Jesuits Embrace Moral Equivalency; Economic Inequality and Abortion Are ‘Equally Senseless’

Mexico City Policy
AP/Eric Gay

In a new statement released to coincide with the March for Life against legalized abortion, the U.S. Jesuits have embraced the argument of moral equivalency between abortion and other social ills.

“As we Jesuits survey our culture, we cannot help but see abortion as part of the massive injustices in our society,” the text states. “A spirit of callous disregard for life shows itself in direct assaults on human life such as abortion and capital punishment. There are less direct but equally senseless ways we undermine life, through violence, racism, xenophobia, and the growing inequality of wealth and education.”

The document allies the Jesuits with a movement among progressive Catholics in the U.S. to water down the singular evil of abortion by “contextualizing” it as just one injustice among many facing the nation. The former archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, is credited with creating the “seamless garment” moral theory, which approached all social evils as part of a unitary whole rather than addressing them individually.

A consistent ethic of life “joins the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate,” Bernardin wrote in 1984.

Bernardin argued that his approach “will not erode our crucial public opposition to the direction of the arms race; neither will it smother our persistent and necessary public opposition to abortion,” but in point of fact, that is exactly what happened.

By introducing a series of elements that could not garner unanimous support, purveyors of this approach debilitated the Catholic pro-life effort in the United States by splintering the movement into factions. Those who had been united in their monolithic opposition to the evil of abortion found themselves divided on other issues such as capital punishment, healthcare, welfare, gun control, national defense and the minimum wage.

Moral theologians in the Catholic tradition understand that only negative moral precepts that forbid intrinsically evil acts (such as the prohibition against killing the innocent) can be formulated as “exceptionless moral norms” to which all must adhere. Whereas “help the poor” and “educate the ignorant” admit of limitless approaches and strategies (none of which is morally binding on all), “do not abort babies” is a simple injunction that demands universal acceptance.

Although couched in moral terms, Cardinal Bernardin’s theory was essentially political. He was a Democrat at a time when his party had moved to embrace abortion on demand, while then-President Ronald Reagan had adopted an uncompromising pro-life stance in defense of the unborn. Only by extending the definition of what it meant to be “pro-life” could Bernardin defend the Democratic platform as a viable moral option for serious Catholics.

It was no coincidence that Cardinal Bernardin published The Seamless Garment in the same year (1984) that President Ronald Reagan designated January 22 as “National Sanctity of Human Life Day” in opposition to the ignominious Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade.

In his presidential proclamation, Reagan wrote that since 1973, “more than 15 million unborn children have died in legalized abortions — a tragedy of stunning dimensions that stands in sad contrast to our belief that each life is sacred.”

“These children, over tenfold the number of Americans lost in all our Nation’s wars, will never laugh, never sing, never experience the joy of human love; nor will they strive to heal the sick, or feed the poor, or make peace among nations. Abortion has denied them the first and most basic of human rights, and we are infinitely poorer for their loss,” he wrote.

The new standard-bearer for the seamless garment approach to life is Bernardin’s successor as archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich.

In a signed 2015 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, Archbishop Cupich listed a series of social ills that people should find just as loathsome as ripping apart unborn children and selling their organs.

The release of videos showing Planned Parenthood physicians discussing the market for organs harvested in abortions was a sign of hope, Cupich said, because it “unmasked the fact that, in our public conversation about abortion, we have so muted the humanity of the unborn child that some consider it quite acceptable to speak freely of crushing a child’s skull to preserve valuable body parts and to have that discussion over lunch.”

As evidently repulsive as this practice is, however, the archbishop went on to say:

We should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.

By insisting on the moral equivalency of many different societal problems, Cupich reduced the heinous offense of slaughtering the unborn and trading in their body parts to just another social ill, no worse than unemployment or the death penalty. (It is worth noting that more babies will die from abortion in the U.S. in the next 15 minutes than death row inmates will die in the whole of 2018).

The heroic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, was quick to offer fraternal correction to his misguided brother bishop, penning his own essay titled “There Is No Equivalence.”

Attempts to equate the intentional taking of human life through abortion with other social justice issues – such as poverty, racism, and unemployment – are wrongheaded and deceptive, he said.

“The deliberate killing of innocent life is a uniquely wicked act,” Chaput wrote. “No amount of contextualizing or deflecting our attention to other issues can obscure that.”

Nearly all Catholic dioceses in the United States – including his own – spend far more time and talent on providing social services to the poor rather than on opposing abortion, Chaput noted, yet the fact remains that “children need to survive the womb before they can have needs like food, shelter, immigration counseling and good health care.”

“Humanity’s priority right – the one that undergirds all other rights – is the right to life,” Chaput argued, and being “right” on other matters of social justice “can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.”

Chaput’s assertion of a moral hierarchy existing among actions and precepts stands firmly in the Catholic moral tradition.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the future Pope Benedict XVI—made the critical, commonsense distinction that “[n]ot all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.”

Despite the Church’s general opposition to war and the death penalty, for instance, “it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment,” he said.

“There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty,” he said, “but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

Some issues are so singularly evil that they demand to be isolated and addressed with all the moral focus possible until they are eliminated. Historically such issues are not hard to identify. Black slavery in the United States or the Jewish genocide of the Holocaust immediately come to mind.

As Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, recently stated, abortion is the great “moral crisis of our time,” overshadowing immigration, health care, and capital punishment.

While many other moral issues merit attention from the bishops, Naumann said, it would be a mistake to treat them as if they had the same weight, noting that the “vast majority of bishops” understand that abortion is the preeminent moral crisis of our time.

As marchers descend on the nation’s capital to protest abortion and to assert the inviolability and sanctity of the lives of the unborn, they should know that they are addressing the foremost social injustice of our day.

Their witness is precious to the country and to the world.

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