Monday, November 1, 2010

Abortion Theology Should Not Be Abortion Law

          My old friend, theologian Charlie Curran, gave a lecture at Southern Methodist University last week that attracted some controversy in the Catholic world. Curran became a distinguished professor at SMU after he was fired from Catholic University many years ago for criticizing the Roman Catholic Church's teaching forbidding contraception (even for married couples). 
        In the lecture,  Curran criticized the church's political and legal strategy toward abortion law in the United States. He did not challenge the church's underlying moral opposition to abortion. Although in the past the church encouraged Catholic voters to reflect on a range of moral issues, Curran observed, today the bishops “now clearly state abortion is the primary issue.” Their rationale for doing so, he said, rests on their conviction that other issues of public policy and law “involve prudential judgments,” but that abortion laws “deal with something that is intrinsically evil and does not involve prudential judgments. Catholics have certitude on the abortion law issue.”
          As a theologian, Curran identifies four reasons internal to the church's teaching why the church is wrong to pursue such an absolutist position on abortion law while refusing to be so absolute on other matters of social justice, such as issues of just war or poverty. Readers interested in theological debates should read Curran's lecture and consider those four arguments, which are: 
  • “The speculative doubt about when human life begins;
  • “the fact that possibility and feasibility are necessary aspects involved in discussions about abortion law;
  • “the understanding and role of civil law;
  • “and the weakness of the intrinsic evil argument.”
         Most interesting to non-theologians should be Curran's argument that the religious freedom approach to civil law (which Curran advocates) requires recognition that people of religious faith disagree about the morality of abortion and women's rights. Once there is such disagreement, absolute legal stances based on moral certitude are inappropriate.
          I think this is where the Catholic bishops and many other religious citizens have gone astray over the last thirty years. They assume that their religious belief is absolutely correct and then try to impose that belief on everyone else through force of law. Curran has long tried to persuade Catholics that Catholic theology does not require them to understand the relationship between law and morality in this way.
          I think Americans who take the Constitution seriously should learn how mistaken it is to think that individual moral beliefs should become the universal law. The success of our government depends on laws that respect everyone's religious freedom and not just one group's religious beliefs. 


  1. The best way to argue with someone is from within their world-view. Kudos to Curran for doing just that.

  2. Wait a Minute!

    It is precisely because of people like Ms. Griffin and her allies that Catholics must push to have their views enshrined in law to be able to hold and act on those views.

    An application of Ms. Griffin's standards regarding religious freedom (hinting that anyone who opposes the Smith decision must support the muslim man's right to rape his wife, despite that the latter clearly involved a compelling governmental interest, while the former may or may not) means that CONSCIENCE CLAUSES are in serious danger.

    In other words, if abortion is legal, it tends in practice to force people to choose between careers in obstetrics and following one's pro-life conscience. Compromise may be possible, but Ms. Griffin and her allies try to stop that on grounds of "equality" and feign respect for religion without actually believing in it.

    As to suggesting that I perform abortion in respect for other's views, think of a muslim analogy. Suppose a disabled muslim man's daughter asks me to kill his daughter due to his inability to. He suggests that I should respect his beliefs and do so despite my objection.

    No one would say that tolerance requires me to do this. Likewise, one must apply the same logic to abortion.

    The basic thing is that it is not possible in the current political climate for religious people to live and let live. The secular left is trying to force anyone who disagrees with them out of public life by making certain occupations closed to those whose views might not conform exactly to theirs.

    That is one reason why I will not take the approach of this article on any moral issue.

  3. The difference being that, an obstetrician who performs an abortion in respect of others' views, is (a) performing their job and (b) not violating the law. Someone who kills a disabled Muslim man's daughter is violating the law—regardless of what their job is.

    Especially when it comes to people in public service—like doctors, lawyers, police, or firefighters—a layperson trusts that the professional is going to act in the best interest of the layperson regardless of the professional's religious or political views. If a rape victim goes to the police, she (I will assume it is a she for this example) has a right to expect a rape kit and that the police will act on her behalf in the criminal matter. She does not expect for the police to tell her that she ought not have been in a place where she was alone with a man who was not her husband or a family member and therefore the rape was her fault.