Clinging to a consistent life ethic remains a moral imperative

March for Life participants kneel in prayer next to an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of the Supreme Court building January 24, 2011, in Washington. (CNS/Reuters/Jim Young)

Today is the annual March for Life, when Catholics and others gather in Washington to mark the anniversary of the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling deer v. Wade, which asserted that there was a constitutional right to abortion. The Church’s opposition to abortion is rooted in that most universal moral prohibition, “thou shalt not kill,” and in that most basic foundation of all our moral teaching, the transcendent dignity of the human person.

Last week I had the pleasure of greeting the recent pastoral letter from Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, “Living in the light of the peace of Christ: a conversation towards nuclear disarmament.” Wester’s letter was also rooted in these two moral anchors, and he recalled the passage from Luke’s Gospel when the disciples ask Jesus for permission to call down hellfire on their enemies, and he rebukes them. Wester wrote:

Jesus rebuked the disciples because they wanted to bring down fire from heaven. It absolutely forbids even thinking about it. It rejects violence of all kinds, including retaliation and war. He will not tolerate it among His followers. Jesus wants us to be as nonviolent and loving as he is, come what may. We don’t have the right to kill people.

The Catholic Church, almost alone in the American cultural discourse, has always understood that the question of abortion and the question of war are linked. To invoke the metaphor first developed by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Catholics hold to a “coherent life ethic”, and we find morally reprehensible all threats to life, from the direct taking of a human life to the acquiescence to militarism that has killed millions and threatens all human life to our refusal to address the environmental crisis that also threatens all life on the planet.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago makes a point in his September 9, 1996 speech at Georgetown University.  (SNC/Bob Roller)

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago makes a point in his September 9, 1996 speech at Georgetown University. In his speech, the cardinal stressed the need to establish a “coherent ethic of life” in America and to introduce religious values ​​into public life and the nation’s culture. (SNC/Bob Roller)

For 40 years, the coherent ethic of life has been the essential position of the Catholic left. This does not solve all the problems. As Fr. Charles Curran wrote here at NCR in 2010, while there is global agreement among Catholic theologians regarding the immorality of nearly all abortions – Curran believed it was morally permissible to perform direct abortion for save the mother’s life and in a few other rare circumstances, such as when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest – there was widespread disagreement about how Catholics should approach the legal abortion issue.

Now, the legal issue is at the forefront of national debate, as the U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to overturn deer after hearing oral arguments in December in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. As I pointed out at the time, the case is technically only about the difference of a single week of pregnancy: Mississippi law bans abortions after 15 weeks, and the Jackson abortion clinic stops performing them. at 16 weeks. Why, then, is everyone at the barricades?

Unfortunately, the debate over the legality of abortion has become dominated by extremes. Pro-choice groups insist that the kinds of limits on late-term abortions found in most other Western democracies would be a catastrophic affront to freedom, and pro-life groups enact vigilante laws like that of Texas which calls for a collapse of our justice system. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in our political culture that makes the extremes move towards the center.

I have repeatedly expressed my belief that making abortion illegal is not the solution. We must first make it unthinkable, guarantee that women are never disadvantaged in social or professional life because of pregnancy, build a culture of life that welcomes children and respects women in the same way.

That’s not how it’s going to play out, though, so I hope the Catholic left will at least cling to the consistent ethic of living to remind our friends on the political left that no matter what state of the legal question, we Catholics will maintain our pro-life witness, on this issue as well as on our opposition to the death penalty, nuclear weapons and environmental degradation.

Re-read Fr. Curran’s careful reasoning – and remembering his insightful lectures when I was lucky enough to have him as a teacher in the 1980s! – the contrast with some rude extremists today couldn’t be more brutal.

How can any morally serious person ignore the fact that the pro-life movement was willing to get into bed with Donald Trump in order to achieve its goal of a more conservative justice system? When Marjorie Dannenfelser, of the Susan B. Anthony List, agreed to chair Trump’s pro-life re-election committees, who will ever consider her a moral leader?

Here is a challenge for our Conservative friends: Recognize that poverty remains the number one abortive factor in our country and the world, and propose policies that will improve it.

How can any morally serious person give credence to the theological gibberish offered by groups like Catholics for choice? It’s amazing that they seem not to notice the moral laziness of the “my body, my choice” slogan after watching anti-vaxxers adopt the same slogan for two years. You cannot baptize libertarianism no matter how hard you try.

Here’s a challenge for our Liberal friends: Liberals have rightly been keen to call out historical racism and demand accountability. Why is the racist eugenics of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, ignored? Alexis McGill Johnson’s column last year in The New York Times was the exception that proved the rule. Moreover, Johnson’s argument betrayed the fact that you cannot confront eugenics unless you confront libertarianism first.

The year after the launch of Planned Parenthood, Sanger launched the Birth Control Review, and one of his first published essays stated, “For the betterment of the race, the present differential nature of the birth rate must be modified. A spread of birth control to the less able part of the population will be an important advance for eugenics by reducing the racial contribution of inferior stocks.”

To be fair, Josef Mengele hadn’t given eugenics such a bad name yet. The Catholic Church has consistently condemned eugenics when it was fashionable, and the Church has been called obscurantist for this opposition.

Extremist organizations are the groups that will dominate the airwaves in the coming months, but liberal Catholics are well advised to ignore the rhetorical boxing match that proves nothing so much as the extent to which groups like Catholics for Choice and the Susan B. Anthony List have developed a strangely symbiotic relationship. They deserve each other.

The rest of us must seek creative ways to witness to our Catholic faith’s unwavering commitment to human life and insist that the Church continue to develop a commitment to equality for women in society that takes into account and embraces the fact that women can and do support children.

Witnessing can take many forms. We can support groups like Democrats for Life of America, who recently hosted a pre-walk breakfast canceled because the management of the bookstore-café where it was planned, Busboys and Poets, obviously thinks of granting a heckler’s veto suitable for a bookstore!

We can witness in our families, our churches and our neighborhoods by supporting those women who have chosen life and face the challenges of single motherhood, those women facing a pregnancy crisis and those women who have had abortions and who fight against the spiritual consequences that always accompany sin. If we are unwilling to support women in such situations, our voice becomes “a tinkling gong or a tinkling cymbal” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1).

We can bear witness by our voices and by our votes, always bearing in mind that our Catholic moral tradition demands that we raise our voices for both mother and child, in all cases recognizing that abortion is the ultimate exercise in exclusion.

We can testify to the consistency of our moral beliefs by clinging to the consistent ethics of life, the only, repeat alone, a morally and intellectually serious position that I have encountered in researching and writing on the issue of abortion for 25 years.

We can witness with our ministries, especially our Catholic hospitals. At a time when many hospitals are close their maternities, that each Catholic hospital undertakes to keep its own open. Better to donate to your local Catholic hospital than to any political organization.

It may seem that such forms of witnessing will be ineffective, that our voice will be lost. However, testimony brings the grace of God into the equation. Remember that Western culture was at its height at the end of the 12th century and the corruption of the medieval church was both pronounced and widespread. Then, one day, Francis kissed a leper.

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