Can a Catholic with a well-informed conscience vote in favour of abortion? A question of this kind was put to Bishop Alan McGuckian, on Wednesday on RTE’s Morning Ireland. The short answer is no.
The teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion is clear. Direct abortion is always wrong because, as the Catechism says, “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” (2270)
This is true not only for Christians but for every human being. “Respect for human life is not just a Christian obligation. Human reason is sufficient to impose it on the basis of the analysis of what a human person is and should be.”
Abortion is wrong, not simply as a personal choice but also for society and this is why it should not be tolerated. The Catechism unmistakably claims that “the inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation”. (2273) Without the right to life there is no proper civilization and no justice.
The teaching of the Church on abortion has been reaffirmed in many documents and contains no ambiguity or room for dissent. The direct and intentional killing of an innocent human being before birth is always wrong and should not be permitted by the law. The Second Vatican Council calls it an abominable crime.
Some Catholics, particularly politicians, support legislation that permits abortion. In some cases, they even support abortion as a right.
Can they do in good conscience? No.
By conscience we mean the sense of right and wrong, but also the obligations that follow from our understanding of what is right and wrong.
The Catholic Church teaches that conscience must be well informed, which means that Catholics (and everyone else) have to do what is possible to educate themselves in order to understand what is just and what is not. It also means that Catholics should search proper guidance, follow good examples and listen to the legitimate authorities.
Nobody should be forced to act against their conscience, the Church teaches, and it is true that a person could carry out a wrongful act with a clear conscience because they have mistakenly concluded that the act is right. But no one with a properly informed conscience could do this because they would know what they were considering is wrong.
Conscience has rights because it has duties, Cardinal Newman famously said, and one of them, for those who claim to be Catholic, is to follow the principles of natural law and of Christian ethics.
A Catholic who is well-formed and has properly understood the doctrine of the Church on abortion can’t appeal to freedom of conscience to dissent from a clearly defined teaching. It is a matter of consistency.