Catholic Democrats and abortion: same old same old

A thought exercise:

It’s 1964, and Congress is debating the Civil Rights Act. For years, the Catholic bishops of the United States have taught that segregation is an offense against the moral law. For years, Americans of various religious and philosophical persuasions have argued that segregation violates the Constitution’s promise of equal justice for all. A sizable number of Catholic members of Congress, squirming under the bishops’ pressure, have tried to counter the integrationists’ arguments by appeals to the “primacy of conscience” in relating moral principle to public policy.

Now, prior to a vote on the Civil Rights Act, a group of Catholic members of Congress issues a public statement. They “agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life” and the “undesirability” of segregation. They pledge themselves to advance policies that encourage justice, including racial comity. “As legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives,” they aver, “we work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being.” They believe, as the bishops believe and the Church teaches, that “government has moral purpose,” and they claim to “seek the Church’s guidance and assistance.”

Then eighty percent of the signatories of this statement go out on the House floor and vote against the Civil Rights Act.

What we would say about that? That these were politicians trying to have it both ways? That, whatever their assertions, those who voted against recognizing the full legal and political rights of African-Americans clearly did not believe that segregation constituted a fundamental injustice? That, their protestations notwithstanding, these legislators took neither the teaching of the Church nor the logic of justice seriously?

I think that’s what reasonable people would say. And I think that’s what ought to be said about the latest attempt to finesses the abortion issue, which came in the form of a statement signed by 55 House Democrats, all Catholics, which was released on February 28 by Rep. Rose DeLauro (D-Conn.). The citations above are all taken from the DeLauro statement — which also pledges the members to some good things, like “promoting alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and improving access to children’s health care and child care, as well as policies that encourage paternal and maternal responsibility.”

But here’s the rub, or, better, the rubs.

Thirty-three of the fifty-five signatories of the DeLauro statement (including Rep. DeLauro) voted to support the legality of partial-birth abortion. Forty-one of the signatories (again including Rep. DeLauro) voted to make abortion legal in Defense Department clinics and hospitals abroad. Thirty-seven of the signatories (including — you guessed it —  Rep. DeLauro) voted against efforts to constrain the courts from compelling hospitals and doctors to perform abortions. How do any of these votes square with the signatories’ statement that they “agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion — we do not celebrate its practice”?

This is the same old same old —  “I’m personally opposed, but …” — tarted up in new vesture. One cannot speak credibly about the “undesirability of abortion” and then vote to protect and expand the abortion license. One cannot credibly claim to believe what the Catholic Church believes “about the value of human life” and then ignore the central question posed by Roe v. Wade: is the willful taking of innocent human life compatible with a free and virtuous society? One cannot appeal to the “primacy of conscience” to defend the unconscionable — any more than one could make that appeal in denying full legal and political rights to Americans of African descent.

It’s the bishops’ prerogative responsibility to decide what is to be done, within the Church’s discipline, about Catholic legislators whose votes support the willful taking of innocent human lives. That’s a matter internal to the Church’s life, to be addressed by the Church’s pastoral authorities. What everyone, irrespective of creed, ought to find disturbing is the obtuseness of the DeLauro statement. Legislators who, having vowed their respect for African Americans and their distaste for segregation, then voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be thought duplicitous — at least. The same conclusion applies here.


COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.