Aug 24, 2020
We often hear people complain about the Catholic hierarchy. And even more often we hear from progressives that the failure of Catholics in general to support the policies they espouse is due to the reactionary nature of the bishops put in place by 40 years of reactionary popes. Both John Paul II (1978-2005) and his successor Benedict (2005-2013) were hell-bent on preserving Tridentine Catholicism against what they saw as its unravelling by Vatican II.
These complaints are not just the expression of life-style preference. They have serious political consequences in real time, for in part due to the conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy, 54% of Catholic voters voted for Donald Trump in 2016. And it hardly needs to be said that the issue pushed by the hierarchy as the undebatable reason for such a choice was access to abortion. The Catholic hierarchy condemns abortion as intrinsically evil in the most uncompromising terms. (But it should be noted in passing that the bishops also condemn artificial birth control as “intrinsically evil.” We will return to this later.)
The overblown importance of the abortion issue in the American political scene represents a strange and unexpected entry of religion into politics in a way that the authors of the “separation of Church and State” did not anticipate. Religion has entered not as an institution but as the voice of “God.” And, true to predictions, religion has distorted the political process by introducing an issue that was not amenable to debate and compromise ― the two foundational pillars of democratic government. We can only govern ourselves if we have control over what we decide to enact into law. If what is being discussed is, in fact, beyond our control because it is not debatable or open to compromise, then it is not within the purview of solution by us ― the people. It is a decision already made by some outside agent who takes precedence over the will of the people. Such a situation represents the end of democratic self-governance.
While all kinds of constitutional maneuvers can limit the legislative reach of such non-debatable issues, the fact remains that a demand considered absolute and undebatable because commanded by “God” himself, exercises a controlling influence over the minds and decisions of individuals. The constitution may control what laws can be passed, but it cannot control what individual people think and who they vote for. If an issue as morally absolute and uncompromising as abortion is seen to be part of a package of policy choices none of which makes anywhere near the absolute demand of the abortion choice, morally minded individuals have no alternative. Even if they have strong opinions about the other policies being offered, the fact of the presence in the package of the one absolute and undebatable demand settles the choice in practice.
Many blame the bishops, but there are other actors in this drama. The ones I want to focus on in this essay are the theologians.
Theologians are an ancient and highly respected sector of Catholic society whose influence in matters of Christian faith and morals goes back to the New Testament itself. Not only the letters of the apostles but the very gospels themselves whose narratives differ one from another in ways that clearly reveal an interpretative emphasis, must be acknowledged as “theology.” Early Greek theologians like Origen of Alexandria, who died in 253, shaped Christian thinking for centuries after his death. Roman theologian Augustine of Hippo (+430) elaborated theological interpretations that determined the significance of the sacraments, baptism, grace, clerical authority and human sexuality for a thousand years. Today the broad outlines of the Catholic religion from the time of the Reformation until now was the work of mediaeval theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Theologians have always played the role of foil for the bishops, often risking and suffering condemnation and silencing for their outspoken challenge to the authorities. Of course it was to be expected. Who was better acquainted with the sources and traditions than the theologians, better in most case than the bishops. They were a constant check on the distortions of doctrine that authority was wont to use to enhance its power.
What is unique about our time, especially here in the United States, is that the theologians have fallen silent. Almost universally, they work as professors in Catholic institutions of higher learning and not only their jobs but also their very careers are totally dependent on the benepacitum of the bishops who control those institutions. The role of counterweight to the bishops’ misuse of “Christian truth,” when in rare cases it was exercised in the United States, was met with a rejection from the hierarchy that terminated careers. Here in the United States moral theologian Charles Curran was fired from his teaching position at Catholic University in Washington DC, and prohibited from teaching in any other Catholic institution because of his fearless support of the Christian use of contraception, denying the claim that such use was “intrinsically evil.” When Jesuit Roger Haight dared suggest that the primary way Jesus was divine was as a human symbol of “God,” he was silenced repeatedly and forbidden to teach or write on “Christology” his area of expertise and competence.
It doesn’t take many examples of this kind before the entire corps of theologians “gets it.” Open your mouth about issues the bishops do not want discussed and you will no longer be a Catholic Theologian. Many whose livelihood and careers have been built on years of study and exclusive dedication to theological matters are not capable of surviving being fired and blacklisted. Hence their silence. It’s as if night has descended on the profession itself. They can no longer function as a check to episcopal control and doctrinal distortion. When the great William of Ockham challenged Pope John XXII in the 14th century and was excommunicated, he was able to find refuge with the Emperor who protected him and supported him in his work. Those days are gone. There are no patrons to protect dissident theologians and their pursuit of the truth is fatally compromised.
So Catholics who might be inclined to question the hierarchy’s absolute prohibition against all abortion and the consequent demand to vote only for those who concur, find no moral relief or support among the theologians. Those trained and disciplined teachers who might have helped laymen form a broader conscience that lifted the burden of false obligation and gave them the freedom to choose, maintain a stony silence, not because they agree with the bishops, but because they are terrified of losing their jobs and livelihoods. I am not even mentioning those special few “independents” among the theologians who sell sermonettes directly to paying customers. These “spiritual gurus” are quite aware of the economic potential of the “Catholic brand” they peddle and the traditional doctrines that are signposts of “Catholicity.” They recognize the prestige they enjoy as a trickle-down effect of being Catholic in good-standing and they have no intention of jeopardizing their status by exploring new options just because of the truth. Their silence hides a venality that is, in my opinion, altogether reprehensible.
Abortion isn’t the only issue; contraception falls into the same category. Take the recent (July 2020) Supreme Court ruling on “religious freedom” in which the religious protagonist in partnership with the Trump administration were the “Little Sisters of the Poor.” These Catholic nuns argued that it violated their religious freedom to have to support contraception for their employees in any form, even though in the ACA the direct burden of providing the contraceptive care was shifted to a third party (the insurance company). The Sisters were obviously basing their objection on the Catholic “doctrine” that contraception is “intrinsically evil” as declared by Paul VI in 1968. They claimed to be following their religion.
This case is a heinous example of Catholic theologians’ cowardice and irresponsibility. A Pew Research Center Report of Sept 28, 2016 found that 89% of Catholics said that contraception “was either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all.” For the Little Sisters to claim that the prohibition is “Catholic Doctrine” when clearly almost all Catholics do not, is egregious enough in itself. It suggests a collusion of the American Catholic hierarchy with the Trump administration in providing a “unimpeachable” religious partner for Trump’s well known efforts to dismantle the ACA. Was there no American Catholic theologian who could denounce this travesty, hypocrisy and political complicity on theological grounds, namely that the Catholic people did not accept it? The sensus fidelium is an authentic source of “truth” in Catholic tradition and has a bearing on the formation of a moral conscience. Did any theologian bring it forward? No. Not even one.
But contraception is small potatoes next to abortion. Catholics have been able to see through the absurd mediaeval arguments calling contraception, “intrinsically evil,” after all it is obviously the surest and safest way to avoid unwanted pregnancies which are the primary reasons for abortions. But the arguments surrounding abortion are another thing. They cannot be dismissed so easily. in the absence of any guidance from the theologians helping Catholics to form their conscience, laypeople are defenseless against those arguments, however specious they may in fact be.
What I am going to offer here is an approach to the abortion issue that lays out a theoretical groundwork for a practical compromise. I believe it is exactly the kind of argument that a Catholic theologian could bring forward because it is not averse to confronting the unspoken and up-to-now unchallengeable assumptions ― the supposedly undebatable premises ― behind the current Catholic position. Such a challenge coming from anywhere else than from a theologian would be considered inappropriate and impertinent.
- Acknowledging “metaphysical ignorance.”
The very first step involves acknowledging that the assumption of “personhood” from the instant of fertilization is untenable. It was a metaphysical projection that utilized a mediaeval mental mechanism in order to bypass an insuperable doubt and allow for practical choice. Understanding the thinking involved here is at the heart of the matter. Let’s unpack this.
Mediaeval Christians believed that human beings were constructed of two mutually opposed substances, spirit and matter, which concretely speaking were soul and body. Each was the complete contrary of the other but “God” made them exist together “unnaturally” in the human individual. However the “person” was to be found primarily in the soul which was believed to be able to exist separate from the body and which was the seat of the characteristically spiritual human abilities of thinking and willing. Without a “soul” there was no “person.” Moreover it was believed that the act of copulation, being purely physical, could not possibly be responsible for the creation of the soul which was “spirit.” Only “God” could make a spirit and so it was thought that the soul was created directly and personally by “God” without assistance from the parents and “God,” personally, “infused” the soul into the human body thus creating a human being. All agreed on these assumptions, and they are still to be found today in the Vatican catechism of 1992.
Where disagreement arose was determining the “moment” when “God” infused the soul into the developing body. This was important because before that moment there was no human being there and terminating life would not be murder. Many believed that the soul was infused only when the “form” of the embryo became recognizable as a human being (at about six months of pregnancy). Others believed it was at the moment of conception. But there were no theoretical grounds to resolve the issue.
At that point everyone recognized that they had reached an impasse. In order to resolve the logjam, not theoretically but practically, they created a mental mechanism that allowed them to get around it. They decided that ad cautelam (“just in case”), the issue should be arbitrarily decided for the moment of conception. It meant that, even though all acknowledged there was no solid proof, given the slightest possibility that the fertilized egg has a human soul, abortion should be avoided so as to not take the life of another human being. (The fact that with a high percentage of miscarriages “nature” took such life in great numbers did not enter into their calculations).
In one sense, nothing has changed from those days. We still do not have the vaguest idea when the “soul” is infused by “God,” and there is still no way of resolving that ignorance. But in another sense, everything has changed because (1) the very idea of the “soul” being an immortal substance separate from the body is seriously challenged in Catholic thought. Such a Platonic (pagan) suggestion would render meaningless the “resurrection of the body” heralded in all the creeds which in turn reflect the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead bodily, in his own flesh, (2) the idea that human copulation is not fully responsible for the initiation and installation of everything required for the fertilized ovum to become a full human being, has come to be completely discarded. “God,” in Thomistic terms, does not interfere in or displace the operations of secondary causality. Thus the mediaeval “caution” is shorn of its theoretical underpinnings and stands naked as a mere “mental trick” used to get around an ignorance that is totally beyond resolution. There was never any “metaphysical” clarity about the presence of a human “person” from the moment of conception even in the middle ages, and so the very decision to use “metaphysics,” (the inner constituents of the human individual, body and soul) to determine what is a “person” and what is not, is hopelessly without a shred of foundation. That procedure cannot yield clear knowledge. The approach should be abandoned altogether. It is pure projection. Metaphysically speaking we are totally ignorant of what constitutes a human being. This “metaphysical ignorance” should be acknowledged; and it is the place of the theologians who understand and can explain it to insist on it.
Given all this, it is hardly “open and shut” to say that all abortion is murder. Metaphysically speaking we are not even sure what a “person” is at this level of life. But please note: as far as our tradition is concerned we are talking about a theoretical (theological) reversal of huge proportions. An emotional communitarian appeal to “compromise” for the sake of “living in harmony in a diverse society” will not cut it. A demand for a re-thinking of basics at this level requires the credentialed credibility that only a trained and recognized professional can provide. Hence the need for the theologian. This argument does not carry its own proof. It needs to be presented by experts that people trust to know what they’re talking about and who bring the weight of their expertise and experience to the question. Of course it can be anticipated that it will be countered by the bishops. Clearly, at first it will not win the day. But simply introducing another and unquestionably valid way of looking at the issue, is liberating for the conscience of the ordinary Catholic. The clarification of doctrine necessary to make the faith credible is the primary job of the theologian. Their work in a classroom is secondary.
- Embracing a social definition of “person.”
Shifting the definition of “person” from the metaphysical plane (which is a conjecture dependent on the philosophical system you choose), to the social plane where in fact “persons” have rights and obligations, is quite appropriate in this case because abortion is about the right to life, and the obligation of society to protect it. Once we accept the premise that the “persons” that society has an obligation to protect must be human beings with bodies, the solutions begin to suggest themselves.
In order to commit murder, you have to kill a body. According to our (questionable) tradition, a “soul” being immortal cannot be killed. Therefore society has to be physically capable of defending the body of every organism that claims to be a “person” with a right to protection. I contend that the embryo that cannot live outside the womb cannot be called a “person” with a right to protection because it does not have the physical independence ― a body capable of existing on its own ― that could be protected. In other words, pre-viable embryos cannot be physically protected by society because they are not in any identifiable way independent of the mother’s organism; they remain subject to the forces ― biological, emotional, moral ― arising in the mother that bear on its continued life. No intervention from outside the mother can substitute for her refusal to allow the embryo to grow within her. The fetus is utterly defenseless because it is simply part of her body. Without the acquiescence of the mother, there is no way society can protect the developing human organism that is not capable of living on its own outside the womb. The pre-viable fetus is so totally one with the metabolic processes of the mother, that if it were taken out of the womb at that level of development, it could not live under any circumstances, no matter how technologically advanced the interventions might be. Therefore, I say there is no obligation for society to provide protection because protection is beyond its capabilities. You cannot oblige the impossible.
So once we accept the reality that a “person” and the society it lives in have mutual rights and obligations, we realize that the developing fetus cannot be considered a “person” because the mutuality that is constitutive of the social bond does not exist. The only one that can protect the life of the non-viable fetus is the mother. The coercion envisioned in “anti-abortion” legislation cannot in any way physically stop the mother from aborting that fetus while it is only part of her body. It is only when the fetus can live without the mother ― albeit with high tech life-support devices ― that society has the obligation to step in and provide what the mother refuses to provide to this newly independent “person.”
Therefore what are called “protections for the unborn” currently contemplated by the anti-abortionists, are in fact only punishments after the fact imposed on the mother who aborts a living embryo. It could only be called “protection” if you believe that punishment of mother “A” will necessarily translate into a deterrent for mother “B.” If there is no guarantee of deterrence (and how could there be?) punishment then comes down to society satisfying a sadistic need to make people suffer who have flouted its commands.
- The denial of medical assistance and the prohibition of contraception
One of the principal “fall-outs” of the criminalization of abortion is the denial of medical assistance to the woman who has decided to abort her pregnancy. As we have seen, no legislation can stop someone from aborting the embryo she carries. The only thing other than punishing the non-compliant mother that such a law accomplishes is to prevent doctors and health care professionals from providing the kind of help a woman needs to make sure she doesn’t end up killing or permanently maiming herself in the process. This speaks for itself. I would hope there is no theologian, even one that might favor criminalization, that thinks the denial of such services should be part of the corrective. Yet word from the theological community, even on such a no-brainer humanitarian aspect of the matter, is not forthcoming. Naturally not. They are Catholics, and Catholics put their self-idolizing church, which they think is “God,” above humanity even when it is not a matter of losing their jobs. Would bishops fire a theologian for seeking to humanize anti-abortion legislation? The inhumanity here is religiously inspired. Not unlike the days of the Inquisition, Catholics will kill you or let you die if you don’t agree with their “truth.”
The same holds true, and even more so, with the question of contraception. The history of this specifically Catholic tragedy is too well known to repeat here. But the fact that fifty years after the unilaterally decided Papal condemnation of contraception as “intrinsically evil,” the Catholic people have universally rejected that condemnation and prohibition, is direct and legitimate material for the theologian. In Catholic tradition the sensus fidelium the “sense of the faithful,”(“sobornost” in the Greek Church) was one of the determinants of universal doctrine and Church law. It echoes the ancient patristic litmus test for orthodox doctrine as: quid creditur semper, ubique et ab omnibus, “what is believed always, everywhere, by everybody.” The sensus fidelium is exactly the “proper object” of the theologian and a most significant factor in the formation of moral conscience.
The complete abandonment by theologians of this millennial mechanism of doctrinal sanity corresponds to the loss of participative community at all levels of Catholic life. The exclusion of women, the marginalization of laypeople, the supine obedience of clerical functionaries, the autocratic unaccountability of the bishops, the unwillingness to sever the Tridentine umbilical cord to the “trade mark” brand recognition of the middle ages ― together with the disappearance of the role of the theologians, all amount to the end of Catholicism as a living religion. It has become a lifeless business enterprise selling its mediaeval brands. The Church is an international real estate corporation of immense wealth, whose financial managers are the bishops. It is limited to the exercise of the kind of power that comes from wealth alone, incapable of inspiring followers to embrace the compassion and common sense legal freedom of the man it claims as its founder.
The utter absurdity of the prohibition of contraception by a Church which claims to want to reduce abortions by any means necessary, suggests that maybe the hierarchy enjoys occupying the moral high ground, condemning people for abortions that could have been prevented by encouraging the use of contraceptives. Were contraceptives ever to eliminate abortions, who would the Church have to condemn? What excuse would it have to raise its voice in righteous thunder and put on display its claim to be “God’s” voice on earth? In order to sustain its trade mark of moral infallibility and religious supremacy, there must be “sin” and there must be “error.” And if it’s not there, my suspicion is, the Church will find a way to put it there.