This article was originally published on February 14, 1975 to recognize the two year anniversary of the Roe decision.
Now that two years have passed since that eventful decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, and the blinding dust of emotional reaction has somewhat subsided, hopefully the Catholic community of this country can take a more scrutinizing and less nervous look at the implications of what was said. In the past two years much has appeared in the Catholic press criticizing this decision. The tone of many of these criticisms has often been strident. Unquestionably the decision with its resultant criticisms has brought into the public forum the whole question of abortion with all its personal, public, and religious ramifications. The decision of the Court has not so much resolved the public debate on abortion as it has opened up a Pandora’s box of pent-up emotions and convictions on this extremely controversial subject. This is evidenced by the fact that there is a growing effort among some to bring about a constitutional amendment which would nullify the Court’s decision.
In approaching the problem of abortion from a “Catholic” point of view, a fundamental distinction must be made at the outset. That distinction lies between: 1) the norms of a personal conscience developed from deeply held Christian commitments; and 2) the norms that are to function for a society made up of a multiplicity of convictions developed from various religious and philosophical commitments. These are two quite distinct realities.
The first of these realities is the formed conscience which a Christian develops by studying, praying, meditating upon the essentials of a Christian life. In regard to abortion this is done by evaluating and analyzing the consistency of abortion with the deeply held principles of one’s Christian faith. On this level we make decisions on the basis of Christian tradition which of its very nature involves a number of uncertainties. As certain as the abortion issue may be for modern-day Catholics, divergent positions have been held in the past by various theologians and local churches (including the Holy See) in their laws and prayers on the subject of abortion. Once determined, this tradition has to be placed up against the contemporary questions that modern theologians and Christian thinkers are asking regarding the new uncertainties surrounding abortion. After struggling with these problematics and viewing them vis-à-vis a somewhat fluctuating tradition in the Church, the Christian then decides what procedures he or she will follow, and then willingly takes his or her stand before God with those decisions. Here the Christian is the responsible agent for himself or herself, and those for whom he or she has an immediate responsibility. The conscience being formed, the Christian should follow it, and, indeed, must follow it, regardless of the direction the rest of society may choose to take.
The second area of concern, however, is quite different and it is the one I will be principally concerned about here, precisely because it seems to be that one we need most to clarify as a result of the apparently “official Catholic response” to the Supreme Court decision. Very simply it raises the question: Do we have the right to enforce through law our formed consciences (as they are developed to this point) upon the rest of society, or even on a minority in society, when the consciences of a substantial portion of society dictate principles and values other than our own? The simple response to this question (especially in the light of the decree Dignitatis humanae of Vatican II) should be a categorical ‘No.’