Because of teaching commitments here in Chicago I will not be able to join the growing number of young Jesuits, their students, and colleagues at the annual March for Life this weekend. I thought I would use the occasion of the March, however, to address a challenge posed to me nearly a year ago in this blog’s discussion of health care reform: why is it that Catholics—and American Catholics specifically—are so concerned with the issue of abortion? Haven’t the American Catholic bishops in particular allowed themselves to be hijacked by this one issue?
Commonweal board member George Dennis O’Brien argues essentially this point in a new book titled A Catholic Dissent, the content of which one can surmise from the title. In a very different way, Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, also claims that abortion has become a primary marker of the cultural identity of American Catholics. Even if one agrees with Bottum that the pro-life cause is a significant marker of Catholic identity, it does not follow that it should be so.
The observations of O’Brien and Bottum raise two related questions: first, should opposition to abortion be treated as constitutive of Catholic identity? Is it really that central to our faith? Second, should Catholics make abortion issue number one politically? Should it be prioritized above other issues? I’ll look at the first, more theological question, today and the second in two posts to follow.
As I’ve noted before, our Catholic religion cannot be reduced to an ethical system. The foundation of our faith is the shared belief that the one true God became incarnate as the man Jesus, whom we meet in the sacraments and who offers us eternal life. This means more than just an ethical code of conduct.
Nonetheless, the Catholic Church, following the teachings of Jesus, insists that our belief in God’s action in the world is not simply an abstract assent to a particular list of beliefs. It’s not enough just to say the Creed; we must also live it. And this demand that we live our faith implies a certain way of acting in the world. As Christ tells us in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew’s 25th chapter, we will be judged on how we live our faith.
The Scriptural passage I consider central to the abortion issue is Matthew 25:31-46. It’s the great parable of the judgment of the nations, when the Son of Man, coming in glory at the end of time, separates the sheep from the goats. He tells those on his right that they have inherited eternal life by feeding him when he was hungry, giving him drink when he was thirsty, clothing him when he was naked, welcoming him when he was a stranger, caring for him when he was ill, and visiting him when he was in prison. Those on his left he casts into eternal fire because they neglected to perform those acts of mercy when they saw him in need.
The righteous are confused and the damned are indignant, and both ask Jesus when they encountered him in such situations. His answer is the foundation of Christian social ethics. To the righteous he says: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” To the damned his reply is in the negative: “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”
In these words, Christ is giving us the reason behind the moral law. Why should we love our neighbor? Why we should we follow the commandments? Why not steal from our neighbor? Why not kill him? The reason, according to Jesus, is because God has identified himself with our neighbor. An offense against neighbor is an offense against God.
The significance of such a grounding for ethics can be seen if we contrast it with other possible answers to the question, why respect our neighbor? Given a utilitarian grounding, for example, a man’s worth is based on what he does or produces. Under such a valuation, the strong would be justified in oppressing the weak because their lives really are worth more; and the old, the sick, the weak could justifiably be discarded when they no longer carried their weight. But Jesus gives us no indication that God is any less present in the weak or unproductive. Quite the contrary: their value is infinite because it comes from God.
Likewise, the reason we ought to respect our neighbor does not come from any particular feeling or sentiment, even a feeling of solidarity. We are not obligated to respect our neighbor because we like him or because we can see ourselves in him. If this were the case, our obligations would extend only as far as our friends or those who look like us. Certainly it would not extend to prisoners or strangers. But Jesus is no less present in those for whom we cannot muster any warm feelings. On the contrary: their value is infinite because it comes from God.
This way of understanding human dignity is what Catholics believe, and if you don’t believe it, then you aren’t a Catholic. It’s constitutive of what it means to be “Catholic,” part of the definition of the word. It’s a central, not incidental, part of our faith, central enough that we will be judged by whether or not we live it out.
How does this relate to abortion? In philosophy one of the ways of testing a belief is to construct a “limit case.” In other words, we set all outside factors against that belief and then ask, is it still true? Plato constructs just such a limit case in the second book of The Republic, when he has Socrates’ interlocutors challenge the claim that one should always act justly. The challengers ask: what if you found a ring that made you invisible and could do what you wanted without anyone knowing? Or, what if acting justly meant you were misunderstood by everyone? What if it meant, in fact, that everyone else thought you were the most unjust man alive? Would you still act justly then? All these questions are meant to test Socrates’ belief that one should always be just.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus poses another limit case of sorts. He tells us to love others, which is certainly a nice thing to say. But what happens when those others are not friends, not even acquaintances, but enemies? Will you still say “love others” then?
Abortion, in my opinion, poses just such a limit case for our belief that the value of a human being comes not from his utility, nor from how we feel about him, but from God.
We might imagine what the devil would say if he led us out onto the parapet of the Temple to test us today. “Do you believe every human life has infinite value?” he might begin by asking us, to which we would no doubt answer, “Yes.” But then our smooth-talking interlocutor might ask us what we would say if he took away all those things we normally value in other people. What if the person in question couldn’t work? Couldn’t fend for herself? Couldn’t even speak? What if the human being in question was an inconvenience and a burden to those around her? What if she would probably not be happy anyway, would grow up poor? What if nobody else would advocate for her, not her mother, not her father, not the State? What if her loss could be easily forgotten, easily hidden, buried beneath headlines about other so much more important issues? At some point, might our initial “Yes” begin to waver into a “Maybe,” a “Not now,” a “Yes, but…”?
This scenario, in somewhat dramatic form, is, I believe, the spiritual dilemma with which the American Church is faced. The Gospel’s mandate to love the least means that if we are to call ourselves Catholics, we must speak up for those who literally cannot speak for themselves, whatever the temptations to the contrary. Over the next two weeks I’ll turn to questions of a more practical and even political nature, but it is important to keep the theological foundation of the issue in mind. For Catholics, how we respond to the problem of abortion in our society is not, ultimately, a question of election victories or losses. It is a matter of how we will answer the Son of Man when we meet him on the last day.
Both Commonweal and First Things require registration to see the articles I mention. The review of O’Brien’s book comes from the Jan. 14, 2010 issue of Commonweal. The first Joseph Bottum essay is called “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano: Catholic Culture in America” from the October 2006 issue of First Things. The second is his analysis of Pres. Obama’s speech at Notre Dame in the June/July 2009 issue called “At the Gates of Notre Dame.” Even if you don’t agree with all of Bottum’s arguments, his essays are particularly thought-provoking and worthwhile.