This Tuesday, January 22, marks the fortieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and companion Doe v. Bolton decisions. It’s worth pointing out on this blog, which spends so much time considering Catholic social teaching (CST), that the the abortion issue falls directly — not peripherally, but directly — under the umbrella of the Church’s social teaching and should be understood in the context of it.
That’s not just my quirky take or the theory of a few “liberal” CST enthusiasts who wish the pro-lifers would get as excited about “their” issues as they do about abortion. Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI have been adamant about the fact. (See, for example, John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae, sections 5 and 20, and Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate, section 51.)
Why? Abortion has everything to do with CST because it is so clearly related to CST’s two central principles, the ones on which everything else rests.
First, there is human dignity. That abortion is a grave violation of human dignity is clear, and there’s no need to appeal to religion, revelation, or faith to make the point. Indeed, to be “pro-choice” about abortion, one must rely completely “on faith,” believing against all empirical evidence that what is being snuffed out is not a human life. The remarkable Christopher Hitchens — “liberal,” adamantly atheist, and pro-choice — insisted in an essay a decade ago (in which he defended a woman’s right to choose) that denying that the fetus is a living, individual, human person is “obvious nonsense from the biological and embryological points of view.”
(This is not to oversimplify. I recognize and agree that the moral significance of abortion can vary depending on circumstances, including situation, level of development of the fetus, and more. Saying so is completely consistent with Catholic moral theology. But just as killing a stranger accidentally because you were driving drunk and killing your neighbor’s child after weeks of planning because you despise your neighbor both differ greatly in moral significance and are both grave offenses against human dignity, so with abortion.)
Even the “secular” argument can establish abortion as a violation of human dignity, based simply on biology and basic human rights. Throw in the theological principle of the sacredness of the human person, who is made in the image of God and with whom God united himself in the incarnation of Jesus, not to mention the fifth commandment, and the case becomes all the more clear.
Second, there is human solidarity, the moral response to the factual interdependence we share with one another. (Though it is often said that human dignity is the central principle of CST, I suggest in Faith Meets World that it’s more accurate to think of CST as a bicycle with two wheels — human dignity and human solidarity — upon which all the rest rides. This is not just my thinking. In his encyclical Centissimus Annus (section 10), Pope John Paul II wrote that solidarity is “one of the fundamental principles of the Christian view of social and political organization.” ) Solidarity, too, sheds much light on the nature of abortion. The very same moral impulse that compells us to care for those around us, especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us, because they are one of us, because we are all members of the same human family, demands that we reject abortion. It not only violates the solidarity between a mother and her child, but between human society and each person, each family, who make it up.
Throw in the theological/doctrinal principles that we are all children in the family of God, that we share and are intended to share a communion with one another that is analogous to the life of the blessed Trinity (again, we’re made in the image of God), that we’re therefore called to a preferential option for the poorest and most vulnerable, and the reality becomes even clearer.
Forty years of legal abortion in the U.S. means two generations of aborted children and two generations of the rest of us living in, being complicit with, and being formed by that reality. This Tuesday, January 22, should be for each of us a day of reflection and regret, of fasting and repentance.