National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

Defending the dignity of the human person


The editorial “Politics, piety and the Catholic vote” in the April 30 issue of NCR states, “[W]hat should engage us as citizens is not the quality of a candidate’s religious commitment -- but the quality of that person’s vision for this country and the individual voter’s analysis of the candidate’s ability to implement that vision.”

I agree.

The editorial, however, goes on to miss the fact that what it regards as a “narrow litmus test,” namely, the candidate’s position on abortion, has more than a little to do with the candidate’s “vision for this country.”

Any vision of this country worth struggling for includes a wide range of values -- life itself, provision for its needs, education, employment, health care, peace, justice, and a humane way of dealing with offenders. Yet if we are to avoid a superficial analysis, we need to ask what causes these to be issues in the first place. Why is it always wrong to neglect the poor? Why is it always wrong to deny adequate health care? Why is it always right to strive for justice and peace?

Why, indeed, if not because of the dignity of the human person? If a person can be disposed of, why must he be fed? If a person can be chopped apart, why must she have health care? In fact, every right we have flows from our inherent dignity, at every stage of life.

That dignity is beyond the power of any government to bestow or deny. Government exists for the human person, not the other way around, and the rights of human beings are there not because anyone grants them, but precisely because one is a human being.

To permit abortion is to radically reject that premise. Abortion supporters do not deny that a human being is killed in the process; they simply claim that it should be a legal right. This is not just about the legality of a procedure; this is about a totally different kind of government -- the kind that can decide when the legal right to life begins and when it doesn’t; the kind that can separate the concept of human being from human person.

That is hardly a “narrow” litmus test. And that does have a lot to do with a “person’s vision for this country.”

Throughout the month of April, the gruesome reality of various abortion procedures was described under oath in courtrooms across the country by those who perform them. What the procedure does is not a matter of opinion. And there is a reason why candidates who support the continuation of these procedures do not describe them publicly -- because they obviously contradict a humane vision for this country.

Now of course, poverty, crime and drug abuse are gruesome too, and it is hard to see pictures or read descriptions of their horror. But society does not define these victims as “non-persons” and sanction their deliberate killing, as we do with children in the womb.

War and capital punishment are gruesome, too. But does any candidate or citizen advocate deliberately targeting children to be killed by either practice, as we do with children in the womb?

The editorial claims, “even a ‘bad Catholic’ might be a good president.” Again, I agree. In fact, all but one of our presidents haven’t been Catholic at all. The point is not whether the candidate is a good Catholic but rather a good public servant, and the issue at stake here is whether permitting violence against children is consistent with public service.

Catholic teaching forbids stealing; so does the law. Do such laws impose Catholic belief? Would candidates who see nothing wrong with stealing be rejected because they are bad Catholics, or because their position contradicts public service?

A related concern is the honesty and integrity of the candidate. The editorial claims, “What should engage us as citizens is … the candidate’s ability to implement that vision.” If one has that ability regarding the vision of one’s country, why would he lack it regarding the vision of his religion? I am not speaking about codifying religious beliefs into law. I’m simply asking why one would claim to adhere to a religion -- any religion -- and deny its tenets.

The editorial suggests that candidates who support the legality of abortion might have policies that actually reduce abortions by creating better conditions for choosing life. Whether that is or is not the case is open to legitimate debate, but it misses the point. When bishops are criticized for not properly addressing clergy sexual abuse, it is hardly an appropriate response to claim that they are creating the conditions to make such abuse more rare. They are expected to have zero tolerance and to condemn such activity in principle. One child abused is one too many.

And one child dismembered by abortion is one too many. Why is it a “narrow litmus test” to expect a public servant to say the same?

America is a tremendous experiment in self-governance, and at the core of that experiment is the freedom to elect our leaders. Yet the right to govern ourselves carries the responsibility to do so in a way that protects the very foundations of our freedom, and to recognize that certain things -- like defining who does or doesn’t have the right to life -- are beyond the reach of any president or nation.

Fr. Frank Pavone is national director of Priests for Life and president of the National Pro-life Religious Council.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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