October 16, 2012
(More) Pre-Election Confusion about Abortion from the New York Times
Perhaps it’s asking too much for arguments (most especially on the topic of abortion) touching on Catholicism and politics on the cusp of an election to be coherent, but this op-ed in today’s New York Times by Fordham theologian Michael Peppard is remarkably specious. So far as I can tell (the essay conflates legal, philosophical, and canonical terms throughout, with folk political observations along the way), Peppard believes that because Congressman Ryan (a Catholic) takes the following positions, Ryan is similarly situated with regard to dissenting from Catholic teaching as Vice President Biden and should be placed on (in Peppard’s crude, frivolous phrase) “wafer watch:”
- While affirming that life begins at conception, Congressman Ryan stated in the vice presidential debate last week that the policy of a Romney-Ryan administration would be “to oppose abortion, with the exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.”
- Ryan criticizes Roe v. Wade and holds that “people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.”
Peppard seems to think that because these positions depart from an absolute pro-life moral and legal position, Ryan, like Biden, places a “distance between nonnegotiable Catholic moral teaching and civil law” and has “joined the ranks of dissenting Catholic politicians.” But what Peppard seems to misunderstand (and profoundly misstates Catholic doctrine about) is that not all positions placing a “distance between nonnegotiable Catholic moral teaching and civil law” are equally wrong. Pro-choice Catholic politicians and their apologists are right about this: there are some hard questions about the relation between morality and law in the abortion debate. But it is a profound mistake to move immediately to the conclusion, implied in Peppard’s essay, that it is impossible to make reasonable comparative judgments on law and morality (comparative judgments about how the positive law is derived in various circumstances from the natural law) in the abortion debate.
I don’t expect the New York Times to represent Catholic teaching accurately, but I would hope a theologian could have bothered to take account of the text in Evangelium Vitae that speaks to this very question:
¶73.1 Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection…
¶73.2 In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it".
¶73.3 A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations--particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation--there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, 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.
So we have two positions:
(A) A Catholic politician may voice opposition to abortion while advocating (arguing for, voting for, taking public positions in favor of) legislation that restricts abortion further than the current legal baseline (or judicial rulings restricting abortion) but falls short of an absolute prohibition. The object of such legislation (or judicial rulings) is to restrict abortion, while tolerating exceptions to a prohibition on abortion in order to bring about restrictions. This position is affirmed by ¶73.3.
(B) A Catholic politician may voice opposition to abortion while advocating (arguing for, voting for, taking public positions in favor of) legislation permitting abortion (or judicial rulings recognizing an expansive right to abortion). The object of such legislation (or judicial rulings) is to permit abortion. This position is rejected by ¶73.1 and ¶73.2.
Peppard’s entire essay rests on a conflation of (A) and (B) in order to make those who hold (A) seem as much "bad Catholics" as those who hold (B). Alas, the "Catholic position" to which Peppard refers throughout his essay teaches otherwise.
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