But numbers can also be uncompromising. They force us to confront realities that can be dizzying, unavoidable and downright unwelcome. Someone who's seen the numbers no longer has plausible deniability.
In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops similarly hold up six areas that often have unpleasant realities -- and equally unpleasant numbers -- associated with them. These are the issues, they say, that should carry special weight with the voting Catholic's conscience:
- Abortion and threats to the lives and dignity of the vulnerable, sick or unwanted
- Efforts to force Catholic health care, education and social services to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need
- Efforts to redefine the institution of marriage
- The economic crisis, unemployment, poverty, and addressing debt in ways that protectpoor persons
- A broken immigration system
- Moral questions raised by war, terror and violence, and the need for peace, particularly in the Middle East
Each of these areas simultaneously meshes and clashes with different political persuasions and cultural assumptions in the United States. And each of these can be subsequently aggrandized or rationalized away to suit these political and cultural preferences. This is why the bishops call on Catholics to form their consciences -- through prayer and reflecting on Scripture and Catholic teaching, but also by studying the issues.
On that last point, it's amazing what a few numbers will do.
On the direct taking of innocent human life, there's the estimated 53 million abortions that have occurred since Roe v. Wade legalized it in 1973. There's also the rather abrupt zero for the number of treatments for "incurable" diseases that have been developed with stem cells harvested from human embryos that were destroyed to obtain them. (Conversely, the number developed using adult stem cells, which cause no harm to the stem cell donor, is 73.)
On the question of giving Catholic institutions the choice between violating their consciences or going out of business, the number that most vividly illustrates the impact this would have on society is probably 1 in 6, the number of the total people hospitalized in the United States every year who are cared for in a Catholic hospital.
Looking at the care provided by Catholic charities, there's housing services to 497,732 people, adoption services to 38,829, addiction services to 81,866, pregnancy services to 93,542, not to mention 110,268 home delivered meals and 1,420,492 fed in soup kitchens.
On the bishops's promotion and defense of marriage, the most significant statistic is probably that children in single-parent families comprise 27 percent of all American children, yet they count for 62 percent of all poor children.
Bridging into poverty, there's the fact that 16.2 million U.S. children live in homes that can't provide enough food for all their members at some point during the year. There's the official U.S. poverty rate of 15.1 percent, the highest it's been in 17 years. There's the 10 months that the average unemployed or underemployed person spends looking for work.
Speaking of the economy, there's also the estimated $7 billion that undocumented immigrants pay into Social Security annually since it's believed that 50-75 percent of them pay federal, state and local taxes.
Finally, in international justice and peace, there's the fact that 90 percent of people killed or maimed by landmines and cluster munitions are non-military civilians. Additionally, 30-40 percent of landmine victims are children. There's also the 1 percent of the federal budget that goes to international aid or the 0.5 percent that goes to poverty-focused assistance. There are the 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, or 700 launchers, in the hands of both the United States and Russia seven years after the ratification of the New START Treaty. And there are the over 10,000 people killed as a result of violence in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain last year.
After a while, numbers start to run together, and so often they only tell part of the story ("There are lies, damned lies and statistics," the saying goes). However, the issues raised by the bishops in their call to political responsibility have real human dimensions and statistical realities behind them that should prompt Catholics to do their homework and adjust their consciences accordingly.
(Sources by paragraph: 1. Guttmacher Institute; USCCB Pro-Life Activities; www.stemcellresearch.org; 2. Catholic Health Association; 3. Catholic Charities USA report; 4. Marriage Unique for a Reason; 5. USDA; USCCB Justice, Peace and Human Development; 6. USCCB Migration and Refugee Services; 7. USCCB Justice Peace and Human Development; New York Times; The Economist; UNHCR; Iraq Body Count database.)