30 May 2018
Where the abortion debate was lost
The critical moment for the Church in Ireland is not the vote itself but the aftermath. All is not yet lost, but easily could be. All referendums seem to have a tendency to force moderate opinion to migrate to one extreme or the other, so that by the end of the campaigning, the centre ground is deserted. That is the ground the Catholic Church should now claim for itself. It needs to be reasonable, conciliatory, and – most of all – self-questioning. It needs to listen.
This will take courage and honesty. There is a temptation to lash out at those who have disobeyed the official line. Isn’t telling women who voted for repeal that they have sinned and need to go to Confession, as the Bishop of Elphin has done, merely another example of the sort of “Father knows best” Catholicism from which Ireland is trying to escape?
The leadership of the Irish Church needs the grace to be self-critical. It has admitted that the scandal of sexual abuse of children has grievously weakened its moral authority, and that nothing has happened since to restore it. But the problem goes deeper. It needs to be asked: did the Irish Church ever understand that the centre of this debate was the issue of choice? The issue was handled sensitively in the joint statement by the bishops of England, Wales and Scotland earlier this year, where choice was given a positive value.
WHILE OPPONENTS of the repeal of the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution repeatedly stressed the “right to life” of the unborn child, they said much less about the duty of a pregnant woman to protect the life within her. Rights bring obligations with them. Was the reason they did not take such an obvious course that it would have positioned them on the side of choice? Does it not follow that that is where the Catholic stress should be placed in future, now the law is being relaxed? A pregnant woman could only exercise that duty of protection towards her unborn child if she had the freedom to do so, and therefore the freedom not to. Instead, the Church left the heavy lifting to the law. Choice was outlawed. Was the implication that women could not be trusted, and so had to be coerced? Do female consciences not count?
Many women see the prohibition of abortion by the Irish Constitution as anti-feminist. Indeed, coupled with the Church’s official opposition to contraception, it causes many to dismiss traditional Catholicism as inherently misogynistic. The Church is seen as refusing to trust women with control of their own fertility, and insisting that they must remain under the tyranny of their own biology. This is difficult territory for an unmarried male hierarchy, but the effort to listen with empathy to the voices of women is urgently necessary.
Are there other aspects of the debate that the Catholic Church needs to look at more closely? The very concept of the “right of the unborn” is not taken from Catholic moral theology – where rights hardly exist – but from the secular vocabulary of human rights, which has become all-pervasive in the last two or three decades. It has become so familiar it is hard to remember that it is a relatively recent construction. Has it led Catholic thinking into a category mistake? Can foetuses really have rights from the moment of conception, when they are incapable of having obligations? Legally, they are not citizens. No population census ever counts them in its total. Their very existence is unacknowledged by the state, except with regard to abortion. We acknowledge the humanity of the growing baby in the womb, a fragile person-in-waiting, to be cherished and protected but, by universal custom, the beginning of someone’s life is marked from their date of birth. These familiar cultural features frame the habitual ways Western cultures treat those not yet born. This does not imply that the foetus has the same rights and status as adults from the moment of conception. Does it not imply, instead, that the unborn have a unique status, one that is about becoming fully human rather than already being fully human? That is an ancient belief, still current for instance in Orthodox Judaism.
THIS IS NOT what the Church teaches, but has it done anything like enough to contradict these cultural assumptions by its actions, for instance by treating foetuses as fully human in its everyday pastoral and liturgical life? There are no Catholic funerals or official prayers for foetuses which have been spontaneously miscarried. Why has it not encouraged or invested in medical research to prevent spontaneous miscarriages and stillbirths, which its teaching would imply are a grievous loss of human life? Does it really believe that? It was only in 2007 that the Vatican conceded, tentatively, that there was “reason to hope” that unbaptised infants (including those where a pregnancy had miscarried) could go to heaven, calling in question the doctrine of limbo. Does that suggest the Church has always fully recognised a foetus’s moral equivalence to an adult? Is it not instead a tacit intuition that human life develops through stages, culminating in birth? That is when citizenship begins – membership of society – and the possibility of baptism – membership of the Church.
New life begins at conception. But the notion that the human person comes into being at conception, and is instantly entitled to the same protection as an adult, is counter-cultural to a degree. It is not easily woven into the fabric of existing cultural assumptions. Against this headwind, the Church needed to work hard to embed its teaching in the faith of the people. Why was it so unsuccessful? Did it rely exclusively on obedience? Did it understand and believe its own teaching? It appears that the majority of Catholics in Ireland, maybe including many clergy, do not. And is this where the abortion referendum was already lost, before it even appeared on the political horizon?