Thursday, August 25, 2005

Catholics and Abortion

As I've written elsewhere, I'm pro-choice. I arrived at that position reluctantly, given the moral and legal ambiguities involved. This most difficult policy choice must be even more troubling for those whose thinking is guided by certain religious doctrines.

In particular, the contradiction of Catholics who profess to be pro-choice has interested me for some time, especially since John Kerry claimed in 2004 to be pro-choice but to believe that life begins at conception. This was obviously the act of a cynical politician who hoped to present himself as an observant Catholic while pandering to a significant pro-choice constituency. Nonetheless, it illustrates the contradictory beliefs of pro-choice Catholics.

My interest was piqued again with the succession of Benedict XVI to the papacy. As I listened to expressions of dismay among some Catholics that this new pope was unlikely to be more "liberal" than his predecessors, I had to wonder about the logic of their expectations, particularly on the issue of abortion.

Let's consider the facts about the authority of the Catholic Church and its position on abortion. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,

The Church and the supreme pontiff are endowed by God with the privilege of infallibility in discharge of the duty of universal teacher in the sphere of faith and morals; hence we have an infallible testimony that the dogmas defined and delivered to us by the Church are the truths contained in Divine revelation.

More specifically on papal infallibility, each pope, the successor of Peter, enjoys

...infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.

Reinforcing the 2,000 year old teachings of scripture and the Church, in 1995 Pope John Paul II declared that the Church's teaching on abortion unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors...I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church's tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.

Not only is abortion a sin for Catholics, it's heresy punishable by excommunication. Again the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Pertinacious adhesion to a doctrine contradictory to a point of faith clearly defined by the Church is heresy pure and simple, heresy in the first degree. ... [The penalty is] Excommunication...which is incurred by all apostates from the Catholic Faith, by each and all heretics...and by all who believe in them...or in any way defend them.

How, then, does one claim to be Catholic and also pro-choice? Despite shallow modernist thinking to the contrary, there can't be any such thing as a "cafeteria Catholic." It isn't possible to go down a menu of Church doctrine and say, "I'll take one of these and two of those, but I don't want any of that."

It's unclear how some Catholics manage to twist reason and logic to arrive at a position so antithetical to the teachings of their Church. Not being religious, perhaps I'm ill-equipped to understand their coping mechanisms. However, it's difficult to understand why a Catholic confronted with this dilemma wouldn't either conform to Church doctrine or find a more hospitable form of religion.


Anonymous Adam said...

I'm not Catholic, but to me it doesn't seem difficult to be a "cafeteria catholic." You would just reject the notion of papal infallibility but at the same time believe that the Catholic Church has a greater concentration of truth than say Protestantism. You might also consider it a more beautiful religion in that you like the feasts, the saints, the pageanty and its long history.

That technically you would be considered a heretic doesn't bother you because you recognize the excesses of the religion. In other words, you lean more Catholic than you do anything else, attend mass, etc. so you are thus Catholic. Maybe not a strict Catholic, but Catholic nonetheless.

10:30 AM, August 25, 2005  
Anonymous Kevin said...

How then does one claim to be Catholic and endorse or otherwise fail to oppose birth control, divorce laws, eating meat on Fridays, etc?

If Kerry is a cynical politician who hoped to present himself as an observant Catholic while pandering for votes then there are a whole host of other Catholic politicians on both sides of the aisle who are damned by the very same criteria you're using to damn Kerry.

A Catholic Nun addressed the issue here.

11:06 AM, August 25, 2005  
Blogger carla said...

How does Bush claim to be a Christian...while virtually ignoring the poor, undermining the nation's strength with tax cuts (render unto Caesar), perpetuating the death penalty, perpetuating unnecessary war and supporting religions permeation into government?

I don't get how it's so easy for you to criticize Kerry..while ignoring Bush for doing exactly the same thing.

2:22 PM, August 25, 2005  
Anonymous howard said...

Carla's observation strikes a chord with me. I think the same sort of inconsistency you note in Kerry is also there in Bush; the only difference is that Bush comes from a Protestant background, where inconsistency blends in a little better.

That doesn't excuse in any way his ignorance of Christian doctrines, but it does to some degree explain why an evangelical (i.e. President Bush) can get away with it more easily.

2:37 AM, August 26, 2005  
Anonymous howard said...

On the other hand, it may be possible to believe that religion is a mandate on the person, but not necessarily on the government. That is to say, "my religion teaches doctrine X, and I personally abide by that doctrine. However, as the Christian faith also embraces the doctrine of free will, I don't necessarily believe that everything declared sinful in my religious doctrine should be legally outlawed."

It is a legitimate argument to make in certain areas of theology, though I personally still don't agree with the myriad inconsistencies in either George Bush or John Kerry.

2:52 AM, August 26, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

The post was a narrowly-drawn discussion of the dilemma Catholics face in dealing with the issue of abortion. There are, of course, a virtually unlimited number of other interesting issues at the nexus of public policy and religion. The issues of Catholics and abortion is the most interesting of these because of the singular significance of abortion in American politics and the nature and rigid authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

When reduced to its essence, the central political and theological issue in abortion politics is the question of when life begins. If you believe life begins at conception, then abortion is a form of murder, and adroit intellectual calisthenics cannot change that fact. Moreover, if you are a Catholic you cannot remain within the limits of Church doctrine and support laws that permit abortion, nor can you support and defend others who favor such laws. As Pope John Paul II said with complete clarity, No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit....

The article Kevin linked to above is worth reading. However, it's an extended quibble that serves as a good example of how Catholics pirouette around points of Church law to justify breaking it.

I used the example of Kerry's magnificent contradiction because it's the best example I can think of involving a publicly known person. In claiming to believe that life begins at conception, he was trying to show that he's a good Catholic; in being pro-choice and supporting laws that permit abortion, he was being a good Democrat. Blithely ignoring the contradiction makes him either cynical and self-serving or too stupid to understand what he was doing. Whatever I may think of Kerry, I don't think he's stupid.

As far as equal criticism of Bush is concerned, I'm not stuck in a freeze-frame of 2004. The election is over, and neither Bush nor Kerry is a candidate. Of course Bush and his protestant beliefs contrasted to his actions is a subject of legitimate discussion. That just wasn't the subject of this post.

For me, the most interesting and difficult question involving religion and politics simultaneously is that of Catholics and abortion. One must look no further than current statements, whispers, and suspicions about Judge John Roberts, a practicing devout Catholic who was educated at Holy Cross, a prestigious Jesuit institution. It may be handled gently by some, but the issue of his Catholicism and his stance on abortion will be the single most important issue in his confirmation hearings. That's one reason this topic is both interesting and current.

4:30 AM, August 26, 2005  
Anonymous kevin said...

So it seems that we're back at the same nexus America was at when considering whether to elect JFK president? I mean, how can we tolerate a politician or judge who's first loyalty is to the decrees of the Pope and only after satisfying that criteria does he/she consider pesky things like the constitution or case law?

If a Catholic politician who doesn't obey every single Papal decree, as a matter of American public policy, is "a cynical politician" then I don't see any way around the fact that we must then consider the advisability of even electing Catholics. Either that or relegate the constitution to that of merely an advisory document that can be disregarded if it conflicts with Papal decrees.

10:09 AM, August 26, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Kevin, once again you've smacked the nail right on the head. I'm sure Henry VIII is smiling in his grave.

Aside from theoretical discussion, though, I don't think there's any realistic need for concern about Catholics serving as elected officials and judges. No doubt they sometimes face the kinds of personal conflicts we've discussed here, but I think JFK adequately addressed the issue in his September 1962 speech. I think his words represent the feelings of virtually all Americans who would be public officials, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, and it's good enough for me:

I do not speak for my church on public matters--and the church does not speak for me.

Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come--and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible--when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

11:36 AM, August 26, 2005  
Anonymous Kevin said...

I'm a little confused here, Tom. Are you saying that JFK was a "cynical politician" too?

It seems to me that you're holding Kennedy and Kerry to different standards. What am I missing?

12:00 PM, August 26, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Kevin, you're stretching for this one. JFK didn't attempt to superficially reinforce his image as a religious believer, thinking it would help him with "values" voters, while at the same time saying something directly contradictory to maintain his position with another group of voters. That is, indeed, cynical and self-serving.

12:11 PM, August 26, 2005  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Tom, Kerry's position on abortion has been very well known for many years. Aren't you implying that "values voters" might have been too stupid or ignorant to have known this and thus were susceptible to being tricked into voting for Kerry because he was out about being a Catholic?

Of course, if those "values voters" were the same Bush supporters that PIPA polled as being profoundly ignorant about basic facts of the 9/11 attacks then perhaps you have a point...

1:37 PM, August 26, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I suppose they don't support my lifestyle choices either!
I do what I will with my life,
No church will dictate to me my choices in life.

3:40 PM, August 26, 2005  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

Tom, I agree that the question is certainly timely.

In practice, Catholics must often exercise their individual consciences. All evidence shows that in America they do, or there would be a whole lot more little Catholics.

With respect to Supreme Court justices, you are really bringing up a far more expansive point. That is, should any individual judge's conscience be set over the wording of the constitution? Let us remember that the duty of a judge is supposed to be to enforce and interpret law, not to be a priest handing down the guidelines for moral living from Mount DC.

One thing that all people with consciences and moral scruples encounter is the reality of daily living. Demands that an individual may put upon himself are not necessarily demands that would produce a good effect if imposed upon society as a whole unless society as a whole shared the same moral convictions.

There are many things that I feel that are morally wrong, so I don't do them. For instance, part of my particular religious/ethical background is that you do not ever pursue a legal claim against a person for an injury done solely to you, and also never for an accidental one.

I do not advocate such a law because while that social compact is indeed very beneficial among people restricted by their consciences, it will not work in practice for people who are not restricted by their consciences. There is an additional religious rationale for why I should not pursue a legal claim against a person who is acting unjustly, but I am not at all sure that I can fairly impose that burden upon a person who does not see the world as I do. I am pretty sure that it would embolden the reckless and the irresponsible, in fact.

Look, obviously you joined up and served because you thought it was the right thing to do. Drafting a person who did not feel the same impulses and making them spend 20 years living your life would almost certainly not produce a career similar to yours.

One of the reasons that democracies work is because they allow us to pick paths in which we truly believe and therefore be more effective as we live our lives. There is an inner/outer element to duty and trying to do right which can't be safely disrupted. I am not sure that Kerry is being disingenuous in his position.

Another example of Catholic teachings which conflict with the Constitution is the death penalty. It is possible for a Catholic judge to simply say "the Constitution does not bar the practice" without running afoul of his religious principles, because being a lawyer or a judge involves working within an external, objective system rather than designing it.

To extend the argument that a Catholic judge must try to legislate from the bench to ban abortion is really the same thing as saying that a Catholic judge must solemnly mandate from the bench that every American must be baptized and accept salvation. At that point the ridiculous nature of the anti-Catholic argument becomes clear.

Furthermore, in practice the Supreme Court doesn't regulate abortion. It can no more outlaw abortion than it can outlaw smoking. It is not even clear that social disapproval of abortions wouldn't and doesn't stop more abortions than any laws would, because believe me, surgical abortions are not the only route and never have been.

3:45 PM, August 26, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom -

I was brought up a pre-Vatican II Catholic and I understand perfectly how Catholics reconcile their moral decisions with the teachings of the Church: hypocrisy. It's unacceptable to say "the Church is wrong on X" so people pay lip service but do what they choose anyway. This can involve spectacular feats of mental gymnastics, as in "abortion is wrong, but my case is special."

I sympathize with the struggles my parents and grandparents had with these issues. They lived with the consequences of their choices - living in poverty because they had too many children to support; a mother and daughter dying in childbirth within weeks of each other.

The Catholic Church is a cruel, bloody-minded oppressor of the poor and uneducated. The sooner this vestige of medieval superstition fades away, the better.

Buffalo Gal

10:14 AM, August 27, 2005  
Anonymous jello said...

no argument from me that kerry was a big fat phony, on more issues than this one. should have been obvious to anyone who paid attention. but that's who the republicans picked to be the nominee. the iowa caucus is an open one where republicans are allowed to vote in the democratic primary. the momentum gained by the iowa win kicks off a lemming effect. kerry certainly wasn't the best the party could have offered.

watch this process be repeated in the next go around when iowan republicans pick hillary to be the democratic nominee.

1:03 PM, August 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The unacknowledged assumption that runs through this whole discussion is that a religious person must have no doubt that his particular religion is correct in every aspect. That is, if Kerry is a good Catholic he must not even entertain the idea that his church might be wrong regardless of what he believes. This allows all kinds of behavior from religious people. For example, a suicide bomber obviously has no doubt that his actions and religion are absolutely correct, this is self-consistent behavior. The torturers of the Spanish inquisition had the same belief that justified their actions. They believed if a heretic died without confessing they would be sent to hell, and so all tortures are justified. Obviously even if you are religious you have to act with the idea that your deepest beliefs may be wrong. That's the only way to live in a lawful society. So I find Kerry's refusal to try to outlaw abortion as a brave and civilized stance. He said that while he personally believed abortion was wrong it would be wrong to outlaw it. He correctly noted that if he was wrong in the belief that fetuses are morally equivalent to babies he would be fighting against the right of millions of women to control their bodies. We have a secular society and a secular government, we should cherish the freedoms we derive from both, not denounce the tolerant for their "insincerity." After all, in the 150-odd years since the pope declared abortion, and all contraception, mortal sins the Catholic Church has not convinced American Catholics to stop aborting, they seek abortions at the same rate as protestant or agnostic women. Religion shouldn't use the government to enforce religious rules, the result is always tyranny. (Saudi Arabia, Spain in the 1500s, etc)

3:22 PM, August 28, 2005  
Anonymous jello said...

So I find Kerry's refusal to try to outlaw abortion as a brave and civilized stance.

quite an elegant defense, anon, but how do you explain kerry voting to confirm anton scalia whom he knew to be hostile to a woman's right to choose?

4:06 PM, August 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just because I support Kerry's public stance on abortion and object to the Catholic Churches heavy-handed attempt at interference in American politics does not mean that I think Kerry is perfect. Like all politicians he has made several regrettable compromises on his principles. A friend of mine once said that the reason senators are hardly ever elected president is that being a senator requires so much compromise and "flip-flopping." A lot of trading goes on in the senate: "I'll back your candidate if you support my transportation bill" that sort of thing. Bush betrays his principles all the time. In politics you generally have to vote for the lesser of two evils, people who pretend otherwise are ignoring or hiding their favorite candidate’s flaws.

For a good example of this trading read this article:

10:08 AM, August 29, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks tom i used what you said and the quotes in a r.e assignment about the catholics veiw on abortion

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