Why is society imperfect? Why is there war and crime and social injustice? The answer, for Catholics, is clear: man is fallen. Therefore, if Americans want to make their society and country better, their first task is to help themselves and others to let in God’s grace, to reject sin, and to grow in holiness. In that way alone can man produce a glimmer of the heavenly city on earth. This first task–the sanctification and salvation of souls–is the true purpose of the Church; it is what she is made for. A more just society is a side-effect of the Church’s work, but not her primary goal. Indeed she forsakes her unique purpose if she tries to pursue social justice as her primary end.
This shows why those Catholics who would put other social justice issues above abortion, and vote for Biden–Harris, are so muddled in their thinking. True social justice emerges when individuals reject sin; and only then. But no political policies promote sins–and very serious sins–more effectively than pro-choice ones: the materially grave sins of abortionists, women, and others involved.
Other social justice questions leave far less sin at stake. Under Bush, pro-Democrat Catholics equated deaths by abortion with deaths by war; under Trump they weigh abortion against unjust immigration policies. But death in war often involves no serious sin on either side of the conflict; and it is far from obvious that an American’s voting for or implementing a questionable immigration policy is a grave sin (in the latter case, it might depend partly on his ranking and station within immigration enforcement).
In terms of promotion of sin then, there is simply no comparison between ‘pro-choice’ policies and (let us say) socially unjust Republican ones. By equating these putative Republican injustices with abortion, and so ignoring the question of sin, pro-Biden Catholics are pursuing a mere effect of the Church’s sanctifying work, namely social justice, as if it were the primary goal of the Church in itself. But this makes no theological sense, and is doomed to failure: society cannot enjoy the effects of grace if it closes itself to grace by embracing sin-promoting policies.
This confusion about the Church’s purpose sadly seems to have reached the episcopate. Consider Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a specialist in Catholic social teaching, who questioned the United States Bishops’ Conference recent description of abortion as its ‘pre-eminent’ social justice concern; he wanted similar weight to be given to other social justice issues.
We can infer that the bishop was making the same mistake that I have imputed to pro-Biden Catholics if we consider other statements of his. In his own diocese, he has defended a parish’s employment of an openly practicing homosexual, arguing that ‘if the Church eliminated all employees who are not living out the teachings of the Church in its fulness, we would be employing only angels’. The bishop’s logic here seems to be that almost none of us perfectly realise Catholic social teaching—almost none of us identify ourselves with the poor as St Francis did—and therefore none of us can be said to be any more compliant with Church teaching than said homosexual. This reasoning ignores questions of intention, deliberation, and obligation, and so conflates the world’s evils with imputable personal sin (formal sin). It looks more like late Protestantism’s sin-minimising take on the doctrine of total depravity (which labelled all our actions sinful, and so made the concept of personal sin meaningless) than it does anything Catholic.
Though I should acknowledge that I cannot prove that the bishop has been making this mistake, nevertheless I have reason to suspect so: for if one loses the distinction between evil and imputable personal sin, then one will indeed think that the Church’s primary mission can and should be to reduce evils like social injustice, and one will be unable to understand that societies best curtail the proliferation of evil by resisting and discouraging personal sin. This mistake—the final consequence of which would be that the Church think and act like just another NGO—is not one that senior churchmen should be making.
Perhaps, then, it would be good if those Catholics who would conflate abortion with other social justice issues reflected carefully on the end of man, the nature of sin, and the purpose of the Church. Let us hope and pray that they do so in the next couple of weeks.