When we hear the word “idolatry,” we probably think first of a golden calf and pagan worship. But idolatry, giving the reverence and devotion owed to God to something created instead, is actually a much more commonplace sin. In fact, the Catechism warns us that idolatry “remains a constant temptation of faith.”
Idolatry can be a particular problem in politics, which is too often portrayed and practiced as if it is the solution to all problems and a font of salvation. In a society where belief in God and his promises is declining, people put their hope in other things, including the hope that the kingdom of heaven can be legislated into existence, or brought about by some revolution.
When this happens, concepts like “equality,” “rights,” and “liberty” are divinized as idols, objects worthy of absolute devotion in their own right. We must remember, however, that these concepts are good only when understood as part of a broader, integrated vision of the person and society. Otherwise, these political idols become harmful and destructive ideologies.
Autonomy and abortion
Political idolatry is plainly illustrated in abortion politics, where many abortion advocates cite the absoluteness of a woman’s “autonomy” as the justification for the crime. A disordered attachment to an abstract political conviction compels abortion advocates to literally sacrifice unborn children at the altar of “autonomy.”
Of course, individual autonomy and privacy are not bad in themselves. The problem is that “autonomy” has become a golden calf for abortion advocates. They mistakenly treat it as an end unto itself, a self-contained truth.
But in order to be true, autonomy must be understood in the fuller context of God’s plan for the human person and society, where freedom is a gift meant for developing our powers, living our vocation, and serving others—not as an immunity from responsibility. Autonomy, or any other political value, can never be used as a justification for violating human dignity and trampling on the common good.
Avoiding pro-life political idolatry
Lest we get self-righteous, even pro-life advocates can become victims of political idolatry. We cannot isolate the truth of the evil of abortion from other truths, nor can we treat the mission of ending legal abortion as a god that must be served through whatever means necessary.
For instance, in combatting legal abortion, one might resort to unethical and immoral tactics to score political points. One might demonize abortion advocates as not just wrong, but as fundamentally and irreparably evil. And one might be too easily satisfied by headline-grabbing legislation or speeches that provide a sort of emotional rush, but don’t actually accomplish anything except stirring up activists and donors.
Integrated vision is the key
Experience continues to show that the success the pro-life movement has enjoyed has not come about by turning abortion into a partisan issue. Instead of shrill screams and publicity stunts, it’s been an integrated vision that connects the push to end legal abortion with a broader and consistent ethic of life that has won hearts and minds, leading to legislative breakthroughs and changes in public opinion.
For instance, the theme of this year’s national March for Life is “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand in Hand.” This approach deftly counters the “War on Women” rhetoric by correctly tying the dignity of unborn human life to the dignity of the mother. Both babies and women are better off when we choose life and support both mother and child.
By locating the wickedness of abortion within a larger conversation about human dignity, and by focusing on helping actual persons with real needs and challenges rather than merely attacking a court decision, we can avoid political idolatry and contribute to an integrated understanding of human life that is more complete, more Catholic, and more winsome.