Applying theological and cardinal virtues to the abortion issue

In a world of sensationalism, social media, the open internet, extreme partisanship, and the proliferation of misinformation and half-truths by various groups and people in our country, it can often be very difficult to talk about “controversial” issues in the public square or even in our homes with family and friends, or at our parishes. In such times it seems to make sense for us to remember the theological (faith, hope, love) and cardinal (prudence, temperance, justice, courage) virtues. At the very least, by reflecting on these and how we personally engage them when it comes to political action as people of faith, we can hopefully avoid the pitfalls of partisanship, of ideological litmus tests and isolation into echo chambers.

One particular topic that is perennially in the news and seems to be threaded throughout the social fabric of our country is abortion. One aspect of that topic that is especially relevant today is the treatment of children who survive an abortion attempt. To address this issue the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act of 2019 (BAASPA) has been introduced at the federal level.

Before diving into more specifics on BAASPA (which will be addressed in articles over the next two weeks) it seems important for us to once again revisit the theological and cardinal virtues.

Zeal from both pro-abortion and anti-­abortion advocates often muddies an honest and nuanced discussion on the facts and truths related to the issue. No single ideological group or party is solely guilty of such actions. As Catholics, however, we are called to engage in the issue of abortion and all issues virtuously. Our faith in Jesus Christ not only calls us to advocate for the unborn, who are made in the likeness and image of God, but also respect the dignity of those who promote abortion, who are also made in the likeness and image of God. So too are we called to love the unborn as well as those who seek their destruction. And we are called to have hope that we will succeed in protecting the unborn as well as hope that those who currently support abortion may one day see the error of supporting abortion.

The cardinal virtues are also important when it comes to our actions and words when we discuss or advocate to end abortion and to protect from infanticide those who survive abortion attempts. Justice demands that the unborn be protected from abortion, and it demands that the challenges faced by women and families who see abortion as their only option are met as an alternative to abortion. Women report many reasons for seeking abortions. Among them are financial insecurity, judgment by the community or their families for being unwed, pressure from spouses or significant others, fear of health complications, etc. When addressing the injustice of abortion it is important for us to also address the injustices that lead women to seek abortions. Justice also demands that we do not bear false witness against others for a perceived failure to adequately oppose abortion (look no further than attacks on Pope Francis by websites such as Lifesitenews questioning his fidelity to the church’s opposition to abortion and other evils).

Related to justice are the virtues of temperance and prudence. As said before, zeal can sometimes cause us to stray from sober engagement of the issue. We may be quick to share an article or repeat something as “fact” without having spent the time discovering the accuracy of such things. We may unjustly misrepresent the motivations or morality of the actions of others. Out of zeal, some may see a zero-sum game with regards to legislation or personal culpability. Support or opposition for particular bills introduced into state assemblies or the U.S. Congress can be used as a litmus test for whether or not someone is considered “pro-life,” or adequately “pro-life.” For example, politicians are sometimes given grades or scorecards based on their votes on legislation by various organizations to evaluate their “pro-life” or “pro-choice” purity. These evaluations frequently ignore nuance and do not factor in the permissibility of a legislator to act with prudence.

What would be an example of such prudence? Saint John Paul II’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” offers us one particular example. He talks about a legislator’s support for a law, that while still permitting abortions, would help to limit abortions. He says: “When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to pro­cured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”

Thus a legislator or constituent is permitted to support a law that may not outlaw abortion completely but will place further limits on abortion so long as their opposition to abortion is known.

This is considered a prudential judgement. However, on an organizations’ score­card, because a legislator voted for a law that still allowed abortion, they may be given a lower grade because they voted for a bill that still permitted abortion even though they were doing so to limit abortions and thus are labeled as not being pro-life.

Finally, this is where courage comes into play — recognizing that engaging temperately, prudently and justly on the issue of abortion may find oneself in a difficult place with few allies; seemingly isolated from the more partisan or ideological persons or groups on the issue. It is not easy to hold a position that may find people on both sides of the aisle condemning you.

As always, prayer and the sacraments are essential to growing in the virtues discussed. God’s grace is abundant for those who seek it.

Next week we will share some specifics of BAASPA of 2019 and identify some con­siderations for Catholics when evaluating the efficacy of the bill and important distinctions to be made when discussing abortion and infanticide.