Abortion Obsessed Catholic Bishops Betray Pope Francis – and Jesus

It seems the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) can’t stop embarrassing itself.

No, I’m not referring this time to its incompetent mishandling and scandalous coverups of priest pedophiles. (By rights, those disgraces should themselves deprive the Conference of ALL claims to speak authoritatively on ANY matter having to do with sex.)

 instead, I’m talking about the latest manifestation of the USCCB’s obsession with abortion.

As if we needed a reminder, its fixation with the matter came under harsh spotlight on June 18th when an overwhelming majority of the Bishops’ Conference decided to proceed with drafting a document whose bottom line would have them refusing communion to Joe Biden (and by extension to other pro-choice Catholic politicians).

The whole affair made evident first of all that the bishops are pronouncing on an issue far beyond their ken. Secondly, their action flies in the face of position adopted by Pope Francis himself. Thirdly, it aligns the bishops with the most extreme faction of the Republican Party. And finally, it is quite unbiblical and contradicts the teachings of Jesus and his expression of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition.

For thinking Catholics, all four points should be quite embarrassing. For others, it’s just one more reason to write off the Church as completely irrelevant.   

Unsubstantiated Obsession with Abortion

The evident purpose of the Conference’s strategy is to advance repeal of Roe v Wade as if it were morally self-evident that (as they say) “abortion is murder.”

Of course, no such self-evidence exists. This is because the question of abortion’s morality turns on the issue of when specifically personal human life begins. And NO ONE knows for sure the answer to that question. Even the seminal Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) thought that personal life (“ensoulment”) for males began 40 days after conception and for females 80 days after conception. The church operated on that assumption for centuries.

Moreover, other religions variously identify the beginnings of personal life with the moment of quickening (usually 17-20 weeks after conception), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or even (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the child to distinguish it from the animals. 

In view of such variation, to impose a single religion’s answer to the crucial question about the beginning of personal life disrespects those of other faiths and of no faith at all. It is therefore to violate the Constitution’s First Amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”

(And, by the way, the USCCB’s extreme position that specifically personal life begins when sperm fertilizes egg contradicts the “practice” of Nature itself. It ignores the fact that literally countless such fertilizations end in spontaneous abortions – suggesting that Nature itself (God?)  is unconcerned with the issue.)

A Rejection of Pope Francis

The Catholic Bishops’ ham-handed power play also flies in the face of gentle advice from Pope Francis. Instead of confrontation and effective excommunication, the Pope urged “extensive and serene dialogue.”

The Conference position also contrasted sharply with Francis’ allies like Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. Both urged adoption of the pope’s approach, which McElroy described as speaking to Mr. Biden “in his humanity” and as “a man of Catholic faith striving to serve his nation and his God.” McElroy recommended encouragement of “our new President: by entering into a relationship of dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness.”

However, USCCB disagreement with Francis goes much further. It is not simply an internecine squabble about arcane Catholic issues. Identifying abortion as “the preeminent priority” of the bishops’ conference highlights disagreement at the highest level of the Catholic Church about the essence of the faith. For Francis, the Church’s preeminent priority is social justice and a radical concern for “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.”  His pro-life commitments extend far beyond abortion to climate justice, elimination of capital punishment, renunciation of war, and welcoming of immigrants.

Of course, all such concerns are rejected by Republican extremists with whom the USCCB ends up aligning itself.

Alignment with Extremists

Such alignment was noted recently by Washington Post opinion columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Dionne pointed to a relevant Pew Research survey of last spring. It showed that even 44% of Republican Catholics agree with the 67% of American Catholics in general that Biden should be allowed to receive communion.

This means that in adopting their position on weaponizing communion, the U.S. bishops are identifying themselves with the most conservative elements of the Republican Party which, of course, has also made abortion a key culture wars issue.

This alignment means supporting election of Republicans whose climate change denial ends up favoring omnicide while claiming to prioritize unborn human life.

Moreover, Dionne correctly observes that the bishops’ position is an outlier in the Catholic world itself. Almost nowhere else is the abortion issue given the preeminence claimed by the USCCB. Its position would be unthinkable in most of Europe and Latin America.

Unbiblical Obsession with Abortion

Even though women have always practiced abortion, the Bible shows no concern for the issue; it is mentioned nowhere in its pages. Therefore, to make it the church’s “preeminent priority” over those articulated by the pope is questionable at the very least.

Moreover, seeking to remedy the practice of abortion by imposition of law flies in the face of the habitual antinomian postures of both Jesus and St. Paul. Neither was friendly towards legal statutes and their enforcers. Jesus routinely disobeyed Judaism’s most sacred (Sabbath) law. He famously asserted his indisputably humanist position that “The sabbath was made for human beings; human beings were not made for the sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).

For his part, Paul was so liberal in his interpretation of Jewish Testament law that he set it aside entirely – including dietary restrictions and even circumcision. It was futile, he said, to seek salvation in law – even in God’s law (e.g., Romans 7: 13-24).

By adopting such positions, both Jesus and Paul seemed to recognize that complicated issues of personal morality cannot be effectively imposed by law, force, or sanctions. Thus, the two most prominent foci of Christian Testament texts implicitly acknowledged the truism that human laws generally favor those who made them, viz., the wealthy and powerful – usually elderly males (and in our case, specifically white old men). Meanwhile, they militate against the interests of those without power or wealth and (in the case of abortion) seem to represent one more way of controlling women.

This is especially vexing for women, since the planet’s female citizens have had virtually no determining input regarding the content of laws that govern their reproductive processes.

The bottom line here is that law has no salvific power for friends of women or followers of Jesus.

Conclusion

Does any of this mean that church leaders should abandon the abortion issue? Not really.

It does however mean that leadership should recognize the fact that Roe v. Wade represents a reasonable resolution of the abortion question in a pluralistic society. It is an imperfect but even-handed compromise in a culture divided on fundamental questions concerning the beginnings of personal human life. It is reasonable that during the first trimester of pregnancy, the pregnant woman may herself decide about the termination of her pregnancy without legal consultation; that during the second trimester the state may regulate abortion to protect the health of its pregnant citizens, and that during the final three months of pregnancy, the state (in recognition of its obligation to protect the unborn) can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.

Meanwhile, the bishops and others seeking to lessen the number of abortions should use their influence to foster a welcoming atmosphere for all children. This would entail supporting measures that (among others) provide otherwise reluctant parents with:

  • The good example of Catholic practice
  • Preemptive sex education
  • Extensive prenatal care
  • Postpartum parental leave
  • Affordable childcare
  • Adequately paid jobs
  • Dignified housing
  • Safe abortion facilities

Only by adopting such pro-life positions can the USCCB hope to overcome the embarrassment that its patriarchal, legalistic and unbiblical alignment with the Republican Party has brought upon it and upon all Roman Catholics.

Abortion: Should a Man’s Wallet Be More Private, Free, and Unregulated than a Woman’s Womb?

Chittister 2

My recent post, “Face It: Donald Trump Is Right about Abortion” drew many responses. (You can read more than 100 of them here.) One comment characterized my position there as “radically pro-choice.” Someone else called it “pro-abortion.”

However, it was not my intention (especially as a Catholic moral theologian) to write a piece that might be interpreted in those ways.

No, I was simply attempting to show that Republican position that “abortion is murder” can be quickly reduced to the absurd.

It was ironic, I suggested, that someone as clueless as Donald Trump should end up being the agent of moral clarity. He did so by verbalizing what the standard Republican position on abortion implies, Viz. that if abortion is murder, those involved should be charged and punished accordingly.

My point was that the immediate vilification of Trump’s impolitic assertion indicated that the judgment that “abortion is murder” is untenable.

What’s not untenable however is the fact that responses to The Donald’s Trumpian logic show that the abortions debate in the public sphere needs a dose of straight talk. So let’s try that out. In the end, it pits women’s sovereignty over their wombs against men’s control of their wallets.

Begin with the fact that few people (if any) are actually pro-abortion. Invariably, it is a painful and regrettable decision usually taken with the utmost seriousness.

From there admit two other facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves.

The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened after 80 days. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.

Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. This means that in a world where as many as 50% of  pregnancies end in miscarriage, half of all “people” are “aborted” spontaneously usually before the mother even knows she is pregnant.

Such facts about miscarriage have led many to conclude that personal life begins well after the moment of conception.  They locate it, for instance, at the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.

Given such differences, it seems counterproductive to impose the view of one religion on an entire culture. We might expect such imposition from the Taliban. But it has no place in a democracy characterized by separation of church and state.

Instead in a country like our own some compromise is necessary. And that is what happened in Roe v. Wade. There it was determined that in the first two trimesters, the pregnant woman can make a decision on her own and in consultation with her physician. In the third trimester, the state asserts its interest and can make laws restricting abortion to protect the woman’s health and the potentiality of human life.

However a Roe v. Wade approach can never be sufficient for genuine pro-life advocates. Abortion law must be complemented by social programs. These include pregnancy prevention measures – sex education in our public schools along with easy access to contraceptives.

Nonetheless when unplanned pregnancies occur, programs discouraging abortion needs to kick in. These would provide free counselling and pre- natal care for pregnant mothers along with post-natal services for their newborns. Job provisions would be available for new mothers along with free daycare for their pre-school children. Programs would also include low cost housing and (where necessary) help paying grocery bills.

All such measures are genuinely pro-life. They create a welcoming environment for new life.

But this is where the real debate about abortion’s relation to privacy enters the picture. Simply put the question is: which should be more vigorously protected from state intervention – a woman’s womb or a man’s wallet?

Put otherwise, the debate about life-friendly social programs pits on the one hand mostly well-to-do male legislators (in the U.S. Congress and in the Catholic Church) against poor women who cannot obtain abortions abroad. The patriarchs are quite willing to have their laws invade the privacy of a woman’s womb while defending invasion of their wallets to provide a welcoming atmosphere for all the unborn.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister has called such typically male attempts to evade responsibility by its true name. She wrote:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Contributing to that broader conversation is what my controversial blog post was about. So is this one.

Tell me what you think.

Oh No: Not another Sermon on Abortion!

Today’s Readings: Wis. 2:12, 17-20; Ps. 54:3-4, 5, 6 &8; Jas. 3:16-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37

When I read today’s gospel selection, I knew it would inspire preachers everywhere in this country to sermonize about abortion. After all, the reading has Jesus embracing a child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

That scene will lead preachers to say that Jesus loved children. We all love them, they’ll add, and go on to argue that the children most in danger today are the unborn. So homilists will conclude or imply, we should vote for pro-lifers who claim to care about the unborn, and will pass laws to eliminate abortion. It follows then that we should not support those who identify themselves as “pro-choice,” since they care less about the children so close to Jesus’ heart.

Of course, the preachers in question have the best of intentions. And concern for the unborn is well and good. No doubt abortion represents a horrendous choice. It’s painful for everyone.  Virtually no one favors abortion.

However in today’s gospel, Jesus wasn’t embracing a fetus, but a real child of the kind our culture shows little concern about once they’re outside the womb. Even pro-life politicians want to cut back on programs that would help such children. That, I think, is the issue today’s gospel should be made to address. But before getting to that, and since our preachers will inevitably bring it up, let’s talk about abortion like adults.

As adults we have to admit two facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves. No, the question is not about eliminating abortion, but of reducing the number of abortions – of lessening the perceived “need” for abortion.

The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened 80 days after the mother’s egg was fertilized. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.

Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. But even within the Catholic community, prominent moral theologians beg to differ. Some, for instance, would argue their case by directing attention to the way the medical profession determines the moment of death. When the brain stops emitting brain waves, “brain death” occurs. Personal life has stopped though bodily life may continue. Plugs may then be pulled even if the patient continues to breathe with artificial assistance.  If that is so, these moralists reason, no personal life exists before a fetus’ brain begins sending off detectable brain waves. That occurs only several weeks into the pregnancy.

Other people of faith have traditionally identified the beginning of specifically personal life with the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.

[By the way, no Protestant churches took an official position on the abortion question before the 1979. It was then that the Moral Majority decided to adopt abortion as the trump issue of the Republican Party. The idea was to gain partisan allegiance by tapping into racial resentment among whites, especially in the South who saw “big government” as unfairly favoring African-Americans. Accordingly, the issue of abortion was presented as another example of “big government” in a political climate where overt racism was no longer socially or politically acceptable. “Pro-life” became an acceptable substitute for anti-Black.]

Given those differences among people whose religious traditions will not be going away any time soon, the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 probably goes about as far in restricting abortions as any law in a pluralistic U.S. can go. (Yes, Roe v. Wade does not simply legalize abortions; it restricts them significantly.) The controversial Supreme Court decision specifies that during the first trimester the mother may decide about the termination of her pregnancy without consultation. During the second trimester, she must confer with her physician. And during the final three months of pregnancy, the state recognizes its need to protect the unborn; it can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.

But aside from all that, it still must be admitted that the numbers of abortions in the United States and in the world remain unacceptably high. The question remains how to reduce those levels. Ironically, passing laws does not seem to help. For instance, abortion has been completely outlawed in many Latin American countries.  Yet those very countries lead the world in numbers of abortions performed each year. But where abortion has been legalized, as in the Netherlands and Belgium, abortion levels are the lowest in the world.

Government-sponsored social programs explain the difference. These involve provision of thorough sex education in public schools, free contraceptives, pre and post-natal care for expectant mothers, family leave arrangements and affordable child care for working parents, subsidized food grants, and a host of other child-centered programs of the very type “pro-life” politicians would like to abolish.  However, all of the programs just mentioned provide a welcoming atmosphere for children and reduce the perceived “need” for abortion.

Where would Jesus stand on all of this? We don’t know. He said not a word about abortion. But in today’s gospel he says more than a word about children. He embraces a child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Once again, in doing that Jesus is not embracing a fetus, but an actual living child about whose human status there can be no debate. Moreover, the child in question was probably of the type many opponents of abortion have little use for or sympathy with. After all today’s gospel scene takes place in Capernaum, the urban center that Jesus adopted as his home town after he was thrown out of Nazareth.

Remember that Jesus spent his time among the poor who represented his own origins.  So the child Jesus embraces was probably a smelly street kid with matted hair and a dirty face. He or she was probably not unlike the street kids found in any city today – the ones hooked on sniffing glue and who have learned to sell their bodies to dirty old men from way across town, and often from across the world.

I make all this supposition because the reason Jesus embraces the child in today’s gospel is to present his disciples with a living example of “the lowest of the low” – God’s chosen people.  In Jesus’ world, all children were at the bottom of the pecking order whose rabbinical description ended with “idiots, deaf-mutes and the young.” And among the young, street children without father or mother would indeed represent scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Embracing children like the one Jesus held doesn’t mean legally restricting abortions beyond Roe v. Wade. Neither does it mean “tough love,” nor forcing impoverished mothers to bring their children to term and then telling them “You’re on your own.” Rather, embracing poor children – truly being pro-life – means creating a welcoming atmosphere that receives children as we would receive the Jesus who identifies with them in today’s gospel. Yes, it suggests supporting those “Big Government” programs that work so well elsewhere.

Remember all of that when you hear your pastor’s sermon on abortion this Sunday.