Politicians and Catholic teaching


Sir, – D Vincent Twomey writes, “It is disingenuous of Dr Hannon to quote the same encyclical as though the Pope were contradicting himself” (Letters, November 9th). If this correctly described my use of the passage in question, the word “stupid” would be more apposite than “disingenuous”. But it doesn’t.

The reason I drew attention to the passage is that it illustrates the point that lawmakers have to take account of all the circumstances of time and place when exercising their judgment on how best the common good is served by the law now. And no: this is not situation ethics, and nor does it deny that some acts and omissions and states of affairs are always wrong.

What the passage illustrates is that whereas church teaching about the morality of what it calls direct abortion is an instance of an exceptionless principle, this cannot be said of its teaching about what the law should be.

The passage envisages a situation in which politicians are faced with voting on a measure which will legalise abortion in some cases. And Pope John Paul is saying that Catholic teaching that direct abortion is always wrong doesn’t necessarily preclude acceptance of a law that allows it, if that’s the best that can be done.

Prof Twomey explains the background to what the pope was saying: a situation in which, in the encyclical’s words, “it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law”. The current landscape in the US is a comparable case, which is why I suggested that, mutatis mutandis, the passage applies there too.

In neither case are Catholic politicians expected to reject church teaching on abortion; in neither case are they seeking to “promote” abortion. In each case they are charged with a decision in conscience as to what is the best law in all the circumstances now. An exercise in what St Thomas Aquinas called the art of lawmaking.

The issue here is not the morality of abortion per se, but how far one may cooperate in the wrongdoing of another without doing moral wrong oneself. Within Catholic moral teaching there is a centuries-old approach to this question that both honours essential moral principle and recognises situational complexities, of which abortion law in the US now is an example.

Dr Twomey taxes me with failing to engage with his main point. I can only reply that he has not engaged with mine, which merely draws upon what Aquinas has to say about law-making in Summa Theologiae and adverts to standard teaching about co-operation in another’s wrongdoing. – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor

of Moral Theology,

St Patrick’s College,

Maynooth. Co Kildare.