Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More on Theological Implications of Mourdock's Rape Remark: Pre-Adolescent Moral Development and Political Consequences

There are a number of different ways to dissect the underlying theological argument of Richard Mourdock in his recent observation that pregnancies due to rape are intended by God.  As journalist Tony Norman notes, one of the central theological questions we need to ask about Mourdock's observation is the following:

. . . [W]hat kind of god do candidates who don't allow for abortion under any circumstance, including the life of the mother, believe they're paying lip service to?

I've written extensively about the topic of abortion and its moral ramifications here in the past (e.g., in this posting), and I don't want to rehash arguments I've made previously about abortion as I look at Mourdock's God-intends-pregnancy-intends-rape argument from a theological standpoint now.  What I want to zero in on here, instead, are what I might call the pastoral implications of Mourdock's remark, and about what has now become the default position of the U.S. Catholic bishops, the religious right, and the Republican party about these issues: that default position is clearly that if God intends pregnancy due to rape, then God also intends rape (of course).

In the past, GOP leaders were understandably reluctant to spell this position out.  Now, goaded by their increasingly polarized right-wing base in both the Catholic church and among conservative evangelicals, some Republican leaders--notably Todd Akin, Joe Walsh, and Richard Mourdock, but one suspects they're only the tip of the iceberg--are coming out of the closet and spelling out precisely what has been hovering behind the non-negotiable position pushed by the American religious right (and by the Catholic hierarchy) re: the issue of abortion.

If God intends pregnancy, and if a woman becomes pregnant due to rape, then God, of course, also intends the rape that caused the pregnancy.  And therefore God could not possibly have designed things such that a woman would get pregnant if she had been "legitimately" raped (or, for that matter, so that a mother's life could be at stake in carrying a pregnancy to term).  Because God, you understand, has designed all of this.  It's God who's pulling all of these strings . . .

To an increasing number of people of good will and good sense, something seems very wrong with these arguments, to say the least.  What's wrong seems intuitively obvious: in the interest of placing God unambiguously on the side of life (as in the life of a conceptus or a fetus), they also end up placing God on the side of rape, when pregnancy occurs due to rape.

And they therefore totally obliterate the moral value or moral interests (and the human value and human interests) of the woman who is raped, to turn her into a breeding machine designed to preserve the sacrosanct, inviolable, counts-above-all life of the fetus.  Or the conceptus, if we're talking about even the administration of the morning-after pill, to which the Catholic hierarchy and the religious right object because they erroneously understand it as an abortifacient, and because they've unilaterally declared that the fertilized zygote has the status of a human person, and will brook no discussion of that unilateral decree . . . .

The fetus--even the just-fertilized zygote--counts above all.  It counts absolutely.  It nullifies the moral worth of a woman who is raped, or a woman whose life is at risk due to her pregnancy.  (Unfortunately for Mr. Walsh, there are rather well-substantiated cases in which women's lives are at stake due to their pregnancy.  These are so common, in fact, that almost all of us know of a case like this from our own life experience.  Mr. Walsh's reality-defying argument that modern technology has prevented any such case is as mind-boggling as is Mr. Akin's proposal that God has designed things such that a woman's body "shuts that whole thing down" when she's raped.)

As I say, something about these arguments strikes most people of good will and good sense as obviously and intuitively morally awry.  And here's what, in particular, troubles many of us, I imagine.

Simply by living our adult lives and functioning as conscientious adult moral agents, many of us have come to the recognition that the moral life never simply hinges on the application of a single, rigidly determined, absolute moral principle that resolves all moral quandaries for us.  In our exercise of conscience, many of us have as adults grown beyond the childhood notion that a single, shining moral rule does it all for us, when we're faced with a moral quandary.

Many of us who are adults and are struggling to be true to conscience and maintain morally sound lives have recognized long since that almost any moral quandary we encounter in our adult lives involves a variety of moral principles and considerations, which require us to weigh this good against that good, and to consider this undesirable outcome as stacked against that undesirable outcome.  That's, in fact, the nature of the real world, in which good and evil never arrange themselves so neatly and absolutely that a single, rigid principle absolutely applied in any and all circumstances magically arranges the world into good and evil bins for us.

And this is what I mean by using the word "pastoral" above.  Every course in pastoral theology I ever took at the graduate level hammered home--over and over again--the undesirability of using any language at all, in counseling people in grief, which might imply that God stands on the side of whatever has caused their grief.  "If you deal with people who have just lost a family member, don't ever tell them that God intended this death, or God has done what's best, or God has chosen to take their loved one home.  Be with people in their suffering.  Saying nothing is preferable to saying what increases people's pain.  But above all, don't ever put God on the side of death, suffering, pain, etc."

This is how I remember being instructed constantly, in any course in pastoral theology I ever took, to relate to people who had just suffered a tragedy or a loss, who were in pain and grieving.  It's how I remember pastoral counselors teaching me and others who had volunteered to do AIDS ministry in the 1980s to relate to people struggling to cope with HIV and AIDS, and to relate to their loved ones.

God doesn't belong on the side of illness and death.  God doesn't belong on the side of rape.

At a visceral level, what Richard Mourdock recently said about God and rape (and what the U.S. Catholic bishops and the religious right in general want us to believe) is deeply repugnant because it does, in fact, place God squarely on the side of rape.  And in doing so, it reveals how completely wrong-headed the approach of the Catholic magisterium and the religious right in general to the issue of abortion has become.

When the current pope, acting as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, censured and silenced moral theologian Fr. Charles Curran and succeeded in having him removed from his tenured teaching position at Catholic University, what Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II were effectively doing was shutting down any moral conversation about abortion that would recognize the kind of ambiguity surrounding that issue that many adults intuitively recognize, simply through living our adult moral lives and exercising our adult consciences.  John Paul and Ratzinger shut the conversation down and placed off-limits the discussion of very pertinent biological data (e.g., about the fact that the large majority of fertilized ova abort naturally, or about the splitting of the zygote in the case of twinning) that, to many adult consciences, do have significant bearing on this important and complex moral issues.

Their shut-down of all conversation also implicitly declared off-limits and insignificant the entire Catholic tradition of moral thinking about abortion, in which highly regarded moral teachers, Aquinas included, followed the lead of Aristotle in thinking that the fetus is ensouled at the moment of implantation and not at the moment of conception.  The ultimate effect--an intended consequence--of what the current pope and his predecessor have done with the abortion issue is to demand that adult Catholics substitute magisterial fiat for the exercise of adult conscience as we confront the issue of abortion.

This magisterial decision has had consequences for the credibility of Catholic moral teaching that are beyond disastrous.  It has fostered rigid, absolutist, infantile moral thinking about the issue of abortion (and about life issues in general) which recognizes no moral ambiguity at all regarding this issue, and which results in black-and-white, either-or understandings of many moral issues (because, following the lead of the magisterium everything now hinges on abortion for many Catholics--black-and-white), either-or understandings that are simply nonsensical to most of us who have adult consciences and adult experiences with moral thinking.

The hope of the Catholic magisterium, which has laid the foundation for this black-and-white, either-or absolutist moral thinking for the religious right in general, has been that the issue of abortion will be a kind of iron cage in which to trap the modern world in general, insofar as it has strayed from the control of the magisterium--a constant focus of concern in the writings of the current pope.  To me, Richard Mourdock's recent remark indicating that God has designed things such that God stands on the side of rape when pregnancy occurs due to rape suggests that the iron cage has actually trapped the gentlemen who created the cage.

Mourdock's remark reveals how shallow, how premoral is the moral thinking that lies behind the anti-abortion mentality which now exercises determinative control in the American political context.  The kind of absolutist thinking displayed by Mourdock and the entire religious right (the Catholic magisterium included) vis-a-vis the issue of abortion--absolutist thinking crafted to create an iron cage of rigid either-or principles in which to entrap liberals--is moral thinking characteristic of the moral thinking of children rather than of adults.

And that ought to give serious concern to those of us who think that being led by adults in either the religious or the political sphere is preferable to being led by people whose development is arrested, in the critical area of conscience formation, at a pre-adolescent stage of growth.

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