Interview with Ángel Rodríguez Luño, Professor of
ROME, 3 OCT. 2002 (ZENIT).
Is it morally justifiable to vote for or promote a law that accepts
abortion with restrictions, as an alternative to a more-permissive law
already in force or about to be voted on?
This question has profoundly concerned Christian and non-Christian
politicians and lawmakers over the last decades.
Ángel Rodríguez Luño, professor of moral theology at the Pontifical
University of the Holy Cross in Rome, responded to this question in an
article ["Evangelium vitae 73: The
Catholic Lawmaker and the Problem of a Seriously Unjust Law"]
in the Sept. 6 Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano. He asked
theologians to help people to understand the fundamental question.
Here, he took up the topic with ZENIT.
Q: Voting for a law that accepts abortion partially, even if it improves
the situation, has been criticized by some pro-lifers. They believe that
abortion is so evil that no exception to its rejection is possible. How
do you reply to this criticism?
Rodríguez Luño: What I think and what I have written, is completely in
agreement with what is affirmed in this question. A law that legalizes
abortion, even if it is for fewer cases than another, is a gravely
unjust law, for which no Catholic can vote in favor, and in whose
application there can be no formal cooperation and no type of immediate
What No 73 of the encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" says is
something very different, namely: If a member of a legislative assembly
who is totally opposed to abortion cannot completely abrogate a gravely
unjust law, but can abrogate it partially, he can and in general must do
so, so long as it does not cause scandal, and he does not make himself
responsible for unjust legislative dispositions remaining in force,
which he does not succeed in abrogating.
An example will clarify it. Let us think of the legislative assembly of
a country, in which a very permissive law of abortion is in force. That
assembly has 100 parliamentarians, divided in three groups.
Group A, with 40 members, accepts the current law and does not want to
change it for any reason at all.
Group B, with 30 members, thinks that abortion should be legal in some
cases, but regards the current law as too permissive and in need of
modification; however, B is not willing to approve a law that prohibits
any type of abortion.
Group C, with 30 members, is opposed to any type of abortion. If in such
a situation, a few parliamentarians of group C, who are Catholics,
present a motion to the assembly that abrogates all the articles of the
law in force to date that those of group B are willing to eliminate, in
such a way that if it is approved abortion in many cases will be
illegal, which up until now were legal, although it will continue to be
legal in very restricted cases, the parliamentarians of group C—who
are Catholics—have before them three possible ways to act: to vote
against the motion, to abstain, or to vote in favor.
If they vote against the motion, they are responsible for the very
permissive law continuing in force, and this is not acceptable for
If they abstain, the motion for abrogation does not get a majority and
is not approved and, consequently, they become responsible in some way
for the very permissive law continuing in force, which is not morally
If they vote in favor of the motion, the latter gets the necessary
majority vote, the previous law remains partially abrogated, and the
resulting new law is far more strict.
What I have written on the basis of what "Evangelium Vitae,"
No. 73, has said is that parliamentarians who have presented the motion
for abrogation have acted well, and are morally correct, and that
Catholics of group C may, and generally must, vote in favor of the
motion for abrogation, so long as their position of complete opposition
to any form of abortion remains clear.
And, the foundation of the moral judgment contained in No. 73 of the
encyclical is not that the more restrictive law is acceptable to
Catholic morality. This is not the case. It is about a gravely unjust
law, with which it is not possible to collaborate in any way.
The foundation of the moral judgment of "Evangelium Vitae" is
that the moral object of the action of the parliamentarians who have
presented the motion for abrogation, and that of the action of the
totality of group C, is not to uphold the articles that remain in force
and which they do not have the possibility of abrogating. Rather, the
moral object of their action—"what they really do"—is only
to abrogate the articles of the previous law that it is possible to
abrogate, and to avoid upholding with their vote the previous, more
permissive law. This is not collaboration with a pro-abortion law—it
is not "cooperation in doing evil"—but the exercise of the
duty to abrogate, to the degree possible, a gravely unjust law.
To say it even more graphically: The parliamentary majority that
supports the articles of the previous law that are still in force, after
the approval of the motion for abrogation, is made up of group A and
group B, that is, 40 plus 30. The parliamentary majority that has
abrogated the most permissive articles is made up of group B and group C—that
is, 30 plus 30. Group C, which includes the Catholic parliamentarians,
is only responsible for the abrogation of some articles, namely, of
having eliminated everything that they could eliminate, and that what
they could not eliminate did not continue in force.
This is the first case of the three contemplated in my article. The
other two are different, but the moral principle according to which they
are resolved is the same. The moral reasoning I have proposed must be
read with great care, because it is a difficult and delicate question.
Q: How can we avoid the danger of a growing laxity with the passing of
time if we accept the possibility of approving imperfect laws?
Rodríguez Luño: I have never used the expression, which I consider
unclear, of imperfect laws in my article. "Evangelium Vitae"
does not use that expression either.
Almost all the authors who used it put it in quotation marks, to
indicate that it is simply an abbreviated and easy way to refer to a
complex problem that everyone knows. In my article it only appears when
I quote two publications on the topic. In one, it is in quotation marks,
but not in the other. But the reading of that article quoted by me in a
note confirms what I say.
Going to the essence of the question, I clarify that the laws that some
call imperfect are, as results from my response to the first question,
simply unjust, more or less unjust, but unjust nevertheless. They are
not morally acceptable under any condition.
What I have proposed is an ensemble of criteria to keep the tension
alive and really effective, not only not to grow accustomed to evil, but
to go on eliminating it to the degree that it becomes possible to do so,
with the idea, of course, of eliminating it completely.
However, it cannot always be eliminated at once. It is worthwhile to
take progressive steps, so long as it can be done without becoming, in
fact, responsible for gravely unjust laws or actions.
Q: Who is responsible for judging if a specific law satisfies the
conditions expressed by the Pope in his encyclical?
Rodríguez Luño: What one tries to judge is not a law, but the real
meaning—the moral object—of the action of voting in some concrete
circumstances. I don't think that that judgment belongs to any one in
What one tries to do is to have the certainty that that action, in those
circumstances, is really an act of partial abrogation, and that the
voter does not make himself really responsible for what has not been
If a politician cannot come to that certainty, and has doubts, he can
ask the advice of sufficiently prepared persons to direct him with
This does not impede the bishop of the diocese or the episcopal
conference from considering that in a concrete case it is appropriate
that they themselves be the ones who give that judgment, for the peace
of conscience of all and to avoid confusion; in this case, that judgment
of the legitimate ecclesiastical authority is binding on the conscience
of a Catholic. However, in itself, I don't think it is a question of
authority or permission but of truth and certainty that that truth has
Q: Can we apply what "Evangelium Vitae" says to other fields,
such as genetic research?
Rodríguez Luño: In principle I see nothing wrong in applying it to
other fields, so long as it is well understood and that the moral
principle mentioned earlier is faithfully applied.
If an unjust law cannot be totally abrogated, it is generally right to
proceed to its partial abrogation, so long as it can be done without
giving scandal (which requires making one's way of acting
comprehensible) and without making oneself really responsible for
Q: What advice can you give politicians who must work in a secular state
where many do not accept the validity of Christian moral principles?
Rodríguez Luño: The question is too broad to be able to give a
complete answer. In my judgment, what is important is to be thoroughly
consistent with one's own Christian identity.
There are channels in democratic states for citizens to participate in
the election of political leaders and in the formation of sociopolitical
guidelines and of public opinion. Politicians and citizens who are
Catholics must use these channels—which are equally available to all
other citizens—to order social and political life according to
criteria that, in keeping with their well-formed Christian conscience,
contribute more and better to the common good of the country in which
In my opinion, what must be avoided is to let oneself be frightened by
slogans that do not hold up to rational examination, or to live with a
perpetual breaking down of conscience, a sort of mental schizophrenia,
according to which what they regard as good and necessary for the common
good is one thing, and what they consider good and necessary for the
common good in its public conduct is another quite different and even
If other citizens are not in agreement with the criteria of a Christian
conscience, Catholics should express their own reasons rigorously, and
engage in the same civil battle—using licit and legal means—for
their criteria, that others engage in for theirs.
This does not mean that all Catholics have, in fact, or should have the
same political ideas. On many political problems, various different
solutions are compatible with the Christian conscience, and each
Catholic will support what he thinks best. When I speak of consistency,
I am referring to consistency with what the Christian conscience
necessarily exacts or prohibits. ZE02100325