Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Personhood Amendment Fails: Questions about Bishops' Decrees and Bishops' Principles

It's interesting that while Mr. Dolan issues decrees in New York, voters in a bible-belt state that self-identifies as the most conservative state in the Union have just rejected an amendment to their state's constitution that would have enshrined in state law a teaching peculiar to the Catholic magisterium, that a zygote has the ontological status of a person.  The Catholic magisterial notion that a unique human person is fully present from the moment a sperm fertilizes an ovum has been picked up as a talking point by the Protestant evangelical religious right, and is increasingly being made a rallying point for the Republican party.  Hence the proliferation of these "personhood" initiatives as the 2012 elections approach: as with anti-gay initiatives such as the one facing voters in Minnesota, these are attempts of Republican handlers to bring out the faithful in the American elections now just around the corner.

And so I say again: it's interesting that voters in the most conservative and one of the most religiously observant states in the nation rejected the personhood amendment yesterday.  To many observers, this suggests a concern, even in heavily churched and highly religious areas of the U.S., about what happens when control of state legislatures, governors' mansions, and constitutions is handed over to religious leaders.  

And I myself see no reason at all to question that concern.  Stephen O'Brien is right to underscore, in this current Commonweal thread started by Lisa Fullam about the Mississippi personhood amendment, that the basis for understanding a zygote as a human person is peculiarly Catholic.  This notion of the ontological status of the fertilized ovum depends on Catholic magisterial fiat.  As O'Brien writes, 

. . . [T]he Catholic Church emphatically asserts the following, "Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2274).

And since the declaration that the zygote is a person depends on Catholic magisterial fiat even when that definition is picked up by other religious groups in their war against this or that constituency or opposing political party, attention will naturally focus on the rights and claims of the Catholic hierarchy to define civil law here and in other areas including the area of marriage, as these rights and claims are asserted in the public square.  That's how democracy works: we sort conflicting claims and we scrutinize the authority figures making these claims in the public square, as we try to establish principled and workable norms for our democratic society.

This being the case, I have to confess I'm at a loss to understand Margaret O'Brien Steinfels' point in that other Commonweal thread to which I drew readers' attention yesterday, in which she sets "good [Catholic] institutions" in opposition to pro-gay ideologies.  In this thread, Steinfels also writes, 

On the contraception issue: I think the bishops are foolish, sadly so, to raise it to an invariable principle in the public square. On the abortion issue, they have solid principle on their side.

As I say, I'm not quite sure what to make of this claim.  At one level, it seems to echo a claim often made by "pro-life" Catholics, that the abortion issue is a non-negotiable because it deals with the most foundational right of all, the right to life.  And so all discussion must be ended and the abortion case closed, and we must rally around the magisterium if we value life in any form at all.

But to say this is only to intensify the problem of identifying when and how full human ontological status begins.  And to try to resolve that problem by Catholic decrees and fiats in a pluralistic democratic society is hardly helpful, when a majority of citizens (and a majority of Catholics themselves) do not automatically recognize the right of Catholic church leaders to make definitions that coerce everyone in a civil society.  And when the bishops and the Vatican refuse to permit any open discussion of the thorny unresolved problems about precisely when a fetus acquires ontological status, which are rooted in scientific evidence about the process of conception and fetal development, and mirrored in venerable Catholic tradition, where strong theological authorities have argued that the fetus becomes a person at the moment of uterine implantation or quickening . . . .

And so where does "principle" come into the picture here, I wonder--let alone the "solid principle" that Margaret O'Brien Steinfels imagines the bishops have on their side?  On the face of it, I'd say that the bishops' claim to have any kind of principle at all on their side, let alone solid principle, faces an increasingly steep uphill climb in the public square, as we scrutinize the bishops' behavior in the abuse crisis.

And though defenders of the hierarchy and their magisterial decrees want to attribute the heightened scrutiny of Catholic leaders and their principles by the general public and by increasing numbers of the public to anti-Catholicism, I think this scrutiny is entirely understandable and entirely warranted, when any religious body makes sweeping claims about its rights to define and control civil law in a pluralistic secular democracy.  As Mr. Dolan's recent decree about civil marriage for same-sex couples in New York does . . . . 

And when the bishops' claims about their "right" to determine civil law and dictate definitions regarding when life begins to the public square grow ever more shrill in direct proportion to their waning moral authority, and ever more untenable even for many Catholics, who do not share the apparent "principled" view of the Catholic bishops that women who have been raped ought not to have the right, in a pluralistic secular democracy, to determine for themselves whether or not they should have access to medical procedures that would terminate any pregnancy resulting from the rape--including even the "morning-after" pill given to a woman who has been raped as a precautionary measure immediately after she seeks medical assistance . . . . 

As I've observed before, the principled way for the bishops to handle these issues in the public square of a secular democracy is by open, respectful, back-and-forth discussion.  But that open, respectful, back-and-forth discussion is meaningless unless it begins within the church itself, between the bishops and the rest of the faithful.  And in order to enter into such a discussion, the bishops have to abandon the language of no, no, no, of decrees and punishments, and start listening--even to their brother and sister Catholics who often sharply disagree with them.

Issuing decrees is not a conspicuously principled way to make one's moral voice heard, if one truly has something of moral import to say.  Until the bishops abandon the coercive approach and start trying a gospel-centered one, they will continue to make little to no impact on the fundamental views of either many Americans or many Catholics, when it comes to questions about the value of life.

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