Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Charles Curran on U.S. Catholic Bishops' Current Abortion Teaching: Unfounded Certitude

National Catholic Reporter is running an excellent essay now by Catholic moral theologian Charles Curran.  It's an abridgement of a chapter of his forthcoming book The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church: A Theological Perspective.  The essay focuses on the shift in the teaching of the U.S. Catholic bishops about abortion over the past forty years, and then critiques the ethical basis the bishops use to support their current position.

Curran  notes that under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, in the 1980s, the bishops had moved in the direction of a consistent ethic of life or seamless garment approach to undergird their teaching about abortion.  But a shift occurred in the final decade of the 20th century, in which the bishops began to redefine the phrase "consistent ethic of life" to mean that the right to life is fundamental and primary, and that any "rightness" in any other area of life concerns (e.g., capital punishment, issues of racism and discrimination, poverty, war and peace, health care, housing, education, etc.) is not only diminished but canceled out, if one does not oppose abortion.

In the first part of the 21st century, the U.S. bishops added to these assertions that the right to life is fundamental and primary, and no amount of "rightness" about any other life issue can make up for "wrongness" on the issue of abortion, the additional assertion that 

[t]he intentional taking of human life is intrinsically evil and a legal system that violates the basic right to life is fundamentally flawed. No prudential judgments are involved in the case of abortion. 

The bishops crystallized this new position in the document  “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” prepared for the 2008 election.  This document removes decisions and moral thinking about abortion entirely out of the realm of any prudential judgment, while it leaves all other life issues within that realm.  It seeks to place abortion in an exclusive sacred reserve that makes abortion "the primary issue," the make-or-break issues for Catholic voters, as they assess any political candidate from the standpoint of Catholic ethics.  

No matter how strong a politician's record is on all other life issues, if he or she is not with the bishops on abortion, faithful Catholics must not support that candidate.  And conversely, no matter how lamentably a politician violates all Catholic canons of respect for life in other areas, if he/she stands with the bishops on abortion he is worth the support of Catholic voters.

Curran summarizes this new position of the bishops as follows:

The historical record thus clearly shows that the U.S. bishops have changed their approach to abortion law over the span of 40 years. They now clearly state that abortion is the primary issue. They also have explicitly stated the reason why this issue is primary and differs from all the other areas of social issues that they have addressed. Other issues of public policy and law involve prudential judgments, but in the case of abortion laws they deal with something that is intrinsically evil and does not involve prudential judgments. Catholics have certitude on the abortion law issue. 

Curran's critique of this position focuses on the bishops' claim of certitude for their position.  The rhetoric of abortion as intrinsically evil, and as removed from the realm of prudential judgment,  is designed to stamp the bishops' position with a stamp of absolute certitude which makes it impossible for a faithful Catholic to question or reject this position.  

But as Curran notes, despite the attempt of the Vatican and the bishops to silence open discussion of the morality of abortion, questions persist about precisely when human human life begins (and Catholic tradition has been far from univocal on this point); every application of moral principles to the political realm involves questions of feasibility and possibility which are overlooked by the new absolutism of the bishops about abortion; strong currents in Catholic moral thinking have always emphasized that moral and civil law are not and should not be synonymous;  and the intrinsic evil argument is weak.

Re: the latter point, Curran notes that the Catholic moral tradition has long held things like adultery or prostitution to be intrinsically evil, but it has not advocated forcing civil society to change or adopt laws to enshrine in civil law the Catholic understanding of these practices.  The attempt to make abortion the exception to all rules of prudential judgment--to make it the fundamental moral issue trumping all other moral issues--flies in the face of Catholic tradition itself.
I agree with Curran on this point, and in his primary argument that the bishops are seeking to claim a moral certitude for their position on abortion that it cannot have.  As I've noted previously in postings about this topic, I am unconvinced that a large number of those who claim that the right to life is absolute and primary actually believe this assertion, given their record vis-a-vis almost any life issue other than abortion.

One cannot draw a sacred line around abortion and claim that it trumps all other life issues, while violating the Catholic ethic of life in every respect except re: the issue of abortion.  One cannot convincingly argue that one is pro-life, that is, when one is anti-life in all respects except re: abortion.

There is also something formulaic about the assertion that the right to life is fundamental and primary, and about the claim that the teaching on abortion enjoys quasi-infallible status, that seems to shut down the minds of those who make these claims.  As I've also noted in numerous postings, sound ethical analysis requires a respect for complexity and a drive to inform oneself about the entire range of issues related to any moral decision one is seeking to make.

Vis-a-vis abortion, sound ethical thinking cannot simply make formulaic statements about the primacy of life and the intrinsic evil of abortion, and then dispense with study of--for instance--what is scientifically known about when human life begins.  About fetal development.  About the division of a single fertilized zygote in the process of fetal development, to form twins.  About the well-attested fact that the huge majority of fertilized eggs do not implant in the uterus, so that nature itself appears naturally to "abort" almost all fertilized eggs--an act that, from the standpoint of current moral teaching, would be the abhorrent destruction of one human being after another by a natural process designed by the Creator.

One cannot form compelling moral judgments about abortion without looking at the long, rich--and far from univocal--tradition in Catholic moral teaching on this topic, either.  Or on the topic of when human life begins.  Or about the issue of how moral teaching should connect to civil law.  Or about the fact that a religious community can hold moral positions that it regards as strong and even absolute, without seeking to force a multicultural, pluralistic society to adopt its religiously-based moral judgments.

The false certitude that the bishops now claim for their teaching about abortion translates into, frankly, moral stupidity on the part of many Catholics--a moral stupidity that is not serving the Catholic tradition well at this point in history.  When people are absolutely certain that they are right, without involving themselves in the hard work of learning, thinking, listening to a variety of viewpoints, they are apt to make ill-informed and often cruel moral decisions in all sorts of areas in addition to the one about which they are certain they are right.

And they are apt to be sitting ducks for demagogues and any huckster that comes along selling some noxious brew of religio-political certitude that happens to agree with their fundamentalism.

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