Several election cycles ago, I took my video crew over to Rome and interviewed several highly-placed Vatican officials about the upcoming Presidential election in the United States, in the light of Church teaching. One of the most significant of such interviews was with the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, His Eminence Cardinal Renato Martino. This is the office in Vatican which officially oversees social teaching and action within the Catholic Church throughout the world.

It was under the guidance of Cardinal Martino that the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” was brought to completion and presented to Pope St. John Paul II for approval and publication. This document, which is really a book, is the most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of the Church’s social teaching, and contains an entire chapter titled “Safeguarding the Environment” as well as commentary on the rights of immigrants.

In the interview, Cardinal Martino pointed out that the entire advocacy of the Church, whether on immigration, the environment, or anything else affecting human rights, rests on the foundation of the right to life. He stated, “The Holy Father speaks of the protection of life as the fundamental realization and respect for human rights. Without that realization, without that respect for the right to life, no other discussion of human rights can continue; it must be based upon the foundation of human dignity and the right to life.”

I also interviewed Cardinal John Foley, who was President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and he expressed it most succinctly by saying, “If we don’t have life, we don’t have anything!”

Both of these cardinals made reference to a very strong statement of Pope St. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation “Christifideles Laici” (1988) where he writes in section 38, “Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”

We encounter in all these quotes an inescapable truth that does not change from generation to generation or from pontificate to pontificate, and it is that any credible defense of human rights has as its foundation the right to life itself. Therefore, anyone who fails to affirm the right to life has compromised and tainted his or her stance on every other human rights issue.

Pope St. John Paul II used the words “false and illusory” to characterize the all too common advocacy of human rights by those who favor legal abortion.

One of the recent public examples of this was the letter that Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro wrote on August 12, 2015 to Pope Francis in anticipation of his September U.S. visit and address to Congress.

DeLauro and some 93 of her colleagues signed this letter and, in a profoundly hollow and self-contradictory fashion, praise the Pope’s “solidarity with the poor and the marginalized,” and then go on to urge him to address a litany of social problems, with no mention at all about the violence of abortion. Of course they don’t mention abortion, because all of the signers have a pro-abortion voting record!

“False and illusory” — why? Because our rights are human rights precisely because we are humans, and not because a court or Congress awards them to us. When the right to life, then, is recognized only for some humans, and not for all, then every human right is weakened in the same way, precisely by disconnecting those rights from the fact that the one who possesses them is “human.”

It is on these very same grounds that the United States bishops, in a document issued by the entire body, stated the following:

“Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life.

But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.” (Living the Gospel of Life, n. 23, 1998)

There are many issues, but some are more important than others. The right to life is like the foundation of a house. It holds up every other issue, because it is the principle at the heart and core of every effort for justice and peace.

Most disagreements between candidates and political platforms do not have to do with principle, but rather with policy. For example, it is a basic principle that immigrants are persons and must be treated as such. We don’t see candidates campaigning on opposite sides of that principle, with some saying, “Protect Immigrants” and other defending “The Right to Kill Immigrants.”

Instead, there is agreement on the principle, but disagreement on the best policies to implement the principle. One voter concludes that one candidate has a better policy on immigration than his opponent, while a second voter concludes the opposite. Both can vote in good conscience, because as long as the policy doesn’t break the principle, both policies may well be morally legitimate. It remains to be seen by trial and error which works best.

But when a policy dispute involves questioning whether people deserve protection in the first place, the policy is the principle. To allow abortion, which is the killing of a human child in the womb, is to break the principle that every human life is sacred and to deny the principle that life deserves protection.

And when we do that, we hinder the progress of all social justice. How can we build a society that will feed the hungry if we cannot feed our own children?

How can we build a society that will welcome the stranger across the borders of our nation if we fail to welcome the child across the border of the womb?

How can we make the environment safe for all if we cannot insure the safety of our first environment, the womb?

And how can we maintain peace between nations if we cannot maintain peace between a mother and the child within her?