Much is being said, and needs to be said, about the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Constitutional right to an abortion. As a Catholic, I know Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago to be consistently pastoral, measured and wise. I was eager to read what he had to say (Link provided below) and found nothing in his statement with which I take issue. Nevertheless, Catholics in good conscience — and I’m one of them — may come to different conclusions about where to go from here.
In a pluralistic society like the United States, it is not the role of government – federal or state – to proscribe through legislation the rights of persons to make moral judgments with which various faith traditions express a broad range of opinion and pastoral counsel. Seems to me, this is a classically conservative view regarding the free exercise of religion as well as the role of government in our lives!
Yes, my personal moral values are well expressed in the statement by Cardinal Cupich and the “seamless garment” teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the dignity of all human life. Yet, our moral lives are not lived within a clear either/or “dualistic” universe. Life is much more nuanced, complicated and downright messy than that!
Yes, all law should be “moral” (though it is patently obvious this is not always the case)! However, not all morality should be codified into law — most especially when there is widespread, well-intentioned disagreement about the rectitude of the principle or behavior in question.
Our Declaration of Independence proclaims each person’s inalienable right to liberty as well as life and the pursuit of happiness. We may — and will — disagree about what this means in practice. We will even “do the wrong thing” from time to time in the exercise of this right! The best and final arbiter for me in this existential mess is the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the ultimate moral standard — a well-formed human conscience.
For better or for worse, this is where we experience the inability and inadequacy of law — church or civil — to provide for the countless nuances and obligations of moral behavior. Consequently, as a person with deeply held Catholic moral convictions, I do not believe it is the role of any faith tradition — no less government — to prescribe that a person can or can’t make this or that moral choice regarding deeply personal and socially contested matters. Surely the moral life – mature responsibility for our most consequential choices – requires more than following the rules or deferring to enshrined moral principles.
The Church’s track record is spotty at best. Where were Catholic voices in defending dignity of human life all the while we tolerated slavery and even fostered segregation well into my lifetime? Why is Pope Francis going to Canada to apologize in person to the Indigenous peoples? It may also come as a surprise that the foundational proposition that human life begins at conception has not always been the uncontested position of the Catholic Church.
None other than St Thomas Aquinas – the quintessential moral theologian for traditional Catholics – followed Aristotle in accepting a process of human development of the fetus from vegetative to animal to human, making early abortion morally permissible. Obviously, we have not always spoken in a univocal voice nor have we always gotten it right or escaped the obligation to adjust our moral convictions!
Today, official Catholic teaching clearly holds that human life begins at conception. This in spite of our track record of clearly not getting it right sometimes, especially when it comes to science or where we would now honestly admit our complicity with immorality. I believe it is futile, even foolhardy, for any church to prescribe their moral conviction be codified into law when there is so much moral and scientific disagreement about an issue such as the beginning of human life. And as we have witnessed for fifty years, there is precious little civility or authentic manifestation of the Reign of God when the essential difference between the role of moral teaching and the rule of law is not respected.
The church to which I belong aspires to be a “field hospital” in the trenches caring for the practical needs of those who struggle. It labors to inform, encourage and support women and men across the broad, ambiguous spectrum of moral choices – some of which are wrenching! It maneuvers always with an air of companionship and compassion, never coercion or condemnation.
For as God gave humans created in God’s own image the freedom to choose right from wrong however imperfectly we may do so; and as we see in the way Jesus accompanied, taught and loved people in the messiness of their lives; I believe a well formed, mature Christianity does the same with humility, civility, conviction, reconciliation and radical love.
Let’s keep the faith!
Here is a link to Cardinal Cupich’s statement: https://www.archchicago.org/statement/-/article/2022/06/24/statement-of-cardinal-blase-j-cupich-archbishop-of-chicago-on-the-supreme-court-s-decision-in-dobbs-v-jackson-women-s-health-organization