On abortion, Catholics—including politicians—can’t reduce the issue to a question of ‘choice’
Is there “room to be pro-choice in Catholicism”? On the morning of Jan. 5, The Washington Post headlined an interview with Pat Conroy, S.J., the former chaplain of the House of Representatives, with his assertion that there is. But both the question (as the headline frames it) and Father Conroy’s answers oversimplify the Catholic understanding of the morality of abortion and the complicated intersection of moral commitments with law and policy—to the point of distortion.
These oversimplifications are by no means unique to Father Conroy. Instead, they are fairly common tropes used to argue that Catholic politicians can be pro-choice in good conscience. Nor are oversimplifications about abortion and Catholicism a uniquely pro-choice phenomenon; there are parallels on the pro-life side, such as claims that no Catholic can be a Democrat.
It is also worth noting that abortion was discussed in only one question in the interview, which was broadly about “apocalyptic thinking” and Father Conroy’s thoughts at the one year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. (Father Conroy stepped down as chaplain of the House just a few days prior to Jan. 6, 2021.) I suspect Father Conroy was as surprised by the Post headline as anyone else.
Nor are oversimplifications about abortion and Catholicism a uniquely pro-choice phenomenon; there are parallels on the pro-life side, such as claims that no Catholic can be a Democrat.
Still, in my reading, Father Conroy’s comments are symptomatic of a larger dysfunction in how Americans, and American Catholics in particular, talk about abortion with each other. Instead of challenging pro-choice Catholic politicians to engage with church teaching and embrace justice for the unborn, his comments offered a kind of off-ramp to avoid deeper moral reckoning by framing the issue primarily as a matter of choice rather than justice. That is one reason why, as a brother Jesuit, I am disappointed and deeply concerned by the way he spoke about abortion in this interview. (Full disclosure: I have met Father Conroy several times as a Jesuit, and he has always been kind and gracious to me. I contacted him in the course of writing this piece, and one clarification he offered is explained below.)
Oversimplification of the moral conflict around abortion is all too common in our public discourse. Abortion is a challenging question, because of the unique intersection between the human dignity of the unborn child and the bodily autonomy of a pregnant woman. Rather than acknowledging this, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates tend to employ talking points that only acknowledge one of these two goods as a real moral value. This manifests in pro-life rhetoric as the description of anyone who hesitates to make abortion illegal as willing to collude in murder, or in pro-choice rhetoric as the claim that anyone trying to protect unborn life devalues women and wants to control their bodies. Either way, it leaves us disagreeing with and angry at straw man versions of each others’ moral views of abortion.
Abortion is a challenging question, because of the unique intersection between the human dignity of the unborn child and the bodily autonomy of a pregnant woman.
I have written plenty about how the pro-life movement—in which I count myself—and especially pro-life Catholics need to approach these discussions differently. But there remains equal need for people who are pro-choice to more clearly acknowledge the moral stakes in abortion and, especially for pro-choice Catholic politicians and public figures, to reckon with the gravity of their own dissent from the church’s teaching on this issue.
Father Conroy added, in a clarification to The Post, that “there is no debate, in my mind, about the tragedy of abortion,” and that the system should help women to make the choice not to abort but “should not make it for her.” But the need for this clarification itself illuminates what is wrong with how this question is framed. A complicated and deeply intertwined set of moral issues are being compressed into a simplistic dichotomy between a personal moral conviction and someone else’s moral choice.
Instead, what is needed is a careful set of distinctions between the different levels of moral questions involved in abortion. There is the question of the morality of the act of abortion itself. But there are also, in the layers surrounding that fundamental moral judgment, questions about whether abortion should be recognized as a constitutional right, how abortion should be legally regulated or not, what policies a Catholic politician should advocate for, and how voters should make decisions about which politicians to support.
Father Conroy’s answer to The Washington Post about abortion collapses several of these questions together:
A good Catholic in our system could be saying: Given [that] women in our system have this constitutional right, our task as fellow Christians, or as Catholics, is to make it possible for her to optimize her ability to make the choice. So a pro-choice Democrat isn’t a pro-abortion person but the debate has snatched that [distinction away].
So immediately any pro-choice Democrat is judged as pro-abortion.
This answer attempts to maintain a distinction between a moral judgment regarding abortion itself and the moral response to a situation in which abortion is legally protected. But while this distinction is real and important, it does not resolve how Catholic politicians can approach the question.
Politicians are precisely responsible for taking positions on how moral issues ought to shape legal and constitutional norms.
First, since the question was about the responsibility of Catholic politicians, treating the constitutionality of abortion as a “given” just dodges the real issue. Politicians are precisely responsible for taking positions on how moral issues ought to shape legal and constitutional norms. The history of U.S. jurisprudence is littered with legal givens that are later seen as both immoral and profoundly untenable, ranging from slavery to segregation to eugenics to the denial of the right to vote and more. Yes, there are moral responsibilities within a system that currently protects a right to an abortion; but those do not abrogate a politician’s moral responsibility to advocate for a more just system at the same time. (Nor does advocating for an end to legal abortion abrogate pro-life politicians’ duty to support policies that will help support women and families facing challenging pregnancies.)
Whether or not pro-choice politicians are advancing abortion cannot be determined solely by their personal moral views but rather by what kind of policies, including constitutional interpretations, they accept, defend and advocate for. Virtually no one, of course, is pro-abortion in the sense of encouraging women to choose abortion when they are not seeking it, but plenty of people are working to make abortion more readily available and strongly oppose any attempt to legally protect unborn life. Political advocacy for abortion has moral weight and cannot be absolved by a facile distinction between being pro-choice and pro-abortion.
Political advocacy for abortion has moral weight and cannot be absolved by a facile distinction between being pro-choice and pro-abortion.
Second, the phrase “optimize her ability to make the choice” is unclear and confusing. I reached out to Father Conroy to ask if there was any context that he felt had been missed when the interview, originally recorded by an independent producer, was excerpted by The Post. He explained that while he did not repeat it in that exact sentence, elsewhere in the interview he was referring to “the choice we want her to make,” that is, to choose life. With that clarification, the phrase reads as a call for policies to make it optimally possible for a woman to choose to carry her pregnancy to term. And such policies indeed are needed, especially since abortion will remain legally available in much of the United States no matter what happens to Roe v. Wade.
Again, as with Father Conroy’s clarification to The Post about understanding the tragedy of abortion, the need for this context to make sense of the phrase about “optimizing choice” demonstrates the problem with discussing abortion this way. So too does the avoidance, so common in pro-choice rhetoric, of describing clearly what is being chosen: the destruction of a unique unborn human life. Choice alone cannot be a sufficient moral framework for thinking about abortion because more than one human life is at stake.
To explain more fully why choice alone cannot determine our moral stance on abortion, it helps to look at what is missing from Father Conroy’s discussion of conscience. Referencing St. Thomas Aquinas, he argues that “if your conscience says to do something that the church says is a sin, you are bound to follow your conscience.” But this is a one-sided representation of the tradition. While it is true that Aquinas (and the tradition following him) assert that conscience binds even when it is in error, they also immediately follow that point with emphasis on the moral responsibility to form and inform one’s conscience.
Choice alone cannot be a sufficient moral framework for thinking about abortion because more than one human life is at stake.
So when it comes to Catholics—especially Catholic politicians—and the question of abortion, those saying that their conscience leads them to support abortion does not resolve the moral question but simply refocuses it on how one’s conscience is formed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that conscience can err, among many other causes, because of the “assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the church’s authority and her teaching [or] lack of conversion and of charity” (No. 1792).
This kind of appeal to the Catholic tradition on conscience, then, ought to lead to searching discussion of why and how the church teaches that abortion is wrong and what parts of that teaching one does or does not accept. It should also lead to thoroughgoing attempts by Catholics who are unable to accept the teaching to change their minds. It would require grappling with the fact that the church’s teaching on abortion is not just an assertion of religious authority but a deeply reasoned claim from natural law, applying what science has learned of embryonic and fetal development alongside recognition of the sacred dignity of every unique human life, no matter how defenseless or unplanned.
Engaged honestly, such a discussion would lead us back to the true moral dilemma in abortion: that uniquely in the situation of a woman’s pregnancy, an innocent human life depends completely on the bodily autonomy of another human being. We cannot escape our moral obligation to value and defend both lives by narrowing our focus to the choice only one of them can make.
We cannot escape our moral obligation to value and defend both lives by narrowing our focus to the choice only one of them can make.
Even if we were speaking more honestly and clearly about abortion, Americans would still disagree with each other—and some Catholics would still disagree with the church—about how to respond to that dilemma in law and policy. And there would still be challenging moral questions about how to translate even full assent to church teaching into choices at the voting booth. But at least we would be talking to each other about our obligations both to unborn members of the human family and also to women as full human beings.
Perhaps if we were having that discussion there would be less chance of passing laws that depend on vigilantism to deter abortion and more of an experience of the “closeness, compassion and tenderness” that Pope Francis calls the church to, even and especially when dealing with politicians who cooperate with the injustice of abortion. That is not just a pastoral placebo: It is a recognition that in addition to whatever must be accomplished through legal reform, the church is also called to the slow, patient work of dialogue, accompaniment and conversion and to recognize all God’s children as deserving of protection and love.