daily basis.  Luckily for us, the decisions we make are not usually part of the public forum.  However the complex tensions that we face when making tough ethical choices are the same for us as they are for our public servants.

In order to come to compassionate understanding we must consider that while absolute truths do exist, compromise is needed for us to progress towards those truths as part of the ethical change process.  “In most issues in public life, and in the common life of large groups, the best that can be done is to bring the possible a little closer to the desirable” (p. 45), explains Hellwig (2005).  While God and His commandments are absolute truths, the human interpretation of these truths varies, and in some instances completely denied as in the case of atheism.  This makes decision-making in a diverse society such as the United States an immensely complex task for the lawmaker.  Compromise between all interpretations is the only way for everyone in the society to move towards the truth.  If there is no compromise, then there is no movement.  Instead there is stagnation and the truth becomes lost in the stalemate.

This reality is currently being witnessed in the pro-life movement and the debate around life issues.  Hellwig (2005) notes:

“In the Catholic community, this moral compromise of such vast proportions has become almost invisible because of the one-issue focus on abortion.  The deaths of enemy civilians as well as combatants, deaths of those condemned by criminal or immigration laws, and deaths from deprivation of means of livelihood have tended to be obscured in Catholic consciousness by the focus on abortion.  Respect for life must, of course, include the unborn, our own as well as those whose mothers are in populations at high risk from bombing, poverty, mass killing of peasant populations, and other man-made risks.  But surely it must also include those already born and struggling in the world, especially the most powerless among these” (p. 47).

The truth that life is a precious gift of God freely given to all of us, all of creation, has been lost in the unwillingness of the pro-life movement to compromise within its own ranks in terms of focus.

There are huge moral implications of putting one pro-life issue in a priority position above any other.  By doing this, the pro-life movement has indirectly stated that it too believes that one life is more precious, more deserving of advocacy, than another.  I believe that the erosion of the movement to a single issue, has contributed to disrespect for life in our society.  The focused attention to change one evil has blinded a large portion of well-meaning people to the life destroying evils that exist and continue to grow elsewhere.  While all of the attention has been focused on ending abortion, the culture of death has flourished in other issue areas such as war, oppression, cloning, and the death penalty.  The culture of death will continue until all of life is equally advocated for by people of faith.

Our public servants do not have the luxury of maintaining a one issue focus.  It is the nature of their occupations to take a stance on all issues by casting a vote when these issues are presented to them in various acts of legislation. Oftentimes, a single piece of legislation addresses multiple issues.  A legislator’s vote for or against a particular bill frequently involves compromise on some issue areas in order to make advancement in others.  Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a tendency within the pro-life movement to condemn politicians when the compromise has been made on the abortion issue.  Even if the compromise has been done in the name of advancing another pro-life issue, such as access to healthcare, the movement will question the politician’s fidelity to their faith.  I believe this unjust practice has caused a climate of fear that has led to our representatives’ inability to move decisively forward in their decision-making.

In order for progress to be made towards passing laws that respect life, we need to allow our representative’s the freedom to make legislative compromises, even those involving abortion, without fear of punitive action by the Church.  We need to remember that they represent a diverse population and are trying to give voice to everyone’s desires and values, not just their own or that of the Church.  A broadening of focus within the pro-life movement itself would give us more for which to be hopeful and positive about in the short-term; enabling a culture of life to be developed in other areas, thus changing societal attitudes over time, and adding momentum until the time is right on a societal level for an end to abortion.

References

Hellwig, M. K. (2005). Public dimensions of a believer’s life: Rediscovering the cardinal virtues. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from citationmachine.net

 

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