The Single Issue Catholic Voter by Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D.
On March 25, 1995 Pope John Paul II (JPII, initials for brevity) issued Evangelium Vitae (EV) (Gospel of Life). It is his encyclical letter that, now 25 yrs. later, serves as the basis for the moral rectitude, the established justification, and the political implementation of the Single Issue Catholic Voter. Need I say the issue is abortion?
His credentials as a philosopher and moral guide were established before Karol Wojtyla became pope. In EV he shows to all the world, in my opinion, that what he was not was a political strategist or theorist, shrewd though his political tactics may have been. Well, unless one sees that single issue politics was what precisely he had in mind despite all the nice words about the universality of human rights.
On reading this document two things stand out that will give any 21st century reader pause. First, his use of binary categories which he claims encompasses all that needs to be treated. For example, his either/or categories of “culture of life” and “culture of death” has been laid asunder by theorists, politicians, and his own bishops for years, as I hope to point out below. In short, just as gender has slipped through binary cracks so too does a delineation of what makes up culture.
Second, his recalcitrant use of natural law as a category that exists at a level of materiality as a matter of necessity – materiality that in turn determines life in all its features, was outdated even in his own time. Now that substance, even in its Aristotelian version, encompasses energy, connection, spirit, natural law is too old school, or ought to have been even then, for him. Starting with the notion of intertwining, first introduced by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the middle of the last century, to today’s strategies of embodiment and touch natural law needs to perk up.
Third, (I know I said there were 2 things, but I cannot help myself) is JPII’s calling upon Church Magisterium to ground his teaching and therefore to command the obedience of the faithful to be seriously taken into account? His pontificate, as well as that of his successor, has made more than clear the fallibility, even the criminality of enough of his bishops that their institution has lost pretty much most of its moral suasion. This tragic era of institutional church life would seem to have put to rest the notion that one man selecting his own resources from out of the Magisterium can proclaim anything that instills fealty.
Let’s take a look at his binary, “culture of death” and “culture of life.” In a review published through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) of EV, Robert George presents this schema in his article, “Political Action and Legal Reform in Evangelium Vitae.” He writes: (#s in parentheses refer to paragraphs in EV text)
At the heart of the culture of death is “a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them” (no. 19). This, according to the Holy Father, is “a completely individualistic concept of freedom which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak” (no. 19).
In the culture of life, by contrast, freedom is never a license to kill or oppress. Rather, freedom is ordered to goodness, to justice, to human solidarity. Freedom can never legitimately be invoked as a justification for actions which are contrary to human dignity and, as such, to moral truth. To claim a “right” to kill the unborn, the frail elderly, and other innocent human beings is, according to the Pope, a perversion of freedom (no. 20).
At the political level, the struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death implicates a wide range of issues. Chief among them, however, both in terms of the sheer number of lives at stake and in its emblematic and strategic significance for both sides in the struggle, is the issue of abortion.
As can be seen here, the binary is a structure that JPII thinks works for him. He identifies those who are pro-choice as constituents in the culture of death and those who are pro-life in the culture of life. Here is where, I believe, he develops political strategy and action, if not theory, to which he says the faithful must apply their political responsibility. However, this has been co-opted by those who take advantage of his binary view.
What happens, for example, when the priority issue is taken over by those whose view of freedom is an individualistic libertarianism (redundancy intended)? What happens when the moral high ground of culture of life is captured by the self-serving, single issue that wins elections, political operatives of the culture of death? What happens is what we got.
I would think this is not the political action JPII had in mind, not when you read all the other high ground issues under the banner of universal human rights that he says should be addressed through the implementation of the culture of life. For the past 25 years the Roman Catholic Church leaders and, apparently, the majority of the faithful who still practice this religion have held up to themselves the nobility of protecting the unborn human being. One presumes that’s why the encyclical was issued on March 25, Feast of the Annunciation, presumably the date of Jesus’ conception. (However, since it’s fairly certain Jesus was not born on December 25 the symbolism of all this is just that – only symbol, in the materialist, reality based, natural law sense of that word.)
For all this nobility and protection the Single Issue Catholic Voter has made it possible for people to be elected who could care less about the ruination of earth by climate change. (How many, do you suppose, will die then?) The Single Issue Catholic Voter has engaged in political action that has resulted in a President who puts human beings in cages and separates children from their parents – apparently keeping a record of where the children are on a computer system that cannot communicate with the system that records the locations of their parents.
The Single Issue Catholic Voter is told that they can use the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in their cause because they want the word person to be defined to include the unborn. This is the same Amendment that says in the next phrase, nor shall any state “deny to any person (not citizens only) within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” I guess they never read that far.
The point is, JPII writes neither solid political theory nor strategy in EV not when the “culture of death” appropriates a single issue to win elections and tramples on all those other human rights that he, now through a muffled voice, says must be respected. Not only is JPII’s call to exercise political responsibility defective, he provides the “culture of death” anti-abortion proponents with a clear path to do exactly that, namely to run roughshod over his moral high ground.
George summarizes the pope’s view:
“As John Paul II also observes, the protection of fundamental human rights, and, in particular, the right to life, is among the central purposes of civil law.”
Such a statement, perhaps easily overlooked on its surface, ought not to be overlooked for the permission it gives to use right to life as the single issue of greatest importance. JPII goes on to say “a law which violates an innocent person’s natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law.”
So, to apply this advice, a law that creates a category of “justified self-defense” makes it possible for a police officer to shoot 14 times into an apartment and somehow the murder of Breonna Taylor is justified. I do not recall seeing anywhere a statement by the Roman Catholic Bishops of Kentucky identifying this as an invalid law.
Thus it is convincing to me that JPII’s role as a political strategist, if not theorist, ought to be rejected. His permission to allow one morally grounded issue to become used by the “culture of death” practitioners in another much more political context may even be regarded as its own kind of “dog-whistle.”
Lastly, let’s recall that there is good reason to keep a wide distance between moral principles and civil law. The track record when moral leaders obtain and use civil law with its powers to restrict, confine, imprison, execute even is a bleak one. So let’s acknowledge – 25 years on – that Evangelium Vitae was an attempt to affirm human rights, yes even the right to life. Let’s also be thankful that civil law, when applied by a free people can affirm the broadest possible application of and support for human rights, yes even the right to life.
References & Resources
Political Action and Legal Reform in Evangelium Vitae, Robert P. George, J.D., D. Phil., (USCCB, 1995)
Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II, vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html