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October 30, 2010

Bishops, Catholics, Cooperation, Citizenship, and More (“Thomas” or “additional”?)

 

Thanks to Steve, Rob, and Rick who have recently posted several contributions that address Catholics—clerical and lay—on the exercise of citizenship, the role of moral deliberation, and, last but not least, the upcoming mid-term election.

I was planning on writing to address some of the points made by Professor Cathy Kaveny in her “Catholics As Citizens” America entry to which Steve kindly directed us. However, Fr. Charles Curran, in a report of his recent October 28th lecture at Southern Methodist University, brings together a few more points worth addressing. Therefore my posting today will be geared more to what he, Curran, appears to have said about why, in his judgment, the response by U.S. bishops to “abortion laws” is “flawed.” Regrettably, I have not been able to find a complete transcript of his lecture yet; however, the National Catholic Reporter has provided some significant coverage of the lecture [HERE], so I shall rely on this periodical’s reporting and the quotations they attribute to Fr. Curran in this post.

This article, signed by Tom Roberts (the NCR editor at large), reports that the efforts to the U.S. bishops to change laws on abortion have been given “preeminence.” Given that we—Curran, Kaveny, others, and I—appear to be addressing issues dealing with the upcoming election on Tuesday, it is unclear if this NCR report is referring to some other position taken by the Catholic bishops after their 2007 quadrennial statement on political responsibility, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship—A Call to Political Responsibility.” If this is in fact the source of criticism offered by Fr. Curran regarding the bishops and their “flawed” position vis-à-vis abortion, it is important to recall with precision what the bishops did say in this 2007 statement. And what they actually said is this:

There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called “intrinsically evil” actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed. (N. 22) 

Furthermore, this quadrennial statement reiterates what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated in its Doctrinal Note of 2002 regarding “The Participation of Catholics in Public Life”:

It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. (Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, no. 4) 

It is critical to acknowledge that these statements refer to proper responses by Catholics to laws or law-making rather than to candidates. Regarding candidates, the bishops remarked:

Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity. (N. 34)

Furthermore, the bishops stated that,

As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support. (N. 42) 

And, finally, one other passage from the 2007 Faithful Citizenship document merits quoting in full:

Our 1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life declares, “Abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others” (no. 5). Abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being before birth, is never morally acceptable and must always be opposed. Cloning and destruction of human embryos for research or even for potential cures are always wrong. The purposeful taking of human life by assisted suicide and euthanasia is not an act of mercy, but an unjustifiable assault on human life. Genocide, torture, and the direct and intentional targeting of noncombatants in war or terrorist attacks are always wrong. (N. 64, bold in the original)

Fr. Curran makes four points why he considers that the bishops’ position regarding abortion is flawed: (1) speculative doubt about when human life begins; (2) the fact that possibility and feasibility are necessary aspects involved in discussions about abortion laws; (3) the understanding and role of civil law; and, (4) the weakness of the intrinsic evil argument.

He was quoted by the NCR in a statement preliminary to the elaboration of his four points where he asserts that, “In my judgment, the U.S. bishops claim too great a certitude for their position on abortion law and fail to recognize that their own position logically entails prudential judgment so that they cannot logically distinguish it from most of the other issues such as the death penalty, health care, nuclear deterrence, housing... Voters should examine the candidates on a full range of issues, and with a consideration for the candidates’ integrity, philosophy and performance. The document lists eight issues in alphabetical order, beginning with abortion, but does not give priority to any of these issues.” With respect, I do not see how these contentions nor his four points are accurate depictions of what the bishops presented in their 2007 statement on Faithful Citizenship. Therefore, I cannot see how his argument that their position [that “abortion is the primary issue”] is “flawed” can be maintained.

Let me very briefly consider each of his four points seriatim.

1. Regarding “speculative doubt about when human life begins.”

Fr. Curran bases much of his argument from the science of the times of St. Thomas Aquinas rather than modern medical science. Although Curran notes that Aquinas’s biology was faulty, he insists that the Catholic tradition “recognizes speculative doubt about when the soul is infused or when the human person comes into existence.” He attributes his error to an imagined error of the bishops and, for that matter, the Universal Church. Moreover, he insists that, “from the beginning, the matter of what we now call the fetus is not apt or suitable for receiving the human soul. Some growth and development are necessary before the human soul can be infused.” It is ironic that he, Curran who is a theologian, fails to take stock of Psalm 139: “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.” Hmmmm, sounds like something was going on regarding recognition of the pre-birth human person long before Thomas Aquinas but of which Fr. Curran does not acknowledge.

Moreover, he does not take account of the fact that there is no scientific “doubt about when human life begins.” As O’Rahilly and Műller state in their 1996 Human Embryology and Teratology, “life is continuous, as is also human life, so that the question ‘When does (human) life begin?’ is meaningless in terms of ontogeny. Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.” (p. 8) In a similar fashion, Moore and Persaud, authors of another prominent medical text book on human embryology (2003), note that: “The intricate processes by which a baby develops from a single cell are miraculous… Human development is a continuous process that begins when an oocyte (ovum) from a female is fertilized by a sperm (spermatozoon) from a male. Cell division, cell migration, programmed cell death, differentiation, growth, and cell rearrangement transform the fertilized oocyte, a highly specialized, totipotent cell—a zygote—into a multicellular human being.” [The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, Seventh Edition, 2003, p. 2. (Italics in the original)]

Fr. Curran emphasizes the 1974 CDF “Declaration on Procured Abortion” footnote statement that on the ensoulment question to argue that the Church’s teachings are behind the times: “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.” Ironically, he fails to mention that the CDF also said this to say about the role of modern science in formulating Church teachings:

To this perpetual evidence—perfectly independent of the discussions on the moment of animation—modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, there is established the program of what this living being will be: a man, this individual man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its capacities requires time—a rather lengthy time—to find its place and to be in a position to act. The least that can be said is that present science, in its most evolved state, does not give any substantial support to those who defend abortion. (N. 13)

This statement of the CDF and relied upon by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is in accord with my previous references to current texts about human embryology. In this light, I fail to see how Fr. Curran can sustain his critique of the bishops that, “from the moment of conception, each member of the human species must be given the full respect due to a human person is accurate but not totally forthcoming.” It seems that the bishops, the CDF, and medical experts are in accord, an accord which Fr. Curran elects not to join.

2. Possibility and Feasibility.

Here Fr. Curran addresses compromises which elected officials sometimes must make. As he states, public officials “from the president on down have to recognize this reality [of making compromises] and often have to be willing to settle for half a loaf rather than none.” This may be the case when politicians are making the law, but how about when citizens are selecting their representatives who will make the law? I believe that this is the issue which the bishops are addressing, not, as Fr. Curran implies, the need to be flexible in getting “half a loaf rather than none.” I do not think that a candidate can be the subject of compromise in the same fashion as a bill that is on its way to becoming law. Law-making may require the “prudential judgment” of which the bishops speak so that less rather than more harm is result. It may be that a Catholic can elect a candidate—who is clearly pro-life, that is, against abortion—who may have to compromise in order to reduce the spread or expansion of abortion. But this is not the same thing as saying that a faithful Catholic voter can make this compromise. The motivation behind the bishops’ reasoning is that Catholics cannot compromise on the issue of abortion itself—be they voters, candidates for office, or office holders. In the context of office-holders, they may have to “settle for half a loaf rather than none,” but only as a way to reduce the access to abortion and its impact until the law can be revisited again. While referring to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Curran fails to state the pope’s pertinent remark, “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.” (EV, N. 73) So, it should be clear that the Catholic voter, candidate, and office holder must be opposed to abortion; however, it is the Catholic office holder who has the capacity to enter the compromise, a compromise that involves the law-making but not the position on abortion itself.

3. No claim of certitude.

Here the NCR quotes Fr. Curran making the remarkable statement that, “neither the bishops nor anyone else can claim certitude as to how Catholics should decide about abortion legislation.” Curran appears to rely on the work of the Second Vatican Council to substantiate and justify his claim. As he asserts, “one is not supporting a false religion, but rather the freedom of the person to choose.” He appears to suggest that the Declaration on Religious Freedom would enable a Catholic to have a more flexible position on abortion based on the grounds of religious freedom. Yet, he is not attributed by NCR as referring to any passage in the Declaration on Religious Freedom that would support this contention. However, any view that the Second Vatican Council offered support for abortion or abortion access under some circumstances, such as religious freedom, would be gravely mistaken. As the Council Fathers stated in Gaudium et Spes, “whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person... all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.” (GS, N. 27) Fr. Curran does not appear to take stock of this crucial statement of the Council in his no-claim-of-certitude argument.

4. The weakness of the intrinsic evil argument.

Fr. Curran is, unfortunately, one of the many contemporary moral theologians who dismiss the significance of the concerns about intrinsic evil. He maintains that, at best, it “is a moral term and not a legal term.” But is he absolutely right in making this claim? First of all, we might consider the fact that the Nuremberg trials had to address the commission of terrible things that were evil—evil as inherent, essential, fundamental, real, and genuine—intrinsic evil. If I might present a rhetorical question here: is not the fact that we, as the American people, still suffer over a million abortions every year evidence that intrinsic evil is with us? And, is it not more of an intrinsic evil that we can actually do something by a few strokes of the pen—called legislation—to come to the aid of mothers who consider abortion and their targeted children who presently have little or no legal say in the matter? If wars of aggression, violence, crimes against humanity, torture, human trafficking, etc. are evils and subject to the sanction of the law, so is abortion—for it intentionally targets the most defenseless of the defenseless. Fr. Curran is quoted as saying that the weakness of arguments founded on intrinsic evil, “once again undermines the position of the bishops wanting to see the public policy position on abortion as differing from public policies on most other issues.” He relies on an analogy between adultery and abortion, but the only thing they have in common, other than they are both wrong, is that they begin with the letter “a.”

 

RJA sj

 

Posted by Robert John Araujo, SJ on October 30, 2010 at 07:20 PM in Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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Thank you, Fr. Araujo, for this incisive response to Curran's arguments. It would be well worth noting that in the CDF's "Declaration on Procured Abortion," that St. Thomas was constrained by limited technological knowlege about embryology.

Howver, in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which is cited by the CDF in the above-mentioned declaration, stated that abortion is a grave sin against natural law. Aquinas would have given the benefit of the doubt to the Church which was ahead of her time, in defending the unborn since the 1st Century, A.D. in its first formal teaching "The Didache." Aquinas' opinion would have conflated with modern embryology which eliminates any doubt that the being inside the womb after conception is a human being with DNA which is neither the father's nor the mothers. Even Curran's comrades the pro-choice camp admit that the life in the womb is that of a human being.

Posted by: Fr. Sean Raftis | Nov 1, 2010 3:37:20 PM

Fr. Sean Raftis,

Father Araujo's response -- of necessity -- is not a response to Fr. Curran's arguments, since the full text doesn't seem to be available yet, but a response to Fr. Curran's arguments as reported by the National Catholic Reporter. I think it is a little early to believe Fr. Curran has been refuted when we have not actually seen his complete lecture.

I don't think that any knowledge about embryology, no matter how advanced, will ever answer the question of when ensoulment takes place, which is reportedly what Fr. Curran was speculating about. It is my understanding that there is no official Church teaching about when ensoulment takes place. So the fact that there is a "human being" present from the moment of conception -- if indeed there is -- does not say anything about when a human person with an immortal soul is present.

You say: "Even Curran's comrades the pro-choice camp admit that the life in the womb is that of a human being."

Fr. Curran did not contradict the teaching of the Church that direct abortion is wrong. He did criticize the American Bishops for claiming the same certainty regarding abortion itself, and what the law ought to be regarding abortion. I don't know if you are attempting to imply that Curran himself is "pro-choice," but that term lumps together a very broad range of opinions regarding abortion, from a few radical feminists who believe abortion is the most wonderful medical procedure ever devised to those who believe abortion is the taking of an innocent human life but that criminalizing it is politically impossible.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 1, 2010 4:44:19 PM


"I don't think that any knowledge about embryology, no matter how advanced, will ever answer the question of when ensoulment takes place, which is reportedly what Fr. Curran was speculating about. It is my understanding that there is no official Church teaching about when ensoulment takes place. So the fact that there is a "human being" present from the moment of conception -- if indeed there is -- does not say anything about when a human person with an immortal soul is present."

It is interesting to see pro-abortion types having to grasp at concepts like "ensoulment" to defend their position against the advances in embryology over the past 40 years. I thought they were supposed to be the scientific ones and we were supposed to be the superstitious peasants?

Posted by: Brian English | Nov 1, 2010 7:29:52 PM

Brian,

I personally am very dubious about the idea of ensoulment. However, Fr. Curran, Fr. Araujo, and Fr. Raftis are all Catholic priests (at least I assume Fr. Raftis is), and this is a Catholic blog, so I don't see how it is grasping to make ensoulment part of the discussion. If you want to throw out the concept of the soul (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 362-368) than the whole issue of abortion becomes quite simple. A fertilized egg, or an early embryo without a brain, is not a person.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 1, 2010 9:29:24 PM

David,

Consider these statements from the Catechism (2270-2275):

"Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. .... Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being."

I know you disagree, but the Catholic Church would classify an "early embryo without a brain" as a human being or human person.

Posted by: Thales | Nov 2, 2010 1:03:17 PM

Thales,

You say: "I know you disagree, but the Catholic Church would classify an 'early embryo without a brain' as a human being or human person."

It is not exactly that I disagree. It's that I don't know. I am agnostic.

But I don't think I am incorrect to read these words very carefully and note that "must be recognized as having the rights of a person" is different from saying "is a person with all the rights any person has." Also, saying, "Since it must be treated from conception as a person . . . " is not saying it *is* a person. I'd be happy to stand corrected if you can find something in an official document that says, flat out, that a fertilized egg is an actual person. But I have never come across anything that actually said a person exists. So I take the Church to be saying not that a fertilized egg IS a person, but that it must be TREATED AS a person. This would, of course, be binding on Catholics, but it isn't a statement of "natural law" that a fertilized egg is a person.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 2, 2010 2:58:32 PM

David,

The Church often speaks cautiously, especially when it comes to matters of science. That is why I don't think there is any definitive teaching saying "A fertilized egg is a human being!" Scientifically, what exactly happens when fertilization happens is still quite mysterious, especially when considering the phenomenon of identical twins: a fertilized zygote splitting into two embryos. So I think the Church is cautious in its language. But because the Church wants to err on the side of protecting all human life, it says that from the very moment of conception, the human being must be recognized as having the rights of a human person.

Regardless, I think the Church is clear in its belief that once there is an entity with a unique human DNA and with some kind principle of living/developing/maturing, that entity is a human being which must be protected as a human person. For Fr. Curran to suggest otherwise, like claiming that a fetus is not suitable for receiving a human soul, is inaccurate.

Posted by: Thales | Nov 3, 2010 11:18:21 AM

Tales,

You say: "For Fr. Curran to suggest otherwise, like claiming that a fetus is not suitable for receiving a human soul, is inaccurate."

I don't know how you can accuse Curran of "inaccuracy." It seems to me the precise moment of ensoulment (if there is such a thing), if it is unknown by the Church now, can never be known. It is a matter of speculation. I think this is probably Curran's point -- that these things cannot be stated with certainty, and therefore our conclusions based on uncertainties cannot be certain. And on top of that, there can be no certainty at all about conclusions so far removed as what civil law about these matters must be in a pluralistic democracy.

My understanding is that Fr. Curran did not depart in any way from the teachings of the Church regarding abortion. He disagreed on how those teachings have been used in arguments about what civil laws ought to be.

By the way, Fr. Araujo says above: "It is ironic that he, Curran who is a theologian, fails to take stock of Psalm 139: 'You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.' Hmmmm, sounds like something was going on regarding recognition of the pre-birth human person long before Thomas Aquinas but of which Fr. Curran does not acknowledge."

Aquinas would certainly have known Psalm 139, and it did not stop him from believing in "quickening." Also, Aquinas believed in "pre-birth persons," just not from the moment of conception. Also, that passage has not induced Jewish theologians and ethicists from placing the moment of full personhood at birth.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 3, 2010 2:18:18 PM

David,

From the Church's perspective, the precise moment of ensoulment might be a matter of speculation; the question whether a fetus is an entity suitable for receiving a human soul is not.

As I understand it from the article, Fr. Curran's position is that (1) there is doubt about "the existence of a truly human being" when considering an embryo or fetus, and since there is doubt, (2) the Church's teaching on the morality of abortion "is not as certain" as the teaching on murder, for example.

I think Fr. Curran's contention #2 is at odds with the numerous Church statements that abortion is always and everywhere a grave moral offense with no exceptions. I think Fr. Curran's contention #1 is at odds with science (which tells us definitively that an embryo or fetus is an entity with unique human DNA and with some kind principle of living/developing/maturing) and with numerous Church statements that from the moment of conception, human life must be "respected and protected absolutely". (Catech. 2270).

Posted by: Thales | Nov 3, 2010 3:14:44 PM

Thales,

You say: "I think Fr. Curran's contention #2 is at odds with the numerous Church statements that abortion is always and everywhere a grave moral offense with no exceptions."

I think Fr. Curran acknowledged that abortion is always a grave offense. However, the focus of his talk was not about the morality of abortion, but rather about how the American bishops have approached the politics of abortion. I think his point is that if it could be said with certainty that abortion is murder, the Church would be justified in calling for civil laws against it. But if ensoulment does not take place until later in pregnancy, abortion is not murder. So one may acknowledge that abortion is a grave offense, but not all grave offenses must be prohibited by law. The Church teaches that from the moment of conception, a human being must be treated *as if* it were a person. This is definitely binding on Catholics. But the question is whether it should be made binding on everyone by means of civil law.

A body that has previously had a soul but no longer has it is a dead person, and clearly does not have a right to life. However, in Catholic thought, that body must be treated with great respect. A body *before* it has a soul must be treated with great respect too, according to Catholic teaching, but killing a body without a soul is not murder.

I see no reason why it is not permissible to speculate about the moment of ensoulment. If it were unthinkable that it would occur at some time other than conception, then there would be no reason for the Church not to say ensoulment and conception were simultaneous. However, the Church does not say that, so it seems to me an open question.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 4, 2010 10:07:17 AM

David,

Though the specific moment of ensoulment at the moment of conception might be still a matter for debate, what is not for debate is that a multi-cell embryo or fetus might be an unensouled body that does not have a right to life equal to that of a mature human being.

You should read Evangelium Vitae and the Vatican's Instruction on Respect for Human Life:
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_en.html#-1M
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19870222_respect-for-human-life_en.html

Some quotes:
"Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life." (Instruction)

"[P]rocured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth. The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life." (Evangelium Vitae)

"Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. .... Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide "a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?"." (Evangelium Vitae)

Notice the Pope calling abortion "murder" in the second quote I give.

Fr. Curran's position that there might be a multi-cell embryo that is not yet ensouled and thus might not be equal to a full human being is not one consistent with Catholic teaching.

Now, the question about whether abortion should be prohibited by civil law is a separate question: Fr. Curran is right to point out that not all grave offenses must be prohibited by civil law. The acknowledgment that abortion is a grave offense because it is the killing of a full human being does not necessitate that our society prohibit it by civil law - in fact, there are good reasons for civil law to treat abortion differently than other instances of killing human beings.

Posted by: Thales | Nov 4, 2010 1:28:41 PM

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