Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Reader Writes: On the Church's Pastoral Response in Cases of Abortion

I continue thinking about the case in Brazil about which I wrote earlier today. And I just logged onto Bilgrimage to find a very thoughtful comment by a reader to yesterday's posting, where a thread has developed with comments about this case.

As with some previous comments on other postings that were particularly valuable, I'd like to lift this comment and respond to it in a posting, so that as many readers as possible may benefit from the exchange. My respondent, Joseph Jaglowicz, writes:

I've been pro-life since at least Roe v Wade. I condemn abortion, but more recently I have concluded that in cases of rape (incl. incest) and life of the mother, we must ultimately leave moral judgment to God who alone can read the human heart. We do need moral principles to guide human behavior, but I'm afraid their "objective" application by church authorities can sometimes only further diminish credibility in the church's moral voice. Some things are better left unsaid and left to God. The case of this Brazilian child is one such instance.

And here's my response:

Joseph, thank you. I agree with your position. Like you, I am pro-life, and I think the decision to abort is always a tragic one.

At the same time, I have long been persuaded by Stanley Hauerwas's work on this issue. He may have changed his mind, and if so, I have not kept up with his most recent writings on the issue.

But in what he was writing on this topic some years back, he noted that, even when we regard abortion as a tragic and undesirable option (and he held that position), there are times in human life when making tragic and undesirable choices is simply unavoidable. And given that fact, the church has a responsibility to leave ultimate judgment in God's merciful hands, and to provide pastoral support and community.

To me, this has always made much sense. I find it hard to believe that most of those choosing abortions do so lightly. And because I am not in their circumstances and cannot see into their minds and hearts--and don't share their struggles--I have no right to judge.

I think the church would be far more convincing with its ethic of life if it--if we--lived the ethic of communion more radically. Only when people see that witness will they begin to take the pro-life teaching seriously, I think.

As I've noted previously on this blog, I don't think the Catholic church convinces many folks, both inside its own ranks and in the culture at large, about its commitment to the ethic of life. I think we are unconvincing because we do not exhibit a very strong commitment to that ethic in our own institutional life.

A thoroughgoing ethic of life that imbues our lives as believers, our liturgies, our parishes and their activities, has to be grounded in sense of connectedness to each other, to the world at large, and to the earth that is simply not there in how we go about living our lives of faith. As long as we remain indifferent to the loss of large numbers of Catholics to our communion and to parish life, and as long as we think we can carry on business as usual without being intently concerned about all of those standing on the outside looking in as we engage in our eucharistic worship, I don't think we will be able to convince anyone that we are radically committed to the ethic of life.

There are strong connections between the ethic of life and a commitment to human rights that many Catholics completely ignore, as they seek to proclaim a commitment to the value of life. As a gay believer, I see that disconnect particularly in the church's (and many Catholic brothers and sisters') treatment of gay folks. But it's there in other respects, too, and it needs to be addressed--theologically and in how the Christian life is lived in the parish context--if the church expects to convince either the culture at large or many Catholics that it truly respects life. (On this, see Colleen Baker's excellent posting at Enlightened Catholicism yesterday, emphasizing the need for "meaningful compassion" as a foundation for a compelling ethic of life--here.