Roman Catholicism and Abortion

Published 20 Feb 2017

Religion is an important part of the current abortion debate. The rise of an abortion rights mentality can be regarded, on one level, as an instance of the rapid pace of secularization. On another level, it is part of a much older and long-standing problematic. Some authors regard the rise of an abortion rights mentality as a continuation of the individualism of the Protestant Reformation and an extension of the antitraditionalism of the Enlightenment (Falik 17).

While there is indeed a sizeable segment of strictly secular feminists, the importance of religion for contemporary feminism is a theme much in evidence not only in the four authors we shall be treating but in others as well (Midgely and Hughes 8-9). While some feminists may indeed show an antipathy toward religion, it is not the case that pro-choice feminism necessarily follows their lead (Tripp 50).

To put it in another way: the abortion mentality is at home in atheism; it is out of place in Christianity. This opposition to the practice of human abortion comes about not because the Christian Church is misogynist, as some feminists such as Beverly Harrison will argue, but because the act of abortion does violence to both mother and child, creatures of a loving God in whose image both were made. While there is an undeniable link between the practice of abortion and the attitude of atheism, no such link exists between abortion and feminism. Here again we do well to remember: There are many feminisms.

There are only two consistent attitudes to abortion: one is the extreme feminist one; the other is that held by Roman Catholics. The middle way, that abortion is all right sometimes, depending on the circumstances, and justified by situation ethics (i.e., it depends on situation), is morally and logically absurd (Kenny 2).

In a recent anthology of feminist theology, Ann Loades declares that all Christianity owes a debt of gratitude to the Roman Catholic Church because of the way the Church puts the issues “out front.” The Catholic Church’s teaching on the immorality of procured abortion stands in direct opposition to much of contemporary feminist ideology which maintains, in the words of Stella Browne, that “abortion must be the key to a new world for women.”

During the tumultuous period of the 1960s when abortion as an absolute right was first proposed by some radical feminists, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on the immorality of directly procured abortion is clearly reiterated by the Second Vatican Council: “From the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care, while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” Thus, we ought not to find it surprising that the Church’s teaching on abortion is not far from the minds of feminist theorists. Indeed, the Church’s teaching is regarded as the major moral obstacle to the feminist desire for a right to an abortion. Each of the four feminist thinkers will in her own way attempt to grapple with Roman Catholic moral teaching as she seeks to overcome the chief barrier to “a new world for women” (Luker 45).

Thus, abortion in the terms of Catholicism is not merely any sin; it is the mortal sin of murder, which removes all grace from the one who commits it and results (if not repented of prior to death) in an eternity in Hell.
A secondary offense to the Catholic faith of the act of abortion is in its perceived role in undermining the family. For Catholic believers, the Church is the “family of God,” consisting in the spiritual realm of God the Father, Jesus the Son and brother of believers, the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary, and a holy family of saints throughout time that intercede continually for those still on earth. For the faithful Catholic, this extended family in the spiritual realm is an ideal toward which flesh-and-blood families in the material realm should be striving at all times.

The national legalization of abortion as a right occurred at a sensitive moment in Catholic history. While traditionalists maintained their unwavering respect for Marian doctrine, the teachings on birth control and abortion, and other factors reinforcing the abolitionist position, other long-standing traditions were falling by the wayside. Younger Catholics were beginning to find many of the old ways an uncomfortable fit in the modern world, and the modern world was beginning to intrude into Catholicism.

Encouraged by the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II, young Catholics and those less connected to the traditions and conservatism of the Church found a variety of ways to explore the world beyond. Pope John XXIII’s endorsement of ecumenism gave young Catholics an excuse to breach the walls of the Church and form friendships with non-Catholic Christians. Where before a young Catholic girl might be unlikely to associate (and, especially, date) outside the faith, ecumenism and the new “openness to the totality of Christian and human history” made it acceptable to explore other possibilities ( Bokenkotter, 1977: 366). As Marty observes:
The Council [Vatican II] helped shatter the old image of Catholic unity. Gone was the Latin Mass, one old bond; gone also were many rules that commanded uniform participation. Now Catholics were free to eat meat on Friday; they were not necessarily expected to use the rosary as before for prayer, or to make pilgrimages or attend specified devotions. Priests and nuns often changed from religious garb to street clothes. For an American to be told that someone was a Roman Catholic did little to certify his or her membership in a group; there were fewer distinguishing badges than before (Marty 465).

The evidence indicates that the changes in the Church caused some simply to leave. Vatican Il was immediately followed by a precipitous drop in seminary enrollments and in the number of practicing Catholic clergy and “a substantial decline in the proportion of Catholics attending mass during any given week” (Finke and Stark 261). As Bokenkotter says, “Having been taught to think of the Mass as a mysterious unchangeable set of ceremonies originating with Christ himself, the average Catholic was not intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally prepared for” the changes in procedure encouraged by Vatican Il (Bokenkotter 368). The Church, as Roe came down, was in a crisis of authority, leadership, and respect. The youth were leaving, the clergy were in rebellion, and few things seemed secure in the Catholic world. The aftermath of Vatican II “amounted to a major revolution or, as some have called it, a Copernican shift in consciousness. Thanks to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics have been forced to re-examine many of their most cherished practices and traditions. Such a process was bound to be disruptive, but the sheer magnitude of the crisis it provoked astonished everyone” (Bokenkotter 386).

In the midst of this upheaval, traditional Catholics found comfort in the solidity of their Church’s positions on contraception and abortion. Although many of the ritualistic expressions of Catholicism were relaxed in Vatican II and believers no longer felt pressured to participate in such traditions, the abortion abolition enterprise encouraged symbolic behavior. Prayer cards, novenas, Marian devotions, candle lighting, and the like were familiar and comfortable to Catholic abolitionists, and the enterprise offered an environment in which the most traditional Catholic behaviors were welcomed and nurtured. In the post–Vatican II world, the abortion abolition enterprise offered believers an arena in which they could practice their traditional devotions in a spiritually fulfilling effort with papal support against a hostile outside culture. Remaining strongly pro-life in the post–Vatican II atmosphere allowed believers at least one more of Marty’s “distinguishing badges” of Catholicism.

While the Catholic Church was struggling to retain its membership and standing unapologetically behind its centuries-old tradition of opposing abortion, conservative Protestants, evangelicals, and Pentecostals were reveling in new membership and, to put it in pop theological terms, “majoring on the spiritual.” While these citizens did vote, they did not tend to involve themselves in other aspects of politics, as it was a worldly concern. Instead, conservative evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics continued to build their parallel culture, all but ignoring the nation around them.

For the Catholic Church, a culturewide acceptance of abortion also represented a direct threat to her existence, in its potential both to destroy unborn life and to lure young Catholics into immoral behavior. The Vatican’s positions on birth control and nonmarital sex make her especially vulnerable to what pro-choice activists would call a “need” for the availability of abortion.

The association of abortion with what the Church calls artificial birth control and what the pro-choice movement calls family planning adds to its offensiveness to faithful Catholics. The position of the Church, consistently held through her history, is that “deliberately and directly interfering with the marital act in order to prevent conception or birth is a gravely evil action” (Stravinskas 139). In 1967, after a three-year period of study, the Pope rejected the recommendations of his commission on contraception and strengthened the Church’s position against birth control.

In addition, the Church finds abortion anathema in that it is often a murder compounding another sin. Whether it is the failed use of contraception or the uncontrolled use of nonmarital sex, for the Vatican there is no excuse to use abortion (an act of murder) to correct or to hide the circumstances of the pregnancy (though these circumstances are also mortal sins). The social acceptance of abortion as an escape mechanism, according to the Vatican, increases the incidence of immoral sexual behavior. As long as one can abort an unwanted fetus, there is no real need to exercise the self-control taught by the Bible and the Church in matters of personal sexual morality. The Pope states: “the negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality’–which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act–are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived” (John Paul 11 23).

These positions, however, effectively require that the Church minimize the availability of abortion if at all possible. Unless the Church is convincing in her case that abortion is murder, a Catholic woman may well see it as a way of preventing anyone from finding out that she has committed the sin of premarital sex or adultery. And, even in the case of married people, in reality, as Noonan recognized as early as 1965, many American Catholics practice birth control regardless of the teaching. Contraception badly practiced often leads to pregnancy, and once one has committed one serious sin, there would seem to be little left to argue against another that has the potential to “fix” the first. In order to prevent Catholics from having abortions, the Church must either convince her members that abortion is an especially serious sin with mortal consequences, or depend on the surrounding culture to carry the message-ideally, both. When the surrounding culture, by accepting the Roe decision without apparent objection, made it clear that it would no longer provide that assistance, the Vatican could not help but harden her position.

Works Cited

  • Bokenkotter Thomas. (1977). “A Concise History of the Catholic Church.” New York: Image Books, Doubleday.
  • Falik, Marilyn. “Ideology and Abortion Policy Politics” New York: Praeger Scientific Studies, 1983.
  • Finke Roger, and Rodney Stark. (1992).” The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.” New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • John Paul II, (1995). “The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae): The Encyclical Letter on Abortion, Euthanasia, and the Death Penalty in Today’s World.” New York: Times Books, a division of Random House.
  • Kenny, Mary. “Abortion: The Whole Story.” London and New York: Quartet Books, 1986.
  • Luker, Kristin. “Taking Chances: Abortion and the Decision Not to Contracept.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
  • Marty Martin E. (1984). “Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America.” New York: Penguin.
  • Midgely, Mary and Hughes, Judith. Women’s Choices: Philosophical Problems Facing Feminism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
  • Stravinskas Rev. Peter M. J., ed. (1991). Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia.” Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor.
  • Tripp, Maggie. “Woman in the Year 2000.” New York: Arbor House, 1974.
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