Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Wills on Abortion

I would like to address the argument made by Garry Wills and posted by Mike Perry a couple of days ago. As a somehat left-of-center Catholic I am usually a a fan of Wills, although I think some of his stuff on the responsibility of the Papacy for the Holocaust is pretty unbalanced. But I found myself disagreeing with his argument in this editorial, at least so far as I understand it. His argument goes something like this (I think):

1. The Church's theologically-based condemnation of killing extends only to the killing of a "person."

2. Neither Scripture nor the Tradition, however, defines when a "person" comes to exist; both Aquinas and Augustine, for example, expressed uncertainty about the question. There is, therefore, no theological definition within Catholicism of when a fertilized ovum becomes a person.

3. People of conscience, using the tools of natural reason, and the insights provided by philosophy and the sciences, can reach different conclusions about when a "person" comes to exist.

4. The bishops' opinion about when a fetus becomes a person, because it is not an expression of religious truth, is based only on natural reason.

5. The bishops' definition thus presumably is not binding on Catholics, because it does not express a truth of the faith, but only one of many different conclusions that people of conscience might reach using the tools of natural reason, and they have no right to impose their conclusions on anyone else, including Catholics.

6. Because Catholics are not obligated to adopt the bishops' position, there is no "church-state conflict", because Catholics are not obligated to oppose something that is legal (I think that's what he meahns, although his conclusion is expressed pretty telegraphically, and it is not clear how he uses the phrase "church-state.")

I think his argument fails for the following reasons:

1. I'm no theologian, but I don't believe Wills is correct when he argues that the bishops lack a theological basis for their assumption that life begins at fertilization. Theology has come a long way since Aquinas' notion of the "quickening" or infusion of the soul towards developing entirely religious arguments for the position that personhood begins at fertilization. Others can articulate those arguments better than I. Those arguments can be dismissed if one is a fundamentalist (which of course Wills is not, except when he tries to score debating points by invoking scripture), or if one believes that the teaching authority of the Pope and Bishops should not be privileged (which Wills might in fact believe). But I think it is a dramatic overstatement to argue that the Church's position on when personhood begins is not really a theological position or is "bad" theology, and hence has no claim on Catholics' fidelity.

2. Wills seems to have a very dualist conception of the Church's teaching authority: the Church can teach authoritatively about Revelation - everything else ("nature") is a matter of natural reason and individual conscience. Because he apparently assumes that the sphere of Revelation is very narrow (the subject matter of the Nicene Creed,maybe), the Church's teaching authority is quite limited. Everything else is a matter of the individual's conscience and legitimate disagreements based on natural reason, and the Church's voice is not privileged. That is a perfectly legitimate argument - it's just not a Catholic one. It resonates within the Protestant tradition and reflects the persisting difference between Catholics and Protestants over the locus of truth and authority. (I would love to hear from our Protestant readers here - I may have a pretty confused conception of how a Protestant would read Wills' argument - they may in fact NOT want to claim Wills' argument).

3. If one agrees that the bishops are making legitimate theological arguments over the nature of personhood, and that their teaching authority does extend to that question, then we cannot dismiss the problems Wells dismisses so blithely. First, Catholics have to think about their fidelity to Catholic teaching. Second, Catholics in public life have to think about how their obligation of fidelity constrains their behavior as public actors. In short, there is still a "church-state" problem, as Wills rather obscurely frames the issue. The question of how one resolves that problem is another topic: what I am trying to say here is that Wills' attempt to prove that there is no problem because Catholics can legitimately ignore the bishops is not convincing.

- Mark


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» CLEARING THE BLOG FOG from The Galvin Opinion
To help clear the Blog Fog, create a link and ping a TrackBack to this post... Dean Mark Sargent, in Mirror of Justice, addresses a Garry Wills op-ed on abortion. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 30, 2004 12:10:35 PM

» Garry Wills on Abortion from ProfessorBainbridge.com
Garry Wills' controversial op-ed on Catholic teaching on abortion is ably and measuredly (if that's not a word, it should be) over at Mirror of Justice by my friend Mark Sargent. Well worth a read. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 30, 2004 5:21:17 PM