Single-issue Church?

We are witnessing an unprecedented era in church history, one in which a single moral teaching has become so important for the magisterium that it appears to many, both inside and outside the church, to be the central dogma of the faith. Two millennia ago, in the early church, even the practice of eating meat cooked in sacrifice to the Roman gods—an enormously divisive issue—was declared morally permissible (reasoning that it constituted what later theologians would describe as a morally licit act of remote material cooperation). Politicians today, by contrast, can be denied Communion, and religious sisters formally excommunicated, for any complicity whatsoever in the evil of abortion. The situation seems perverse. If a Catholic politician were to stand up on national television and deny the Resurrection or the doctrine of Real Presence, not a single bishop would blink. But if one votes for a health-care bill to subsidize health insurance for millions who would otherwise have no health care, some of whom might use that subsidy to help purchase plans that could provide coverage for abortions—abortions they might well never have—such a politician is condemned by bishops as part of the culture of death.

In The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent, George Dennis O’Brien argues that abortion has become “foundational” for the church, and has turned Roman Catholicism into a “Religion of Anti-Abortion.” In O’Brien’s view, the emphasis placed on abortion by church authorities, and the venomous anger with which the magisterium and the Catholic prolife movement often deliver their message, are not only politically counterproductive but an impediment to the church’s mission of proclaiming the gospel. As his book’s title implies, O’Brien offers a true dissent on abortion. The reasons given by the church for its stringent opposition to abortion, he argues, are mistaken—legally, philosophically, and theologically. In his opinion, the church should change its position.

O’Brien, a member of Commonweal’s board and a longtime contributor, denies that he is proabortion, or even prochoice, calling abortion “tragic” in all circumstances. But he does not believe it is always morally wrong—and he’s certain that a law banning all abortions would do more harm than good. He offers several arguments for that position. First, he notes that the church offers no actual plan for abortion law other than the overturn of Roe v. Wade. But making all abortions illegal would be unenforceable, he believes, and would trigger a widespread return to “back-alley abortions.” In light of these realities, O’Brien predicts that if Roe were overturned and the matter sent back to the states, liberal abortion laws would still prevail.

As a matter of moral theory, O’Brien accepts the notion that abortion is an intrinsic evil, yet insists that some intrinsically evil acts must be undertaken, tragically, “to avoid an even greater moral evil or to accomplish an overriding ‘intrinsic good.’” He presents a series of arguments against how the church construes the natural law regarding abortion, accusing “new natural law” theorists such as John Finnis of trying to give objective, deductive answers to moral questions where no such objectivity is possible. Turning to the disputed notion of personhood, O’Brien defends the incrementalist view that the moral standing of a human developing in the womb gradually increases as it comes closer to birth, so that the “intrinsic evil” of abortion grows with gestational age. In support of this position, he reminds us that Aquinas, operating under the premises of medieval biology, thought that ensoulment occurred only at “quickening,” the moment at which the developing human life was “animated.” The church does not baptize early miscarriages, he points out; and the fact that most bishops and other prolife officials in the church would not support laws punishing women who have abortions as murderers undermines their stated position that the fetus is a full person and that abortion is an act of murder.

O’Brien sketches a rather touching and interesting phenomenology of pregnancy, focusing on the relationship between the pregnant woman and the developing human life within her. This phenomenology is one of the most novel parts of The Church and Abortion. He ends this chapter with a discussion of a few “hard cases,” like the abortion performed in 2009 on a nine-year-old Brazilian girl who had been raped repeatedly by her father—and asks whether Canon 1324 (mitigating punishments in cases of grave fear, necessity, or serious inconvenience) would not permit an abortion in such a case.

Turning to theology, O’Brien proposes a liberal version of “Mater si, magistra no!” the National Review’s famous response to John XXIII’s Mater et magistra. He argues that Jesus denied that he was a teacher of morals, and submits that a truly Christian ethics must be narrative in form: God, O’Brien asserts, is a “playwright,” not an “engineer.” This leads him to conclude that God’s view of what it means to be prolife goes deeper than most Christians realize—and, subsequently, that God would in fact be prochoice on abortion. “Even if one accepts the notion that the fetus has significant moral status,” O’Brien writes, “a woman may have to make a tragic choice against this potential life. Tragic choice is tragic because it is a deep life choice. The woman summons the full range of her powers, arrays them against the disastrous situation that threatens to destroy not her biological life, but her value and person. Choosing her person, she chooses life.”

O’Brien has written a lucid and highly readable book, full of trenchant reflections on church rhetoric regarding abortion and the hierarchy’s excessive emphasis on this single issue. Unfortunately, however, the major arguments served up in The Church and Abortion for actual dissent from church teaching turn out to be either logical non sequiturs or attacks on straw-man positions. That the church may be overemphasizing abortion in its public rhetoric, for instance, does not mean that the basic moral position is wrong. Nor does the fact that church officials would not propose to prosecute for murder a woman who has had an abortion represent an argument for legalizing abortion—but rather, simply, an admirable act of mercy. No serious natural-law scholars, meanwhile, hold the cartoon version of natural law that O’Brien sketches, and he does not address the most scholarly natural-law treatments of the abortion question. The fact that ethics is not a perfectly precise deductive science does not, as O’Brien suggests, mean that it must devolve into a nebulous narrative in which it is almost impossible to declare any act actually wrong. His use of the phrase “intrinsic evil” turns the concept on its head, turning it into something resembling “wrong, unless you have a good reason to do it.” And ironically, while in the midst of accusing the hierarchy of “a lack of learning,” he himself misattributes the authorship of the anonymous medieval work The Cloud of Unknowing to Meister Eckhart.

O’Brien’s notion that the present emphasis on abortion arises from what he calls a “temptation to morality” is, I think, interesting and correct. I’m inclined to think, however, that the explanations for this temptation given in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age are more penetrating than those of O’Brien, who seems to believe that it rests on an epistemological mistake. While religion, in his view, might influence morality, he sees no logical connection between the two. This seems an odd view, given the fact that almost all religions have very serious moral codes, and that most moral philosophers will admit that even a secular ethic ultimately depends on a set of fundamental, religion-like assumptions. Taylor, by contrast, argues that churches in a secular age wrestle to find a place in the culture by emphasizing morality, thereby avoiding conflict between diverse systems of belief, but also thereby serving the needs of the modern secular state for order—while avoiding the “embarrassment” of proclaiming secularly discredited beliefs, such as the folly of the Cross or the cult of the saints.

Whatever the explanation, I believe that O’Brien, like Charles Taylor, has made an insightful observation regarding the present tendency of religions to reduce their teachings to ethics. This reduction is a serious mistake. Personally, when push comes to shove, I’m prolife because, in the company of the saints, I follow the man who died on the Cross for our salvation. I don’t follow Jesus because he’s the most solid prolife candidate currently running for the office of God-in-Chief. O’Brien calls us back to a balanced perspective on the matter, even if his arguments to change church teaching fall far short of the mark.


Related: George Dennis O'Brien responds to this review
Can We Talk about Abortion? An exchange featuring Dennis O'Brien, Peter Steinfels, and Cathleen Kaveny

Published in the 2011-01-14 issue: 

Daniel P. Sulmasy, OFM, is professor of medicine and ethics in the Department of Medicine and Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

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