As the 2020 elections go down to the wire, the argument about how Catholics should respond is only getting more vigorous.

That debate was already previewed at last fall’s meeting of the U.S. bishops, when the episcopate issued a letter declaring that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority.” That language was challenged by several bishops, including Chicago’s Cardinal Blaise Cupich and San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy, who suggested the formulation inclined toward a one-issue politics and was not in keeping with “the magisterium of Pope Francis.” 

The effort to change the language failed 69-143, which indicates one-third of the American hierarchy sympathized with the Cupich-McElroy position.

One could point out that Cardinal Cupich’s characterization is wrong: there is no “Pope Francis magisterium” as contrasted, say, to a “Pope Benedict magisterium” or a “Pope Peter magisterium.” There is one Catholic magisterium.

One could also note that, contrary to Bishop McElroy’s claims that the bishops were downplaying other life issues, the bishops also note “At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

Let us, however, look to Vatican II.

The Second Vatican Council addresses abortion by name — along with infanticide — in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes. What the bishops of the whole world adopted 55 years ago is remarkably in line with what the Catholic bishops of the United States adopted, minus the Cupich-McElroy effort at dilution.

Gaudium et spes, addressed “to the whole of humanity,” mentions “abortion and infanticide” twice. 

In no. 27, the Council condemns three sets of wrongs: wrongs “opposed to life itself,” wrongs that “violate the integrity of the human person,” and wrongs that “insult human dignity.” Among wrongs opposed to life itself: “murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction.” Note that the last three are now considered “rights” in many jurisdictions arrogating the name “liberal democracy.” Among wrongs opposed to human integrity are “mutilation, torment[ing] … the body or mind, [and] attempts to coerce the will itself.” These violations of personal integrity basically encompass bodily mutilation and torture. Among the wrongs “insult[ing] human dignity” are “subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, as well as disgraceful working conditions.” All these wrongs “are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”

On the surface, no. 29 of Gaudium et spes might look like a precursor of Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” ethic. Closer inspection shows, however, critical differences.

While recognizing a variety of offenses against life, the person and human dignity, the Council does not conflate them. The offenses that leave you dead, i.e., incapable of enjoying any other rights, are clearly grouped first: as bad as “disgraceful working conditions” might be, being dead is worse. The dignity of the murdered cannot be further violated by “subhuman living conditions,” because they are not living. Arbitrary imprisonment is bad, but genocide is worse. Perhaps the closest nexus here is that the organs and cadavers of the aborted are in fact sold by some of America’s leading abortionists.

In a perfect world, there would be no “supreme dishonor to the Creator.” That perfect world will not exist until the Second Coming. Before that Last Day, there will be “subhuman … conditions,” but Gaudium et spes certainly provides no warrant to conflate them with offenses against life itself.

The second reference to abortion in Gaudium et spes makes the preeminence of the gravity of offenses against young and innocent life crystal clear. In no. 51, the Council teaches unequivocally that “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” And that teaching stands on its own, not surrounded by any other qualifications about socio-economic conditions or even torture or mutilation. The killing of human life before or just after birth is labeled clearly: “unspeakable crimes.” 

 “Unspeakable crimes.” Not a right. Not, as Nancy Pelosi claims, “sacred ground.” Not a “crime I personally oppose but don’t believe should have a public stigma.” “Unspeakable crimes.”

Another thing that Vatican II made its own, and which all the popes since have emphasized, is reading the “signs of the times.” Vatican II read those signs, addressing abortion in 1965 as the liberalization effort was gaining ground in North America and abortion was already legal in much of the Communist world, Japan and Denmark. 

If the Catholic bishops of the United States are also reading the signs of the times, they can hardly escape the reality of more than 60 million abortions since 1973. They cannot evade the fact that powerful social forces no longer consider abortion a “necessary evil” but a positive good. They cannot ignore that instead of making abortion “safe, legal and rare,” some are calling for Americans to “shout their abortions” and pushing for taxpayers to pay for them. Those evils — those “unspeakable crimes” — are immediate and have immediate consequences … every 37 seconds, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 366 days per year.

A Catholic who claims to be a “Vatican II Catholic” cannot ignore the explicit teaching of an ecumenical council directed to “the whole human family.” He cannot pretend that this is just “one issue among many” or that the clear magisterium of the Church says otherwise. 

The 2020 elections will determine not just the presidency but control of Congress and state legislatures. The administration elected in 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2023. Will it be marked as a civil rights tragedy that read a whole class of human beings out of the Constitution … or a triumph?

The defense of life is clearly the “preeminent issue” for Vatican II. Is it for Catholic voters?