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Can a Catholic Be Pro-Choice?
Can Catholics legitimately be pro-choice? Or is such a view inconsistent with Catholic teaching? Two scholars debate.
Catholics for a Free Choice
Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice. She is the author of How to Talk About Abortion.
Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas
Editor, The Catholic Response
Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas is the editor and publisher of The Catholic Response. He is the author of over thirty books and 500 articles.
In all my years of trying to change the Catholic Church’s position on abortion, it is anti-abortion Catholics’ unwillingness to really answer the hard questions that is most disturbing, as is their unwillingness to state the real complexity of Catholic history and positions on the issue of the moral status of the fetus. Especially troubling is the complete refusal to acknowledge some core principles of social justice and Catholic moral ethics that support a pro-choice position on abortion.
This is not an abstract matter. As Catholics we are concerned about poor and marginalized people. Illegal abortions—many of which occur in the developing world—can cause grave harm to women’s health, including sterility, infection, and other injuries. Occasionally even today, women end up in jail for having had illegal abortions. None of these outcomes can be considered good for women or children, and none should be ignored by the Catholic bishops when they seek to understand the morality of abortion.
It was my concern for flawed Church teaching against contraception and my passion for women’s rights that led to me to work to provide women in the U.S. with safe and dignified abortion services. As a Catholic, I spent lots of time studying, reflecting, and thinking about how to reconcile a pro-choice position with my Catholic heritage. Here is what I learned.
What you hear from priests and bishops is that the Catholic position on abortion has been the same throughout history, that we believe that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception and that to have an abortion is to kill a person. But that is not precisely correct. Even a conservative Catholic theologian who is being careful and had no political motive would not say that. An honest conservative theologian would say, “Theologically, we do not know when the fetus becomes a person, but since we do not know, we should err on the side of caution and not permit abortion.” I hold that even that is only about one-tenth of the story about Catholic thought on women, fetuses, and abortion.
Complexity and Choice
I want to demonstrate that Church positions on moral decision making and abortion are more complex than believed. There is much room in Catholic theology for the acceptance of policies that favor legal access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion. There are even principles that challenge the notion that abortion is always immoral.
Even within the hierarchy, the teaching on abortion has not been static. The tradition of evolving doctrine and questions as to when life begins all point to a more fluid understanding of the morality of abortion than public rhetoric suggests.
Church reasoning about abortion has changed over time. While the Church has always maintained that procured abortion is wrong, its reasoning for opposing it has changed. During the first century, when the debate over abortion was just beginning, it centered on two questions: (1) Was abortion being used to conceal the sins of fornication and adultery? and (less prevalent at the time) (2) Does the fetus have a soul from the moment of conception, or does it become “ensouled” at a later point? Modern Church leaders understand that making the argument in the twenty-first century that abortion should be prohibited because it is the result of illicit sex is likely to completely dismissed. Thus, the emphasis is on claiming that the fetus is a person, a claim that remains a subject of contention today. Traditionally, within the Church, the definition of when one became a person was related to when God gave you a soul. And God has not told us the answer to this question.
It is important to note, though, that the early prohibition of abortion was not based on concern about the fetus or beliefs about whether the fetus is a person. It was based on a view that only people who engage in forbidden sexual activity would attempt abortion. This view emphasized that abortion is wrong because the sexual act that lead to the pregnancy was immoral; it has little to do with respect for fetal life.
The Church does not know when the fetus becomes a person. As noted above, through most of history, the Church did not pay much attention to abortion except as a sexual issue. Neither St. Augustine (fifth century) nor St. Thomas Aquinas (fourteenth century)—two of the most important thinkers in the Catholic Church—considered the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy a human person.
In the fifth century, Augustine (354–430) expressed the mainstream view that early abortion requires penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, Aquinas agreed, saying abortion is not homicide unless the fetus is “ensouled,” and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication became established only 150 years ago.
In its 1974 declaration on abortion, the Vatican acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person: “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.” It is worth noting that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade explored this point at some length, finally concluding that the Court “need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”
What, then, do Catholics do? What are we obliged to do when the Church cannot answer an important question of fact that should influence a moral decision? We follow a time-honored dictum: Ubi dubium; ibi libertas. Or, simply put, where there is doubt, there is freedom. This freedom is rooted in the core Catholic principle of respect for the conscience of each individual.
Catholic teaching has long regarded the well-formed conscience as the final arbiter in moral decision making. At the heart of Church teachings on moral matters is the deep regard for individual conscience. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” The Church takes conscience so seriously that, as Fr. Richard P. McBrien wrote in his encyclopedic reference and teaching guide, Catholicism, even in cases of a conflict with the moral teachings of the Church, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.”
Casual disagreement, of course, is not sufficient grounds for dissenting from moral teachings. Catholics are obliged to know and consider thoughtfully and seriously Catholic teachings. But in the end, a well-formed conscience reigns.
There is a history and tradition of Catholic dissent from Church teachings. Dissent from Church teachings is permissible, and the Church has a long tradition of disagreement among its members on official teachings, interpretations of those teachings, and ways that those teachings are expressed. At various points during the Church’s history, the Church has recognized views that were at one time in opposition to official teachings. Theologians whose opinions at one time clashed with prevailing papal views and were later recognized include Aquinas, the biblical scholar Marie-Joseph LaGrange, John Courtney Murray, and Henri de Lubac, who was singled out for special praise by Pope John Paul II some years after his views were criticized by Pope Pius XII.
The Catholic Church even has in place a doctrine whereby Catholics can legitimately disagree with the Church: the Catholic system of probabilism. While virtually unknown to most Catholics, the concept of probabilism is the safeguard within the Church that protects individuals from teachings that are either wrong or in development, as long as one can find sound reasons for a differing position. Many theologians have written in defense of reproductive choice, even though they do so at great risk of Vatican censure.
Most importantly, Catholics share in the development of official teaching through the principle of reception. Many lay Catholics do not realize that the teaching authority of the Church is Trinitarian and that they play an integral role in its formation. Teaching is not based solely on statements of the hierarchy; it also includes the scholarly efforts of theologians and the lived experience of Catholic people. “Since the Church is a living body,” the Vatican has declared, “she needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.”
While no one would suggest that the findings of opinion polls are definitive indicators of right and wrong, on questions such as contraception and abortion, the consensus of the faithful, or sensus fidelium, cannot be said to support the hierarchy’s position. And clergy, including bishops and popes, lack the experience of Catholic couples who must work to create healthy and stable families. Catholics all over the world have soundly rejected the Church’s ban on contraception, and on the topic of abortion, in some countries and on some questions, only a minority of Catholics agree with Church leaders. There are a number of statistics from Mexico to Canada to Nigeria that supports this statement, but the most telling is the simplest: Across the globe, Catholic women use contraception and abortion in the same numbers as the population as a whole.
Legality and Morality
The principles of conscience, probabilism, and reception provide for an active, critical voice for legitimate dissent within the Church on the morality of abortion. But ultimately, to be pro-choice on abortion is to say that abortion should be legal, regardless of one’s personal view or Church position.
Many Catholics who agree significantly with the Church that abortion is immoral still believe that making it illegal is morally as well as practically ineffective in preventing abortion.
First, to make it illegal makes criminals of women whose religion may hold that abortion is the right decision for them or who themselves decide that abortion is the best choice they can make in a bad situation. The effect of putting women in a constant state of fear about whether they will be arrested or exposed to ridicule or lose their jobs is horrifying.
Second, pro-choice Catholics believe with prominent Church leaders that it is not necessary that everything we Catholics think is immoral needs to be illegal. For example, Aquinas held that prostitution should not be illegal because if it were, the authorities would not enforce it and the resulting loss of respect for the law was more damaging than any gain made by making it de jure illegal. And of course, most Catholics have given up on making divorce or contraception illegal—or for that matter forbidding fertility treatments that are also against Church positions.
Perhaps most importantly, pro-choice Catholics have an alternative to making abortion illegal. They say there is no evidence that criminalizing abortion significantly reduces the number of abortions—it only drives them underground and causes death and suffering for the women and their families. They put forward programs that would make abortion less necessary: better family planning (also forbidden by the Church), comprehensive sexuality education, the provision of contraceptives confidentially to adolescents (also opposed by Church lobbyists), and, most importantly, quality health care, jobs, and education for all. These measures would achieve a substantial reduction in the need for abortion and avoid any coercion of women.
Catholics, Choice, and Public Life
Even in a predominantly Catholic country, laws governing access to abortion need not adhere to the official Catholic position. Church teachings, tradition, and core Catholic tenets—including the primacy of conscience and the right to dissent—leave room for support for a more liberal position on abortion. Not only has the Church acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person, but it has also not declared its position on abortion to be an infallible teaching.
The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom reinforced the call on Catholics to respect the positions of people of other faiths. We are not to seek laws that would deny others the right to practice their faith, and we have a right to expect that laws not make it impossible for us to follow our faith.
Clearly, abortion is a serious matter, and the decision about whether to have one or not, or even to support those who do have them, is not a trivial one. While the hierarchy has chosen to impose an absolute prohibition on both contraception and abortion, this simplistic interpretation of Catholic doctrine does a disservice to both the hierarchy and the laity. Complicated issues, such as the reproductive choice Catholics make, often require complex analyses and solutions that leave room for individuals to make their own decisions. A thoughtful and compassionate review of these positions—including scrupulous attention to the complexity of theology and a soupcon of humility—would serve the Church, in its entirety, well.
 Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), note 19.
 Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1790.
 Fr. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, study edition (Oak Grove, Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1981), 1004 (italics in the original).
 Pontifical Council for the Instruments of Social Communication, Communio et Progressio, 115.
 Goldscheider and Mosher, Studies in Family Planning 22, no. 2; Abortion and Women’s Health, Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1990.
Responding to Catholics for a Free Choice is like trying to get a grasp onto jello as the reader is confronted with a mass of contradictions, wishful thinking, bad history, and even worse theology. I had this very experience twenty years ago in a dialogue with Frances Kissling as she sought to convince Larry King’s viewers that being “pro-choice” was a legitimate option within the Catholic community. Then, as now, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and atheists alike know that that position is untenable.
At any rate, it seems to me that the only effective way to deal with such a muddle of assertions is to engage each one, in an attempt to respond in some coherent fashion.
Kissling: “Catholics all over the world have soundly rejected the Church’s ban on contraception, and on the topic of abortion, in some countries and on some questions, only a minority of Catholics agree with church leaders.”
The ancient Roman principle of law of nemo judex in causa sua (“No one is a judge in his own case”) was wise and applicable to all times and places. What it means, very simply, is that personal involvement and subjectivity have a way of intruding on what ought to be clear-headed, objective evaluations of moral acts. Once again, the Nazi example is worth considering: How many Nazis would have regarded their actions as morally reprehensible? Indeed, would they not have deemed them not only justifiable but meritorious, in view of their overall goals for advancing the good of the fatherland?
Kissling: “Catholic teaching has long regarded the well-formed conscience as the final arbiter in moral decision-making. At the heart of Church teachings on moral matters is the deep regard for individual conscience.”
A recurring mistake is made by Kissling, namely, that coming up with moral judgments is the responsibility/prerogative of everyone. That is just plain silly. Nuclear physicists do not consult the entire population before coming up with a definitive position within their realm of competence, nor do any other professionals. Similarly, the task of theological reflection belongs to those suitably trained in theology. “Doing theology,” moreover, is accomplished by those who have the mind and heart of Christ as it has been laid open for us through the Church’s teaching authority. That is why St. Thomas Aquinas would say that while a non-believer might be able to spout forth theological facts, that person could not be a theologian in any proper sense because he lacks faith and adherence to the Catholic worldview. John Henry Cardinal Newman would echo those same sentiments seven centuries later.
Hence, to speak of “official Church teaching” as “recommendations” is totally off-base and shows one’s hand in the clearest way.
Kissling: “While the Church has always maintained that procured abortion was wrong, its reasoning for opposing it has changed.”
What’s wrong with that? That simply shows that the Church takes into account the growth in human knowledge in its various manifestations. Fifty years ago, parents may have told their children not to smoke because it was socially unacceptable; now, parents give the same directive but present health as the motivation for obeying the proscription.
Kissling: “Neither St. Augustine (fifth century) nor St. Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century)—two of the most important thinkers in the Catholic Church—considered the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy as a human person.”
This is a perfect illustration of my previous point. Both saints (and yes, “important thinkers”) operated from the defective brand of biology that was available to them. Advances in biology (especially in genetics) over the past century have made it clear that human life begins at conception. It is no exercise in wishful thinking to assert without fear of contradiction that with that scientific fact of life in place, Augustine and Aquinas both would be active proponents of the Church’s teaching today.
Now, regrettably, we must admit that there are people who do not question the scientific data regarding the beginning of human life and yet conclude that it is not worth safeguarding.
It is also a bit ironic that CFFC, which always seems to want the Church to be on the cutting edge of modernity, now finds itself in a “retro” mode by advocating outdated scientific notions, relegating them to membership in their own version of the Flat Earth Society.
Kissling: “Not only has the Church acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person, but it also has not declared its position on abortion to be an infallible teaching.”
Earlier, we saw that Kissling noted that Catholic teaching on abortion was clear and definitive; now, shifting sands declare otherwise. Regardless, Kissling muddles the discussion by failing to understand that relatively few doctrines have the kind of theological note attached to them that she seems to demand. The Church has never invoked infallibility for its teaching on the Blessed Trinity. Do Catholics then “have the right to dissent” from that central dogma of Christian faith? Certainly not.
Much more to the point, however, is the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council:
This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.
There does not seem to be much “wiggle room” here for any kind of “loyal opposition.”
Does the Church’s teaching on abortion command “loyal submission of the will and intellect”? Consider, if you will, Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae and how the principles laid out in Lumen Gentium apply:
- It is an encyclical (“character of the documents”).
- “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder” (“the manner in which the doctrine is formulated”).
- “Throughout Christianity’s two-thousand-year history, this same doctrine has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her pastors and Doctors. Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion” (“the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed”).
Finally, while conscience is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong for each human being, conscience must be properly formed. An indispensable element of conscience formation is knowing, understanding, and accepting Church teaching.
Kissling: “As Fr. Richard P. McBrien wrote in his encyclopedic reference and teaching guide Catholicism, even in cases of a conflict with the moral teachings of the Church, Catholics ‘not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.’”
Fr. McBrien’s Catholicism is hardly a reliable guide to the Catholic faith. In fact, the American bishops had to censure the work precisely because it is most unreliable! Furthermore, for years Fr. McBrien has served as the puppet of the media who believe that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic, using him as their mouthpiece to foster and legitimize dissent in the Catholic Church. Some years back, I had the unpleasant experience of appearing with him on two shows (one dealing with the ordination of women and the other on Catholic morality) on PBS, during which he made clear his rejection of most of what the Church holds on these topics.
Kissling: “Theologians whose opinions at one time clashed with prevailing papal views and were later recognized include Aquinas, the biblical scholar Marie-Joseph LaGrange, John Courtney Murray, and Henri de Lubac, who was singled out for special praise by Pope John Paul II some years after his views were criticized by Pope Pius XII.”
This is a favorite tactic of Kissling—naming theologians who were “ahead of their time” and using their subsequent acceptance by the Church as proof that her own aberrant positions will similarly be rehabilitated when the Church emerges from her deep, dark sleep on these issues. Two points need to be made regarding these supposed renegade theologians: (1) All obeyed Church authority when challenged; and (2) none of their teachings conflicted with any major magisterial pronouncements.
Kissling: “Many theologians have written in defense of reproductive choice, even though they do so at great risk of Vatican censure.”
Frankly, it takes little or no courage to attack Church teaching today since even nominally Catholic periodicals give such views a forum, and the response of the Holy See takes years and even decades, if it ever comes at all.
Kissling: “‘Since the Church is a living body,’ the Vatican has declared, ‘she needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.’”
What Kissling quotes is accurate, but what follows in Communio et Progressio is even more telling: “Catholics should be fully aware of the real freedom to speak their minds which stems from a ‘feeling for the faith’ and from love.” It then explains what this entails:
It stems from that feeling for the faith which is aroused and nourished by the spirit of truth in order that, under the guidance of the teaching Church which they accept with reverence, the people of God may cling unswervingly to the faith given to the early Church, with true judgment penetrate its meaning more deeply, and apply it more fully to their lives.
This is obviously a far cry from what Kissling would have readers imagine by her selective and distorted citation.
Kissling: “There are a number of statistics from Mexico to Canada to Nigeria that supports this statement, but the most telling is the simplest: Across the globe, Catholic women use contraception and abortion in the same numbers as the population as a whole.”
The statistics we are offered come from the Alan Guttmacher Institute. That’s like quoting the Ku Klux Klan on the nature and identity of blacks!
Kissling: “As Catholics we are concerned about poor and marginalized people.”
If CFFC is so concerned about poor women, they would do well to redirect their formidable trove of resources toward providing these women with the means to carry their babies to term instead of aiding them in killing their babies.
In a very perverse manner, Kissling identifies the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” with killing the babies of the poor. Of course, this type of advocacy for genocide of unwanted minorities has a long pedigree, going all the way back to Margaret Sanger and her founding of Planned Parenthood, a staunch supporter of CFFC.
Kissling: “Clearly, abortion is a serious matter, and the decision about whether to have one or not, or even to support those who do have them, is not a trivial one.”
If Kissling’s argumentation should be taken seriously to this point, why should we conclude that “abortion is a serious matter”? As a matter of fact, Kissling has made a career out of trivializing abortion.
In summary, where does CFFC stand in the long line of Christian Tradition, to which they would have us believe they belong? Just consider two passages from early Christian literature:
- The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 74 a.d.) says succinctly: “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion.”
- The Epistle to Diognetus (c. 250 a.d.) states as a given the following: “They [Christians] marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring [that is, abort].”
Obviously, CFFC’s agenda would be abhorrent to the early Christians, as it must be to Christians today.
 Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 25.
 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 62.3.
 Ibid., 61.4.
 National Council of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, “Fr. McBrien’s Catholicism,” April 9, 1996.
 Pontifical Council for the Instruments of Social Communication, Communio et Progressio, 116.