The pro-life vote

The pro-life vote

(second and final part)

This is the continuation of my column published by CBCP Monitor just before the May 13, 2019 elections. I apologize for the belated publication of this second part. I would also like to correct a typo in Part 1: the date of the speech given by Pope Benedict XVI to the European People’s Party was not March 30, 2016 but March 30, 2006.

In this second and final part of my essay on the pro-life vote, I will touch on two issues: 1) whether Pope Francis has discarded the idea of “non-negotiable principles”; and 2) whether any talk of the “pro-life vote” is still relevant in the Philippines.

Supposedly, Pope Francis opposes the language of ‘non-negotiable’ values. Among other examples, Pope Francis said the following in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra (as reported on March 5, 2014 by Catholic News Agency): “I have never understood the expression non-negotiable values. Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values. I wrote in the exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ what I wanted to say on the theme of life.” Some might also point to Pope Francis’ famous interview to America and other Jesuit magazines, where he said that “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods”.

As with much of what Pope Francis says, careful parsing and understanding is necessary. The key to his thought in the Corriere interview is his reference to his own Apostolic Exhortation EvangeliiGaudium. In nos. 213-214 of that document, Pope Francis reaffirms the teaching of the Church in defense of the unborn and the value of the human person. As he says in no. 214: “the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations’. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” While he does express perplexity with the expression “non-negotiable values”, he does not call for its elimination from the Catholic vocabulary. He does not deny the teaching behind it, which is part of the magisterium of Benedict XVI.

What Pope Francis’ words convey is that the defense of pro-life and pro-family values must not lead to neglect of the defense of other values upheld by the Church. Let it be remembered that Pope Francis has spoken out against abortion, repeatedly comparing it to hiring a contract killer. He has also spoken against “ideological colonization” through Western gender ideology and against “gay marriage”. Even if many Catholics have downplayed the significance of Pope Francis’ statements on these issues, there is still no excuse to de-emphasize the defense of human life (from conception to its natural end) and of the family!

Our own bishops understood this, and so towards the end of 2015, the CBCP published a “Guide to Catholic voters” that, among other things, declared: “a Catholic voter cannot, in good conscience, support a candidate whose legislative or executive programs include initiatives diametrically opposed to Church moral teachings on such vital issues as abortion, euthanasia, the return of the death penalty, divorce and the dilution of the character of Christian marriage.”

Now we turn to a more immediate question: is there any relevance to talking about a pro-life vote in the Philippines? Let us be honest. Pro-life and pro-family considerations have not prevented the repeated election of candidates who favored contraception (including abortifacients), divorce, implementation of “reproductive health” legislation, the death penalty, and the like. Independent “pro-life” candidates have generally attracted little support. Pro-life candidates who have won elections in recent years have generally done so with the support of the political establishment and not necessarily due to their pro-life stance. Some pro-life activists believe that in the last few elections, pro-life issues have had a critical impact on who made it to the final slots in the Senate’s “Magic 12”, but on this we can only speculate.

For most Filipinos the main issues have been corruption and incompotence, the economy, crime, transportation and other like issues. In the May 2019 election, many devout Catholics voted for “Otso Diretso” candidates because the need to provide a counterweight to the current regime (and its apparent support for extrajudicial killings) was felt to outweigh many of these candidates’ support for “reproductive health”, divorce and “gay rights”.  (One thinks here of the Church’s teaching on proportionate reasons for voting for candidates who oppose the non-negotiable values, in order to limit the greater harm to life that other candidates might bring.)

However, the fact that talk of a pro-life vote may nowadays seem quixotic, even inopportune, should not become an excuse to abandon it altogether. The ideal of the “pro-life vote” is in the service of a concrete goal: the eventual formation of a class of legislators and officials who are fully pro-family and pro-life. Even now there are politicians who are open if not obedient to the teachings of the Church on pro-life issues—think, for example, of the congressmen who repeatedly and courageously voted against the RH, divorce and the death penalty bills. Truly pro-life politicians need to be honored more for their stance, and supported when they run. And in the case of candidates who support one or another cause that is opposed to the moral teachings of the Church, but who garner the support of Catholics who want to prevent greater evils from flourishing—can their pro-life supporters make the effort to try to convince these candidates to heed the Church? Meanwhile, there has to be a continuing effort to catechize, to educate, and to form a new generation of Catholics who will take the Gospel of Life seriously. We must not falter and we must persevere in this necessary task, even if at present it would seem that all we are capable of are small apostolic works and “planting seeds” for the future.

Perhaps the rise of a new generation of pro-life lawmakers will take years, decades, generations… let us have no illusions about the difficulty and magnitude of this task. Let us take a leaf from the radicals whose ideologies on sexuality and danger are now so dominant in the Western world. They achieved their dominance thanks to what has been called “the long march through the institutions”, referring to their gradual but persistent transformation of academe, government and other institutions over many decades in order to  win over society to their values. If they can do this, why can’t we Catholics do the same—we who have the power and light of the Gospel and the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide us? And just as radicals could not have achieved their subversion of culture had they settled for easier goals, we will never transform our world if we surrender our “unrealistic” and “fantastical” vision of a pro-life society, with pro-life legislators and officials, animated by the vision of what St. John Paul II called the “Civilization of Love”.