Monday, September 15, 2008

U.S. Catholic Bishops: "Playing Politics on Abortion"

Earlier this month Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, issued a response to the “fact sheet” on abortion released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

According to O’Brien, the bishops’ “fact sheet” reaffirms their “desire to place themselves at the center of the political discussion on abortion.” However, in doing so, “they do not reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching on abortion, nor do they represent what Catholics actually believe.”

Following is the text of O’Brien’s September 3 statement.


It is simply not true that the Roman Catholic church’s position on abortion has remained unchanged for 2,000 years. While members of the Catholic hierarchy have consistently opposed abortion, their reasons for doing so and the teachings they espoused to the faithful have varied continually.

In fact, in seeking to show a continuity in church teachings, the USCCB has shown the opposite: There is a big difference in “rejecting abortion” or stating that it is “gravely wrong,” as leaders in the early church did and the current situation where the bishops regard it as an “intrinsically evil act that can never be morally right.”

It is disingenuous, for example, for the USCCB to claim that the Didache (an early Christian document) reveals continuity in church teaching. The Didache was lost for more than a millennium and only rediscovered in the late 19th century. In the interim, many different positions on abortion emerged, were discarded, re-adopted and rejected again.

It is also telling that the USCCB omitted to mention that no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an “infallible” teaching. This means that there is much more room for debate than is usually thought, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views.

The reality that the bishops are trying to overcome is that the majority of Catholics do not agree with them on abortion, or on their role in political life.

In a recent poll by Belden Russonello and Stewart, 69 percent of Catholics said they were not obligated to vote against candidates who support abortion. Seven in ten (70%) said that the views of Catholic bishops are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote and a similarly large proportion (73%) says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend. These figures reflect a significant rejection of the bishops’ desire to play a prominent role in political life, and one that should be heeded by both candidates and voters.

Rather than seeking to claim continuity in Catholic teachings, the bishops would be better acknowledging the truth: as circumstances changed, so did the Catholic teaching. However, that is not the bishops’ way. Catholics are increasingly aware of this and have consequently rejected Catholic teachings on this and many other issues.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Bishops Get in Wrong on Biden - Jon O’Brien (
Catholics for Choice, September 10, 2008).
Study: Social Support Linked to Abortion Rate Drop - Tom Roberts (National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2008).
Pro-Choice Catholicism 101 - Jon O’Brien and Sara Morello (Conscience, Spring 2008).

When Does Human Personhood Begin? -
Feed the Sheep - Ad Dominum (September 19, 2008).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Church’s Teaching on Abortion: Unchanged and Unchangeable?
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)


Mark Andrews said...

This begs the question of if and when abortion can in any wise be seen as tolerable. If one form of human life is disposable, all forms are threatened.

If, for conversation's sake, I agreed with the assertion that Catholic teaching has changed on abortion (and I don't agree with this assertion), perhaps the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing, and leading the Church into all truth, starting with the bishops, about the intrinsic and inviolate value of innocent human life?

The Church's teaching on abortion is prophetic. The truth of prophecy is not judged based on how well it agrees with my conveniently held position.

Clayton said...

The Church's teaching on abortion is not a likely candidate for explicit proclamation as an infallible teaching. The teaching is based on natural law and reason and is, therefore, accessible to any person of good will... it doesn't require faith.

kevin57 said...

I have objections to the position of Catholics for Choice because they seem to be against any societal attempt to regulate abortion. I do think that it is well within the tradition of the faith to discuss abortion and the Church's current stand on this moral problem. It is odd that the same Church that has labelled Aquinas the premier theologian of the ages ignores his teaching on this issue. In this instance, it rejects the Aristotelian description of soul being joined to body. Moral theologians admit that the Church's current stand on no abortion, anytime, anywhere, is designed to protect human life because we are not "sure" of when it begins, so better to err on the side of life, even if that is a slim reality in certain circumstances. I understand and respect that.

But the time has come to have a mature conversation on this topic. The Church courageously asserted its teaching when nearly everyone else in the West was rejecting it (even the funnymentalists). Now, it may be tie for the Church to do some listening. Much of society is ready to listen to "some" restriction on basically unfettered access to abortion.

Anonymous said...

According to O’Brien, the bishops’ “fact sheet” reaffirms their “desire to place themselves at the center of the political discussion on abortion.” However, in doing so, “they do not reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching on abortion, nor do they represent what Catholics actually believe.”
Let me understand this Pro Choice person, says X number of Catholic Bishops jointly do not know the fullness of Catholic teaching on abortion.
If the US Catholic Bishops don't know the fullness of Catholic teaching on abortion, then how is it that Catholics in the US know more about abortion than these Bishops? Furthermore,
How does a minor exterior organization such as Catholics for Pro Choice content that they have more knowledge regarding abortion vs. the Catholic Faith of the U.S. Catholic Bishops?
Since the Catholic Church is a Hierarchical organization - maybe the Pope and the college of Catholic Cardinals prefers Catholics for Pro Choice over the American Catholic Bishops.