I often here pro-life people say that those who promote abortion, have abortions, or provide abortions “aren’t bad people.” “They mean well,” it’s said, “but they don’t understand the error of their ways.”
I agree, that may be so in some cases. We’ve all heard stories of people who genuinely had no idea what abortion actually involves and who stopped supporting it once they found out. We all know, however, that plenty of people on the pro-abortion side know perfectly well the thing they do.
So, when, almost reflexively, we hear ourselves say, “They’re not bad people,” or “They’re good people,” we might stop to ask ourselves whether that’s really true. What does it mean, after all, to be a good person or to be a bad person?
Pope St. John Paul II insisted that the moral quality of the acts we freely consent to perform determine our personal moral character. This is a technical way of saying that a good person is a person who performs good acts and a bad person is a person who performs bad acts. Advocating for something is a kind of act, as is promoting something on the one hand, or condemning and suppressing something on the other. So, on this basis, we can say that those who perform abortions, have abortions, promote abortions, or provide the means to obtain them or to support them, are bad people inasmuch as these are all bad acts. To undertake any of these acts knowingly and willingly is to become a bad person.
John Paul II’s position here is completely consistent with the constant teaching and tradition of the Church. He was insistent on this teaching because he saw that numerous moral theories (many of which he condemns as inconsistent with Catholic teaching in Veritatis splendor) disconnect the moral quality of the thing done from the moral character of the person who does it. Catholic teaching recognizes that there is always some relationship between the two. If I choose a bad thing, I choose to be bad.
Now, a person can object to John Paul II’s formula here and say that people are complicated. We’re not one thing or the other. We’re not all good or all bad, because the same person can perform any number of good acts here and bad acts there.
True enough. But that objection rests upon a false assumption, namely, that if the quality of a person’s acts determines a person’s moral character, then each act has an equal effect on the person’s character. This view is a variant of Fundamental Option Theory, which John Paul II also condemned in Veritatis splendor. It amounts to a form of Pelagianism, wherein a person’s acts are aggregated over the course of his or her life to determine whether the person was on the good side or the bad side of things. Did the person mostly choose the good and God, who is the author of good, or did the person mostly choose evil? The answer to that question determines the person’s “fundamental option,” and it’s thus the definitive assessment of the person’s moral character.
John Paul II doesn’t think that way at all. Rather, he says that a person’s acts, once performed, don’t just disappear into the past. They remain a defining element of the person’s moral character. In each and every moral choice, a person confesses through his or her action what he or she most fundamentally values. Is it the good? Is it God? Or, on the other hand, is it this act, which is not compatible with God and can’t coexist with God in the same set of values?
On this model, it’s entirely possible to choose numerous intermediate goods that are compatible with God but also some other thing that isn’t. If we do that, our moral character isn’t really determined as good because of all the intermediate goods we chose but as evil because of the one, fundamentally defining choice of an evil object, which we preferred to God, and, only for that reason, moved away from God and toward that evil.
Once we understand this point, we can see very clearly why John Paul II was so insistent that penitents avoid resting on general statements of sin or selective, representative assertions of the kinds of things they’ve done. He maintained that the penitent is bound to confess each mortal sin in confession, repudiating it as such. His point is that we can’t hold on to one set of sins, nor even to a single particular sin, and claim, then, to turn back to God because we’ve decided that we don’t want to see ourselves as sinners. We need conversion of heart. And that means resolving, however unconfidently as weak and fallen human beings, to leave every sin behind and turn back to God as the unifying good we value above all else.
So, if we choose bad things, if we do bad things, if we promote bad things, if we support bad things, if we help people do bad things, we’re bad people. We might be bad people who do a lot of good things. We can even be interesting conversationalists with lots of friends. But our values, confessed in our acts, are fundamentally disordered. If that’s the case, we’re not good people.
Those on the pro-abortion side of the debate, then, if they’re informed, are bad people. Those on the pro-life side might also be bad people, of course, because they, too, might have their irreconcilable differences with God. But that’s a separate question. We’d have to look further than the question of abortion to determine that a pro-life person is a bad person. We don’t have to do that with a pro-abortion person. Abortion is evil, so advocating for it or participating in it makes you a bad person.