Where We Begin

Frank Pavone
Reproduced with Permission

"In protecting human life, 'We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life.'"

Thus says one of the most abused documents of the Administrative Committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The document, called Faithful Citizenship, is a useful tool in helping people prepare for the elections. But like every useful too, it is useful only when used correctly.

Unfortunately, many have misused it.

Some in the Church today are fond of saying that we have to consider "a wide range of issues" when we vote -- which is true as far as it goes -- but then go farther and say that all the issues are of equal weight -- which is not only false, but offensive to common sense.

Take, for example, the "scorecard" that was recently put together by some Catholic Senators, summarizing their voting record on a variety of issues and then giving each a score. There's no problem, of course, in reviewing and summarizing how public officials vote. In fact, the public deserves more of that information. The big problem with the scorecard, however, is that all the issues are assigned equal weight, so that no distinction is made between the importance of banning partial-birth abortion and the regulation of mercury levels in thermometers.

Faithful Citizenship reflects a wide range of issues, yet does make some distinctions (though not as effectively as the document issued in 1998 by the entire body of bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, from which, in fact, it draws the quote we are examining). Faithful Citizenship tells us where we start: never intentionally kill the innocent. By identifying this starting point, the document lays out a foundation, it draws an absolute boundary, it identifies a fundamental principle. Before we consider the many things we must do to build a just society, we must identify what we can never do. The claim of innocent human life to protection by society is a claim without which society could never protect the person's other interests or fulfill the person's other needs. Being right about those other needs while being wrong about the starting point is a formula for failure to serve the common good.

"We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill." With these words the bishops indicate that there is more that comes after the beginning, just as there is more to be built after the foundation is laid. But the foundation has to be secure. Considering, for example, the poor, we realize that any plans for giving them adequate food, housing, health care, and education always presume that we do not allow a policy of killing them. Any discussions about what laws promote the best care for the poor assume that the law protects their lives from deliberate destruction. "We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill."

Laws allowing abortion fail society at the starting gate. If we cannot protect life, we'll never succeed at enhancing it.