A Catholic with a properly formed conscience cannot vote for abortion, writes David Quinn
Can a Catholic in good conscience vote in favour of abortion? This was the question put to the new Bishop of Raphoe, Alan McGuckian, on Morning Ireland last week. Bishop McGuckian was speaking about the bishops’ latest statement on the abortion issue and set out very ably what that is, putting the undeniable humanity of the unborn child front and centre.
This is not how Bishop McGuckian put it, but if we vote in favour of abortion, we cannot pretend that we are not giving permission to one group of human beings – women – to kill another group of human beings, namely their unborn babies.
So, can a Catholic in good conscience vote for abortion? A better way to put it might be that no Catholic with a well-informed conscience can vote for it.
When it boils down to it, we can do practically anything in good conscience, but that doesn’t make it right. A Catholic could convince themselves that abortion is right in particular circumstances, but that subjective judgement doesn’t make it right. A person can easily do something that is objectively bad with a good (but mistaken) conscience.
That’s why it’s crucial to speak about a well-informed conscience, or a properly formed conscience. Every Catholic, indeed every person who takes the moral life seriously, has a duty to properly form their conscience.
This is why the advice to simply ‘follow your conscience and you’ll do the right thing’ is so misguided. Your conscience can easily lead you to do the wrong thing. And so your conscience has to be properly formed. For a Catholic that means becoming properly informed about what the Catholic Church teaches.
On the issue of abortion, it couldn’t be clearer. As Archbishop Michael Neary said in his pastoral letter last weekend, “Abortion is the deliberate taking of a human life”. How could a Catholic ever vote for that with a clear conscience?
As the bishops collectively said in their statement last week, ‘A Common Humanity’: “Making abortion freely available desensitises people to the value of every human life. The scientific evidence about the beginning of human life has never been clearer. It is, therefore, a great irony that we in Ireland are for the first time in our history losing our clarity about the right to life of the unborn.”
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Since the 1st Century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law”.
I’ve travelled the country quite a bit over the last few months giving talks on the coming referendum and have picked up quite a lot of anecdotal evidence of confusion among ordinary Mass-going Catholics on the issue of abortion.
Some Catholics (again, I’m referring to practising Catholics here) appear to believe that abortion is justified in hard cases, such as rape or where the baby has a terminal condition.
This is obviously not what the Church teaches because the right to life of the unborn is as inviolable as your right to life or mine.
But even if these Catholics cannot be persuaded on this point, they need to understand that the Government is asking us to repeal the right to life completely and introduce a law that is more liberal than the British one. The British law means one pregnancy in every five ends in abortion each year in the UK, a horrible total.
Other Catholics I’ve come across say they personally disagree with abortion but that you can’t ‘legislate for morality’. But even if this is true, it’s beside the point because one of the main purposes of the law is to protect, and the first thing it must protect is your right to life.
I think priests have a huge role to play between now and the referendum. They don’t have a big role to play in the public debate. In fact, that would probably be counter-productive. But they do have a very big role to play when addressing their own congregations, in clearing up any confusion people may have in their minds about the issue.
A lot of priests have suffered a loss of confidence because of the scandals, which is understandable, and they may also feel they have no right, as men, to speak out on the abortion issue. Furthermore, they will be aware of people in their congregations who may have had abortions and will want to be sensitive.
However, there are ways and ways of tackling these things. It is possible to speak both sensitively and clearly about abortion. The bishops have managed to do that in their latest pastoral statement. All a priest has to do is read that at Mass.
Or he could quote Pope Francis. Pope Francis has spoken out very clearly in favour of the right to life. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it will to some people because media reports have given the impression that he has downgraded the importance of the abortion issue. He hasn’t. There isn’t a bishop in Ireland who speaks more strongly than he does about the matter.
Above all what needs to be cleared up is any confusion on the point of whether a Catholic with a properly informed conscience should favour an abortion. They cannot.
There are still around a million adult Mass-goers each week in Ireland. If they all vote in favour of the Eighth Amendment, we win. If too many of them vote in favour of repeal, we lose. It’s as simple as that. Priests can play a bigger part than they think in persuading them to vote to continue protecting the unborn child.
David Quinn’s new book is How we Willed God (and other tales of modern Ireland), from Currach Press.