1) The pro-life cause will suffer if the new Pope fails to uphold the distinction between intrinsic evils and contingent ones. Pope Bendict upheld this distinction while pro-abortion politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo are trying to undermine it in hopes of confusing voters. They confuse voters three ways. First, they lump elective abortion in with other so-called “life” issues like opposition to war, care for the environment, redistribution of income, health-care reform, etc. Second, they claim that because they are “pro-life” on these other “life” issues while the abortion-opponent is pro-life only on one—abortion—they are actually the true pro-life candidates. This gives them a pass on their rabid support for elective abortion. Third, they claim they will work to “reduce” abortion while doing everything possible to keep it legal and funded with tax money.
This is flawed reasoning. For example, war can be a moral evil, but it isn’t always so. Careful thinkers make distinctions between intrinsic (absolute) moral evils and contingent ones. For example, the decision to wage war may or may not be wrong, depending on the circumstances. However, the decision to intentionally kill an unborn human being for socioeconomic reasons is an intrinsic evil and laws permitting it are scandalous. True, a general in a just war may foresee that innocent humans will die securing a lasting peace, but he does not intend their deaths. With elective abortion, the death of an innocent human fetus is not merely foreseen; it is intended. The problem is that many Catholics and left-leaning evangelicals are perfectly willing to support a political party that supports an intrinsic evil simply because its members promise to help us avoid contingent ones. This is bad moral thinking.
Moreover, suppose an elected official has an excellent health-care plan, but he and his party are committed to the proposition that men can legally beat their wives. Wouldn’t that be reason enough to reject that party? True, abortion isn’t the only issue any more than slavery was the only issue in 1860 or the treatment of Jews the only issue in 1940. But both were the dominant issues of the day. Pope Benedict understands that pro-lifers should give greater moral weight to those dominant issues.
2) The pro-life cause will progress if the new Pope advances Benedict's view of incremental pro-life legislation that limits the evil done. If Pelosi and company represent a threat from the Left, pro-life purists represent one from the Right. The purist insists that pro-lifers compromise their principles when they support legislation that fails to protect all unborn humans. I’ve written elsewhere about why this reasoning fails, but Pope Benedict—even before he was Pope—understood that if you can’t stop the evil outright, you should at least work to limit the evil done.
“[A]ccording to the principles of Catholic morality, an action can be considered licit whose object and proximate effect consists in limiting an evil insofar as possible. Thus, when one intervenes in a situation judged evil in order to correct it for the better, and when the action is not evil in itself, such an action should be considered not as the voluntary acceptance of the lesser evil but rather the improvement of the existing situation, even though one remains aware that not all evil present is able to be eliminated for the moment.” (Cited in Fr. Peter West, Voting for Imperfect Candidates)Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, also affirmed incremental legislation. He stated the moral principle on which this approach is based in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. He begins: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.” In the next paragraph, however, the pontiff makes clear what does not fall within that prohibition:
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. . . . In a case like the one just mentioned, 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. (Emphasis mine–cited in Clark Forsythe, Doing What can be Done.)Five years later, on the publication anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, the Pope reiterated his call for Christians to limit evil:
No effort should be spared to eliminate legalized crime or at least to limit the damage caused by these laws, but with the vivid awareness of the radical duty to respect every human being’s right to life from conception until natural death, including the life of the lowliest and the least gifted.It seems to me that JPII’s language here is quite clear. His words apply precisely to a context where pro-life lawmakers would like to end abortion once and for all, but find themselves in a situation where, given current legal constraints, they cannot pass such a bill. Hence, for the moment, they work to limit the evil of abortion “insofar is possible” while continuing to strategize toward the ultimate goal of protecting all children.
3) The new Pope will be uniquely positioned to challenge the pervasive relativism that suggests all moral and ethical truths are equally valid. Pope Benedict coined the perfect phrase for our current situation when he said the western world suffers under “a dictatorship of relativism.” Wow. It’s hard to beat that for a spot-on analysis of the biggest threat to pro-life principles. At the same time, he helped religious pro-lifers advance their case. For example, in his book “Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions,” Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) argued that religious truth claims count as real knowledge and the Christian faith in particular has greater explanatory power. That’s a very helpful concept to pro-lifers of all stripes who battle against a highly secularized culture that rejects truth in everything but the hard sciences. Let’s pray the new Pope clearly affirms the intrinsic value of human life and makes careful distinctions between contingent evils and absolute ones.
[Updated @2:09 for spelling, typos, and heading changes.