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17 septembre 2007 1 17 /09 /septembre /2007 06:20

When the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church first fell into my hands some months before its promulgation, of the many pleasant “surprises” was the text’s specific mention and forthright condemnation of abortion, both in speaking of human rights and in speaking of the family as the sanctuary of life.  This grateful recognition of the mention of abortion was tempered by a reflection similar to that voiced by his Eminence, Cardinal Renato Martino, when he begins his invitation letter with the frank admission that “The social doctrine of the Church, to date, has not placed due emphasis on the defense of life from conception to its natural end.”

When I tell people that I teach Catholic Social Doctrine at a pontifical university, one of the most frequent questions I get, especially from Americans, is whether I include the topic of abortion in the course material.  As a matter of fact I do.  The paper is not meant, however, as an apologia for that personal decision, but rather as a reasoned argument for a greater emphasis on abortion within discussions on Catholic social thought.

In this paper I mean to treat two closely related questions.  The first would be the following: Does the discipline of Catholic Social Teaching include abortion and other life-related moral issues?  More fundamentally perhaps, what is the breadth, proper scope and limits of Catholic Social Teaching?  It obviously does not intend to embrace the whole of Christian morality, and has a specificity all its own.  Does this specificity extend to abortion?

The second question to be treated could read like this: If it does indeed include abortion, what is the distinct contribution of Catholic Social Teaching to the abortion debate?

I. Whether Abortion Falls under the Purview of Catholic Social Teaching

We can address this question from different angles.  I propose to do so specifically from three different perspectives: a historical perspective, a taxonomic perspective, and a virtue-centric perspective, analyzing the proper scope of Catholic Social Thought as regards the virtue of social justice.

A. Historical analysis

1. The so-called social encyclicals.  Lists and references.  They do not formally include Evangelium Vitae, for example.

2. Specific references to abortion in the social encyclicals.

3. The genesis and evolution of Catholic Social Thought from Rerum Novarum to Deus Caritas Est, and its broadening scope.  Early focus on the economic question, extending to the political, and moving into the socio-cultural and familial especially with Gaudium et spes.

B. Taxonomic analysis

1. The traditional breakdown of moral theology into fundamental and special, with the latter being further subdivided into sexual-marital ethics, life ethics, and social ethics.  The specificity and overlap among these fields.

- These academic distinctions, while very useful for focusing our moral attention and delineating disciplines, are not nearly as clear and neat as they may first appear.  Both sexual ethics and life ethics intersect and overlap with social ethics in significant ways.  Sexual morality has a public, social dimension.  In the proper sense, sexual ethics examines the correct use of human freedom in the area of sexual activity, with special emphasis on the virtue of chastity as the right ordering and integration of sexuality.  The nature of the human person as a sexual being, the purpose of the reproductive faculty, the morality of sexual conduct between spouses, between unmarried persons, between persons of the same sex, and with oneself all constitute the proper matter of this area of study.  At the same time, sexual and marital ethics also enter into the realm of Catholic social thought.  The family as the primordial human community and basic cell of society, the place of the institution of marriage in the social fabric, marriage and divorce laws, the recognition of “gay marriages” and civil unions and the adoption of children, constitute several of the many questions of sexual and marital ethics that properly fall within the competence and jurisdiction of Catholic Social Thought.

- A similar analysis can be applied to the second sector of special moral theology, that of life morality or bioethics.  While this area specifically explores (1) the morality of human activity touching on the beginning of human life (genetic manipulation, assisted reproduction, oocyte reprogramming, human cloning…), (2) medical and biological activity aimed at the preservation and betterment of human health (organ transplants, corporal mutilation, aesthetic surgery, “quality of life” issues, medical and pharmacological experimentation…), and (3) end-of-life ethics (palliative medicine, aggressive medical treatment, active and passive euthanasia, hydration and nutrition, assisted suicide…), it also has an important social dimension.  These become social questions when they are addressed in a legal or juridical context and insofar as they impinge on the common good and social justice.  Healthcare systems with their socio-political dynamics, medical malpractice, the allocation of resources, and medical legislation enter into this sphere.

2. The taxonomy of CST

a. Economy
b. Socio-cultural sphere
c. Family
d. Politics

3. Abortion as principally a question of life ethics (bioethics) with a necessary social component to be treated by Catholic Social Doctrine (social ethics).

C. Analysis from the perspective of social justice and the common good

1. Social justice as the central and specific virtue of CST.

2. The common good and its components.  The right to life.

3. Abortion as social injustice and an attack on the common good.

II. CST’s specific contribution to the abortion question

A. Abortion as a unique social phenomenon

Though closely tied to other issues, abortion is an emblematic and singular socio-ethical problem, with the following six characteristics that distinguish it from related social phenomena:

1. the elimination of innocent life (not enemies, as in war, or “guilty life,” as in capital punishment)
2. the absence of informed consent (as distinct from euthanasia or assisted suicide; the voiceless and most vulnerable)
3. the circumscription of an entire class of human beings (the unborn) as non-citizens excluded from the basic rights and protections accorded to all other human beings (similar to slavery, anti-Semitism, etc)
4. the sheer magnitude of the problem: some 45 million legal abortions, more than the sum of all war casualties in human history.
5. its legal sanction (unlike a social phenomenon like terrorism or serial killing, outside of the law)
6. its invisibility: unlike more apparent social ills (unemployment, divorce, etc) abortion is invisible and sterile.

B. Abortion and the law: as a legal “right”

- The purpose and competence of civil legislation is not the right ordering of all human conduct, but the right ordering of society and the advancement of the common good.  Respect for life is not only a component of the common good, but is in a sense the fundamental human right undergirding all other human rights.

- What does it mean for society to grant legal approval to the systematic elimination of unborn children?

3. Abortion and politics

- The question of single-issue politics: can one issue trump the rest?  Hierarchy and relationship among political issues
- the status of Catholic pro-choice politicians and their communion with the Church, including reception of the sacraments
- the “seamless garment” arguments
- “personally opposed but publicly favourable” articulated by Gov. Mario Cuomo
- imposition of personal morality or religious convictions on a pluralistic polity
- the distinct and complementary roles of the legislature and the judiciary
- the functioning and limits of the democratic process.  Is everything up for debate and subject to the fluid will of the majority?

Father Thomas D. Williams, L.C.

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