The Roman statesman Cicero once said that, “nothing can be useful if it is not at the same time morally good.” It’s another way of saying that the end never justifies the means. Our goals may be admirable, but if we use evil methods to achieve them, we undermine both our goals and our own moral judgment.
What this means for American public life should be obvious. Politics is the art of the possible. Catholics should be realistic and flexible in their political attitudes. But a hierarchy of truths about human behavior exists, and it needs to guide our decision-making. Some things have more moral weight than others. We all instinctively know this. Cheating on a test is bad. Embezzling from our employer is worse. Murdering our neighbor is worst.
Understanding the moral differences among social issues is crucial. Not all evil things can or should be illegal. A healthy culture can tolerate some forms of evil in the interests of social peace. Nonetheless, some acts are so evil that tolerating them itself becomes a poison that weakens the whole of society. Civil rights were the key moral issue of a previous generation. Historically, most black Americans trace their roots in this country to slavery, and slaves did not have the status of human persons under the law. The work for racial justice was vital. It remains vital today. But civil rights flow from an even more basic human right: the right to life.
In our day, sanctity of life issues are foundational-not because of anyone’s “religious” views about abortion, although these are important; but because the act of dehumanizing and killing the unborn child attacks human dignity in a uniquely grave way. Deliberately killing the innocent is always, inexcusably wrong. It sets a pattern of contempt for every other aspect of human dignity. In redefining when human life begins and what is and isn’t a human person, the logic behind permissive abortion makes all human rights politically contingent.
In offering his own thoughts on Catholic social teaching, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin warned against the misuse of his “seamless garment” imagery to falsely invest different social issues with the same moral gravity. Many social issues are important. Many require our attention. But some issues have more weight than others. Deliberately killing innocent human life, or standing by and allowing it, dwarfs all other social issues. Trying to avoid this fact by calling the unborn child a lump of pre-human cells is simply a corrupt and corrupting form of verbal gymnastics.
Real Catholic citizenship requires much more than a tribal loyalty to any political party. It demands that we work (and make noise) within our political parties to change them; to force them to recognize and defend the sanctity of human life, beginning with the unborn child and extending to the poor, the immigrant, the disabled and the elderly.
The words of Ignatius of Antioch, the early bishop and martyr, are worth remembering. He said, “Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world.” He also said, “Just beg for me the courage and endurance not only to speak but also to will what is right, so that I may not only be called a Christian, but prove to be one.”