The Administrative Committee of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has issued a statement on the recent comments by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senator Joseph Biden regarding the Church’s teaching on abortion. The statement is balanced but strong, as were the previous statements issued jointly by Cardinal Justin Rigali, head of the Pro-Life Committee, and Bishop William Lori, chair of the Doctrine Committee.
It points out that both Pelosi and Biden misrepresented the Church’s teachings in their statements on "Meet The Press." The statement by the bishops does not attribute bad motives to either politician. It says that they were wrong and it says so forcefully. But, it does not get into the ugly and uncharitable business of demonizing anyone. This is important because the bishops need to look at the two parties’ platforms and see which has the greater prospect of reducing the number of abortions.
The GOP calls for overturning Roe which would punt the issue back to the states. Most states would codify Roe, perhaps with greater restrictions on late-term abortions, but most abortions do not occur late in the term and most abortions do not occur in the more conservative states that would enact restrictions. The GOP specifically declined to endorse a common ground approach to reducing the number of abortions. They removed the following line from their platform: "We invite all persons of good will, whether across the political aisle or within our party, to work together to reduce the incidence of abortion."
Why did they remove those words? The Democrats did add that language, and pledged support for efforts to provide pre- and post-natal care for pregnant women, to achieve universal health insurance so that women can afford to go to a hospital, and other programs that would make it easier for women to make the choice to carry a child to term. Let’s be honest: Most abortions in America are procured by women who do not think they can afford a pregnancy. The Democrats, while not backing down on their support for Roe, embrace a program that shows greater promise of actually reducing the number of abortions. I think they are wrong about Roe and I want our bishops to call them out on that fact. But, the bishops cannot say any longer that one party is pro-life and the other is pro-abortion.
There is one problem with the bishops’ statement. They want to show that this issue is not strictly speaking confessional in nature, that it is not dependent upon revealed religion but, instead, is based on natural law. In fact, as Rocco Palmo reports, the bishops changed some of the language of the text to show that their argument is not based on Church teaching. But, not everyone in America believes in natural law theory, so while I understand that the bishops do not want abortion to be seen as a "Catholic issue" I think they have to be better prepared for a different kind of argument, and one they must conduct without recourse to their apostolic authority, if they pursue the natural law argument.
For example, the bishops’ statement reads: "The first is a biological question: When does a new human life begin? When is there a new living organism of the human species, distinct from mother and father and ready to develop and mature if given a nurturing environment? While ancient thinkers had little verifiable knowledge to help them answer this question, today embryology textbooks confirm that a new human life begins at conception. The Catholic Church does not teach this as a matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact." Yes, those embryology textbooks will show that human life is present from conception onwards. The zygote or colony of cells is undeniably alive and not dead. And, it is undeniably human – it is not an acorn and will not grow into an oak tree. But, it is not yet an individual human person because twinning is possible up until day fifteen or sixteen after conception. Should the zygote deserve legal protection before it is an individual human person? I believe so, and the bishops believe so, but there is no scientific argument one way or the other, and the American constitutional tradition only recognizes the existence of rights that inhere in individuals. Besides, NARAL and NOW can hire scientists too, so I do not think the bishops have found a winning argument.
I have never been a fan of natural law reasoning, and an argument based upon it certainly robs the bishops of their authority when they speak to Pelosi and Biden as pastors: as Cardinal William Levada demonstrated in his doctoral dissertation, a natural law argument cannot, by definition, be issued on the authority of the Church’s magisterium because it is not contingent upon revealed truth. Aristotle was not a Thomist although Thomists are Aristotelians. The bishops argument would be more persuasive to my Catholics ears if they invoked the Imago Dei. No matter how many scientists NARAL finds, none of them can dispute the truths about the human person that we find in Genesis and the Psalms and in the Incarnation of our Lord. Those truths changed the world. Abortion is violence against a child of God, or children of God, it doesn’t matter if it is day one or day twenty after conception. Until the bishops appear more in love with their fellow men, especially those who err, it will fail to create the culture of life which is the only way to end the evil of abortion.
Michael Sean Winters