Catholics and abortion: Single-issue voting? (Part III)

January 31, 2011

Today’s post, my last in this series, is also likely to be the most controversial.  I nonetheless hope that any discussion it engenders can still be reasonable.  I decided not to post this series during an election season because the emotion and loyalties campaigns arouse make such discussion difficult.  Voices in the Catholic media begin to treat the Church’s social teachings as ammunition to be used in defense of their predetermined party of choice rather than looking to the Church as a genuine guide.  Sometimes the loyalty Catholics show to their candidates and parties borders on the idolatrous.

I’ve argued that for both theological and practical reasons, Catholics should prioritize opposition to abortion above other political issues.  Today I’m going to get a little more specific in discussing what I think are the real world consequences of this argument.  When we get to the point of concrete political decisions we have to be a bit more specific with our terms than I have been in my earlier posts.  So when I say that I think abortion should be “issue number one” for American Catholics, I mean specifically that working to weaken and overturn Roe v. Wade must be our top priority.

There are lots of other ways to combat abortion, after all, such as volunteering in crisis pregnancy centers or subsidizing adoption, all of which are praiseworthy—but none of which are a substitute for overturning Roe.

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The Conversion of Romano Guardini

January 29, 2011


Since the intellectually fashionable tend nowadays to declare themselves “spiritual” but not “religious,” I’m always on the lookout for experiences that bring the two elements together.  To this purpose, I finally tracked Fr. Romano Guardini’s (1885-1968) famous account of his own conversion.  Besides being edifying, it arguably represents one of the most important ecclesial events of the 20th Century.  As a priest and theologian, Guardini deeply influenced thinkers as diverse as Josef Pieper, Walter Kasper, and Joseph Ratzinger.  I might add that the latter, in the Nature and Mission of Theology, describes Guardini’s motive for converting to the Church as the spiritual core his own ecclesiology.  There Ratzinger attributed to Guardini (at least in part) his own conviction that the “Church is the sole guarantee that the obedience we owe to the Truth is concrete.”

The following passage is set in Guardini’s university days (1905), during a vacation in Staltach, which our author describes as “a little village on Starnberger See.”  There he shared an attic apartment with his childhood friend, Karl Neundörfer.  By this point, exposure to Kantian Idealism had shattered the simple faith of Guardini’s youth.  But …

Then came a turning point.  What had drawn me away from faith had not been real reasons against it, but the fact that the reasons for it no longer spoke to me.  Faith as a conscious act had grown ever weaker and had finally died out.  Read the rest of this entry »

Explaining weird stuff in the Bible: The She-Bear incident

January 27, 2011

Having taught High School Scripture for a few years, I know that students are particularly eager to read strange stories.  Since there is no shortage of strange stories in the Old Testament, I happily acquiesce to their interests.  After all, when I was a kid, these stories are precisely what led me to read the Bible.  I looked all over for these stories and reveled in my knowledge of obscure Bible passages.  However, aside from the fun they offer, they also create problems.  My intention is to write on how to interpret some of these difficult passages, since they often provide interpretive trouble for the faithful.

One of my favorites is the famous she-bear incident of 2 Kings 2:23-24:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. “Go up, baldhead,” they shouted, “go up, baldhead!” 24 The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces.

Now, as fun as this passage is, what do we do with it?  I raise this question because I have often (and again recently) heard this passage defended in this way:  Read the rest of this entry »

Homily at Jesuit Mass for Life on Jan. 24, 2011

January 25, 2011


This was preached on January 24 (in a slightly modified form), the morning of the March for Life, to a congregation of Jesuit high school and university students at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, DC.  For the details of the Mass, sponsored by the US Jesuit Conference, the Ignatian Pro-Life Network, and the Apostleship of Prayer, see the Mass for Life Program 2011.  The Gospel text was Matthew 5:1-12a, the Beatitudes.

There’s an important and easily-overlooked detail in today’s Gospel passage, one that suggests why we’re here at the March and why we’re here at this Mass.  It’s the intended audience of Jesus’ preaching.  When Jesus sees the “crowds” approaching, he doesn’t begin teaching them directly.  Instead, Jesus walks up a mountain, He lets His disciples approach Him, and He proceeds to teach them.  The them seem to be the disciples.  Initially, there’s no indication that the “crowds” follow Jesus up the mountain.  Plus, y’all have been to enough stadiums and auditoriums to know that, if your priority is really to be heard by the greatest number, you don’t climb to the top of a mountain and shout down at people.  You stay on the valley floor and arrange your audience up and down the side of the hill.

Why?  Read the rest of this entry »

Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

January 24, 2011

Last week, I argued that how Catholics respond to attacks on the lives of the unborn tests whether or not we believe the Lord’s words in Matthew 25.  My comments were in response to the question of whether it is appropriate for American Catholics to prioritize the issue of abortion to the degree that they have.  In today’s post, I will argue that for practical, as well as theological, reasons, it is right for Catholics to make abortion issue number one.

While opposition to abortion has been a part of Christian teaching since the Church first encountered the practice in the pagan world—as seen in the Didache, possibly the earliest non-Biblical source of Christian moral teaching, which states explicitly, “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”—the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.

The basic ethical insight I discussed in last week’s post—that human dignity does not depend on a person’s utility or how we feel about that person—has been adopted as the foundation of our modern system of human rights.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson—no lover of orthodox Christianity—declared the right to life to be “self-evident” and “unalienable” because it is derived directly from the Creator.

In this foundational insight, American ideals and Catholic social thought overlap, so it is appropriate that American Catholics have shown particular leadership on the right to life issue.  As one prominent American archbishop put it, abortion is “the preeminent civil rights issue of our day.”  Some, however, such as Commonweal’s George Dennis O’Brien or Newsweek’s Lisa Miller have lambasted bishops who have taken such a stand, often insinuating that they are either gullible Republican dupes or scheming partisans themselves.

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Homily on Unity: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 22, 2011

Today we hear the following from Paul: I urge you brothers and sisters in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

And from the president of these United States of America we heard this: The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy—it did not—but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud. We may not be able to stop all of the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.

And from Matthew we hear that Jesus went around Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

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Catholics and abortion: A test of faith (Part I)

January 17, 2011

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. Read the rest of this entry »