Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Church’s Teaching on Abortion: Unchanged and Unchangeable?

In response to Nancy Pelosi’s recent comments on abortion, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued a statement in which they quote from the 1994 Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church:

Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law. (No. 2271)

Following, however, is what Catholics for Choice have to say about the changing nature of Catholic teaching on abortion.


Catholic Teachings on Abortion Have Changed Over Time

Although the Catholic hierarchy says that the prohibition on abortion is both “unchanged” and “unchangeable,” this does not comport with the actual history of abortion teaching, and dissent, within the church.

The Catechism contains only six paragraphs on abortion. This brief section starts: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”

While the Catholic church has long taught that abortion is a sin, the reasons for judging abortion sinful have changed over time. In fact, through most of history the church did not pay much attention to abortion except as a sexual issue. The early prohibition of abortion was not based on concern about the fetus. It was based on a view that only people who engage in forbidden sexual activity would attempt abortion and that abortion is wrong from either an ontological perspective or from a negative judgment about sexuality and sexual behavior, known as the perversity view. “The ontological view is that the human fetus is a person from the earliest moments of conception, hence to abort it is either murder or something closely approximating murder; the perversity view is that sex is only licit within marriage and for the primary purpose of having children, hence abortion perverts sex and is immoral in the same way that contraception is immoral” (A Brief, Liberal Catholic Defense of Abortion, University of Illinois Press, 2000).

The perversity view is no longer much argued explicitly in the Catholic church, though it underlies many of the hierarchy’s arguments. Many church officials and anti-choice Catholics now focus on the ontological view, which argues that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. This view, however, is based on faulty science, dating from the 17th century, when scientists, looking at fertilized eggs through magnifying glasses and primitive microscopes, imagined that they saw tiny, fully formed animal fetuses.

The church hierarchy has since rejected the notion that a fetus is a fully formed person. In its last statement on abortion, the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Vatican acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person: “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.” This disagreement has a long history as well; neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas, two of the most important theologians in the Catholic tradition, considered the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy to be a person.

The US Supreme Court explored fetal personhood at some length in its Roe v. Wade decision and concluded: “When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

Even in a predominantly Catholic country, laws governing access to abortion need not adhere to the official Catholic position. The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom reinforced the call for Catholics to respect the positions of people of other faiths. This is particularly significant given that the Catholic church’s positions on health policies, including abortion, is more conservative than that of other major faith groups. In addition . . . many Catholics do not support the Vatican’s position on abortion.

Sound public policy on abortion would affirm respect for developing life without diminishing respect for women’s lives. Catholics can and do support public policies that acknowledge the moral agency of women, respect developing life, and appreciate the Catholic tradition while honoring the views of other faith groups.

Church Teachings may not be Imposed

Despite what many think, the Vatican may not impose teachings on an unwilling faithful. Through the concept of reception, Catholics have a role to play in the establishment of church law.

The popular notion that whatever the pope says on a serious topic is infallible is an exaggeration of the principle of infallibility. While some ultra-conservative groups claim that the teaching on abortion is infallible, it does not in fact meet the definition of an infallible teaching. Since the doctrine of papal infallibility was first declared in 1870, only three teachings have been declared infallible: the Immaculate Conception of Mary; the Assumption of Mary; and the declaration on infallibility itself.

Before the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) was published in 1995, there was speculation among theologians and others that Pope John Paul II would assert the infallibility of the teaching on abortion. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer, confirmed that the word infallible had been considered in early drafts but was rejected. Ratzinger explained that while the teaching on abortion is authoritative and deserves obedience, the encyclical stopped short of the “formality of dogmatization” (National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 1995).

The teaching authority of the church is not based solely on statements of the hierarchy; it also includes the scholarly efforts of theologians and the lived experience of Catholic people. “Since the Church is a living body,” the Vatican declared in the 1971 Communio Et Progressio, “she needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.”

There is a diversity of opinion among leading theologians on the Vatican’s teaching on abortion. As long ago as 1973, noted Catholic theologian Charles Curran wrote in the Jurist that “there is a sizable and growing number of Catholic theologians who do disagree with some aspects of the officially proposed Catholic teaching that direct abortion from the time of conception is always wrong.”

The importance of lay Catholics’ experience in the establishment of church law is recognized through the concept of reception. Leading canon lawyer James Coriden shows how the principle of reception, “asserts that for a [church] law or rule to be an effective guide for the believing community it must be accepted by that community.” Through the centuries, church law experts have reaffirmed an understanding that “the obligatory force of church law is affected by its reception by the community.”

Like the concept of the primacy of conscience, the principle of reception does not mean that Catholic law is to be taken lightly or rejected without thoughtful and prudent consideration. Coriden writes, “reception is not a demonstration of popular sovereignty or an outcropping of populist democracy. It is a legitimate participation by the people in their own governance.”

Many of the hierarchy’s teachings on reproductive health and rights have not been received by the faithful. Rather, Catholics all over the world have soundly rejected the church’s ban on contraception and in many countries only a minority of Catholics agree with church leaders on abortion.

Barely a fifth (22%) of Catholics in the US agree with the bishops that abortion should be completely illegal, and Catholic women in the US have abortions at the same rate as women in the population as a whole. Majorities of Catholics in Bolivia (66%), Colombia (54%) and Mexico (69%) feel abortion should be permitted under some or all circumstances. In Italy, which is 97 percent Catholic, 74 percent favor the use of RU-486 (a drug used instead of surgical methods in some early abortions).

When it comes to the Vatican’s teachings on abortion, Catholics the world over stand well apart from the hierarchy.

Recommernded Off-site Links:
Pelosi on . . . Pelosi: The Speaker Responds - Rocco Palmo (
Whispers in the Loggia, August 26, 2008).
Abortion Isn’t a Religious Issue
- Garry Wills (Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2007).
When Does Human Life Begin? - DevelopmentalBiology.com.
When Does Life Begin? - CommentsFromLeftField.com.
When Does Human Personhood Begin? - ReligiousTolerance.org.
When an Embryo Becomes a Human Person - Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish, August 17, 2008).
Disingenuous Archbishop of Denver Scolds Biden - Michael in Norfolk, (August 26, 2008).
Study: Social Support Linked to Abortion Rate Drop - Tom Roberts (National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2008).


Frank Partisan said...

Your post should be reprinted as a pamphlet.

Abortion will never be overturned by Republicans. The issue is used by them and Democrats, for votes and fundraising. Nothing would destroy the GOP more than overturning Roe vs Wade. It is a cynical manipulation of fundamentalists.

Dems use the issue, to raise money because of the threat of overturning Roe. They know well nobody is going to do that.

It's all a cynical game. Under Reagan, two Bushes and Clinton, all abortions took place, without any problem.

CDE said...

A fundamental confusion of this article: the reasons for a teaching are being confused from the teaching itself. The understanding / reasons for a teaching can develop (or "change"). But where is the evidence that the teaching itself (that abortion is wrong) has changed? This article provides no such evidence.

And the whole notion of Church teaching not being legitimate unless/until it is "received" by an unspecified majority is simply not correct, nor is it tenable. The principle implies that the Church is to follow culture, and never to lead it.

To follow the logic suggested by the article about the importance of "reception" of teaching by Catholics, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans was out of line in pushing for desegregation of schools in the late 1950's because of the widespread opposition he faced from the Catholics in his diocese.

To quote Archbishop Chaput in his new book Render Unto Caesar: "Catholics who know their faith also know that publicly opposing racism and publicly opposing abortion flow from the same Catholic beliefs about the dignity of the human person. Both evils are inexcusably wrong. On matters like these, the church has the duty to teach the world -- not the reverse."

Anonymous said...

Existence is the first human right and the foundation of all social justice. Without existence all other human rights are irrelevant.

Regarding the so-called 'right to choose' I find abortion less about women's self-determination than men treating women as objects of pleasure and release, rather than human and moral equals.

Regardless of the method of regulating birth, birth control begins and ends with self-control. Unfortunately, sex is not a dimension of human existence where self-control and reason are in abundance, especially in the throws of passion.

The phrase 'a woman's right to choose' seems to be code for 'tolerating something we dare not speak about, namely male selfishness and stupidity.' Why don't we talk more about male responsibility for abortion?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important matter.

I wonder: Can the reasons for a teaching be so readily separated from the teaching itself? I’m not sure that they can which means that on a fundamental level it’s misleading to say that the teaching has never changed and is unchangeable. In their recent statement did the bishops at least acknowledge the change in the reasoning for the teaching? Also, I wonder if when looking at issues like abortion we’re projecting back onto church history that “Big Book of Doctrine” school of theology that rose to prominence in the nineteenth century and which theologian Gary Macy talks about here?

The Catholics for Choice article is not advocating or suggesting that the Church follow every whim of “the culture.” Actually, I question this pitting of “the Church” against “the culture.” Can they be so easily separated? Is not the Spirit to be found beyond the Church? Also, look at the images of the German Catholic church in Dubuque here. The décor of this church reflects cultural influences. On a bigger scale, the Church adopted the structure and trappings of empire during the time of Constantine, and the papacy the idea of absolute monarchy during the seventeenth century. These are all cultural concepts and realities.

What the article is saying is that in our Catholic tradition the laity has always had a role in the formation and reception of Church teaching, and that this role has been discounted and ignored by the hierarchy in matters of human sexuality. Many Catholics are troubled by this and are working to see this situation rectified - or at least put out there for discussion.



CDE said...

Michael -

I may not have the distinction formulated quite right, but I'm referring to the sort of dynamic John XXIII was calling for when he opened Vatican II:

What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else. (source)

I always find it remarkable to read this address in light of the way dissenters have chosen to listen to only part of the message of the Council... the part about progress/reformulation, and not the part about unchangeable teaching.

Development of doctrine is a far less ambiguous term than change. An acorn develops organically into an oak tree, a fertilized ovum develops organically into a human person, and the apostolic teaching develops organically into its later expressions. It would be a very strange thing indeed if an acceptance of abortion were to lead into a rejection of it later in the Church's teaching. Nothing organic about that at all.

You're right that the historical interplay between secular and spiritual realities in the formation of culture is complex, but it is also rich in lessons that modern Americans need to pay attention to. Chaput's new book examines this in some detail, especially in chapter 4, "Constantine's Children." It's a very interesting read. A short clip:

The church learned, through long and often bitter experience, the limits of a healthy relationship with the state. Today, as we reexamine the borders between civil and religious authority, one of the most important tasks facing American Catholics is remembering that history.

Anonymous said...

This is an area where the Church's teaching is, in the long term, much more empowering, shall we say, of GLBT (and all) people than the culture. The culture encourages GLBT to key off of a constitutional right to privacy, whereas the Church's teaching relates to the more fundamental (and not at all necessarily theistic) idea that no human being is a function of being wanted or valued by any other - the necessary moral boundary to limit the proven propensity of human beings to objectify each other in terms of how much they are valued or wanted by anyone else. That perspective is much deeper and more fundamental to GLBT people than a right to privacy. GLBT people who align uncritically with freedom of choice are digging their own graves - for they are the canaries in the mineshaft of human dignity, and among those that human society has tended to find least valuable and of least worth.

The enticing question of ensoulment is not what Church teaching hinges on. Nor is the question of legal personhood. And, interestingly, neither has a role in its secular cognate. The biology of conception has not changed since RvW, but the politics and economics of it (it's a big fat capitalistic industry now) has indeed. When I learned in my extremely secular high school biology class a few years after RvW that conception immediately produces at least one human being, we didn't have to parse it and try to limit it for its implications for privacy or profit.

Pelosi should have simply said "I have no comment" on Meet The Press this past Sunday and let it go. Her attempts to justify her position are going to bring her closer to a dead end. I know there are many who think that would be great for her soul, but I don't rejoice.

There is a leftist critique of the perspective championed by Pelosi. (It would be interesting to hear what Nat Hentoff, among others, might say.) Sad that too many Catholic progressives area afraid of embracing it, as they've been sold a bill of goods.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

Thanks for engaging in this conversation.

In light of issues such as divorce, usury, and slavery, I find the insistence to believe that church teaching can never change to ring hollow. (for more on this, see here.)

To be honest, I don't understand the strong aversion that some Catholics have to change. It seems to me that, in many cases, change is a natural and good thing.

Yes, I can say that I've developed as a person (I've grown taller, etc), but I've also changed in my thinking and understanding. Accordingly, in many fundamental ways I can say, looking back on my life, that I'm not the same person I was twenty years ago while obviously on some levels I am the same person. Do you see what I mean?

People change. Understandings change. And, yes, church teachings change. And the Spirit, present and active in both church and culture, plays a role in the facilitation of these positive changes and transformations. It's all a sign of life and vitality from my perspective.

Personally, I thank God for the ability, the potential, and the promise of change.



Anonymous said...

Several human rights come into conflict with abortion: Right to life, right to autonomy, right of self-ownership, the right of reproduction and many others. It is fool-hearty to suggest any one right is more "human" than another.

I've urged the only compromise I know that is viable, that abortions prior to the 23rd week is of a fetus that is not "human-like" in appearance, as it continues the evolutionary process in the womb of millions of years. Any embryology text will show the stages of evolutionary development recreated in the womb.

After the 23rd week, the fetus takes a decidedly and unmistakable human form, and the human instinct to protect and defend a life-form like its own is not only primeval, it is universally benevolent.

The nonsense of the Right to Choose is as irrational as the Right to Life, not because they are wrong, but because both are true. So, let's accept those values, and all the other human values we really profess we espouse, by being honest, respectful, and rational about an issue that is not black and white, but remains substantive.

Prior to the human fetus appearing in human form in the woman's womb is ample time for her to decide whether or not to proceed with the pregnancy. If she cannot decide, her baby should not be the casualty of indifference. Likewise, after the 23rd week, when the human form is unmistakable, termination of the pregnancy must be allowed only on the medical necessity of protecting the mother's life. She has that right, the right to self-preservation, which Catholic teaching also denies her.

It should come as no surprise that
98% of all abortions worldwide already occur withing this time frame and under this preconception; not only that, 80% of the American public already endorses this compromise -- perhaps without a rational explanation, but it is explicitly along these very lines for rational reasons.

It is the extremists on both sides that refuse to be realistic, preferring absolutism and dogmatism in its stead. The subject of "ensoulment" or when "life begins" are absolutely incoherent and unresolvable, so we use the better part of Solomon's Baby -- by dividing the difference, not the baby.

Before Week 23, is entirely a woman's right to decide and choose, without any interference or compromise. After Week 23, only on the medical necessity of the mother's life. If people cannot find this solution acceptable, then it will never be acceptable. But, dogmatists on both sides will prevent consensus. They always have, they always will, and the innocent suffer needlessly.