Pope John Paul II–who will be canonized this Sunday–is well known as a strong critic of abortion. Less well known, although still worthy of our attention, is his argument about the relationship between abortion and democracy.
That argument is noteworthy in the first place just because it was made at all. John Paul II understood himself as a son of the Second Vatican Council. He was accordingly committed throughout his life and his papacy to the project of trying to engage the modern world with a view to improving it and drawing it to Christianity. Such a project required that he address the modern world in terms it could understand and invoke concerns that it already cared about. If he had not been committed to this undertaking, he would have just reaffirmed as a matter of Church teaching that abortion is a sin and leave it at that.
But John Paul II did not do that, as anyone can see who reads his now famous encyclical Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life. In that document, the pope’s condemnation of the taking of innocent human life, and the accompanying condemnations of abortion and euthanasia, take only a few sentences. The rest of the rather lengthy argument is dedicated to an examination of “the culture of death,” or of the popular modes of thinking that seem to have legitimized the taking of innocent life. And an important part of that examination is the pope’s account of abortion and democracy–in which he relates an important Catholic (and human) principle, the sanctity of human life, to a concern that almost all modern people share, the health of democracy.
John Paul II conceded that many democracies in the western world have embraced liberal abortion policies. He insisted, however, that the fact that a democracy has democratically authorized abortion could not in fact make abortion right. The fact that a majority positively decides something, or perhaps passively acquiesces in it (which is more the case in the United States, where the main driver of abortion liberalism has been the Supreme Court), cannot make the thing right, because, the pope claimed, there is an objective standard of right and wrong, good and evil, that all human beings must respect. No human being, and no group of human beings, not even the ruling majority in a sovereign nation, has a right to invent its own fundamental standards of good and evil.
This understanding, the pope reminded us, is essential to a democracy remaining a just democracy. Without it, the majority is authorized to do anything, and the result of that will be tyranny, more specifically, majority tyranny. Without the claim that there is an objective standard of right by which even the majority must be judged, the distinction between tyranny and just government disappears in theory. And its disappearance in theory is an invitation to the actual appearance of tyranny in practice, since a people that does not believe in tyranny will find no objection to doing things that are actually tyrannical (just as an individual who believes the prohibition on murder is just an artificial construct will be more likely to murder than someone who thinks it is truly wrong according to an objective standard).
For John Paul II, then, the modern, western, democratic world needed to recognize that the widespread abortion it has embraced is a threat to the just democratic self-government that the western world says it cherishes. Most of the defenders of abortion would probably not admit that they were, by defending it, openly claiming for themselves or the majority a right to invent the rules of morality. Yet John Paul II thought that this dangerous claim was inseparable from the defense of abortion, whether or not any of its defenders wanted to openly own these consequences. And the inevitability of these consequences arose not from any point of Catholic doctrine that it would take faith to recognize, but from an elementary fact that any reasonable person should be able to see.
That key fact is the humanity of the unborn baby. That being cannot be anything other than a human being. In that case, it must have some basic moral standing such as is held by all human beings. It certainly has no right to vote or to choose a profession, but it must have a right to be free from any violent attacks on its life. The only way to deny it that right it to claim that the rights of human beings are to be determined by the ruling majority, or to claim that the ruling majority gets to decide who is and who is not a human being. Either claim, the pope reminded us, is a short route to tyranny and to the overthrowing of all the hopes for just and humane government with which the modern world began.
CatholicVote.org is celebrating Pope John Paul II and his contributions to solving problems facing the world over the last 50 years. Here are other published commentaries at CV this week:
April 21: ‘As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out peace in the name of God’ by Tom Hoopes
April 21: 34 ways to have an epic life — the greatness of John Paul the Great by John White
April 22: John Paul II, Abortion, and Democracy by Carson Holloway
April 23: JP2 on the New Feminism: Be Not Afraid by Pia de Solenni