Letters & Op-Eds 1999
Irish Times

Allowing Leeway in Moral Choices


It must be hard to be a bishop or priest today. So few teachings are blindly accepted any more by Catholics who are no longer satisfied with “Father says” as an answer to tough questions.

Why can’t priests marry or women be priests or divorced Catholics establish new and loving marriages? In the absence of good answers Catholics are developing their own moral compass.

Ironically, the very Catholic education that the church hoped would keep us orthodox has made most of us intelligent reformers.

Most of Ireland’s Catholics, like Catholics everywhere, have firmly rejected the official church position on contraception – support for it can be clearly seen in the outcome of the contraception wars which began in the 1960s. In the face of firm opposition by Catholic bishops and cold feet among politicians, contraception was made legal in Ireland.

Catholics cannot accept that it is sinful to use an effective method of family planning when a couple is not prepared to bring a child into the world. This evolving moral reasoning is increasingly evident around another reproductive issue – abortion.

Church officials in Ireland and elsewhere, especially the Vatican, hold that there can be only one authentically Catholic position on abortion, one which sees every direct abortion, no matter the circumstances for the pregnant woman (even, as in the X case, for a raped girl), as a forbidden and evil act.

Millions of Catholics in Ireland and around the world, including clergy, theologians and laity, disagree with – or at least question that official position. Their views are supported by Catholic principles, teachings and traditions that recognise an individual’s rights and responsibilities to make moral decisions that differ from the official view, and to support the establishment and protection of nonrestrictive abortion laws. These tenets and traditions include three crucial points.

1 At the heart of church teachings on moral matters is the deep regard for individual conscience. Catholic teaching affirms both the right and responsibility of a Catholic to follow his or her conscience on moral matters even when it conflicts with official positions. Casual disagreement, of course, is not sufficient grounds for contradicting official positions.

As the Irish bishops say in their pamphlet on conscience, published last year: “We must do what we sin-cerely believe to be right but bow we came to that sincere belief may be questionable. Sincerity is a serious, ongoing task.” A properly formed conscience includes sound knowledge and thoughtful consideration of Cath-olic teachings and other authorities- legal, religious, and cultural, but none of these authorities supersedes our own conscience.

2. There is no definitive church teaching on when the foetus becomes a human person with an immortal soul. In fact, before 1869, most theologians taught that the foetus did not become a human person with a soul until at least 40 days after conception, and in some cases later.

While abortion before that time was still considered sinful, it was seen as a sexual or marital sin, not as the taking of a human life. In modern times, the church has said consistently that human life must be respected from the moment of conception, but not even church officials can say when the foetus becomes a person with a soul and with claims equal to those of born persons.

The church says that abortion must not be permitted just in case the foetus is a person. That doubt leaves room for Catholics to differ from the church’s position through an established system in Catholic thinking called “probability”. Flowing from the assertion that a doubtful law does not bind, probabilism says that if one has good and solid reasons for thinking that a particular line of action is morally correct, even if there are other reasons one is aware of that contradict one’s own, a person may choose the action with impunity.

3. Taking life is sometimes permitted in church law, and the fact that the church does not grant women some leeway in making moral decisions reflects the long-held and persistent culture of sexism In the church. For a myriad of reasons and by many methods, women everywhere and always have resorted to abortion. Most often the decision is made only after serious deliberation and deeply considered weighing of circumstances.

It is unfortunate but no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution which has so often and so consistently trivialised women as figures of authority, has failed to recognise women’s capacity as moral decision -makers.

Yet there is no theological, moral or ethical foundation for this bias. If the distrust of women and sexuality were removed from the picture, a “just abortion” theory could admit that a woman’s physical and emotional health, her capacity to care for existing children and children to come, and her ability to function as a fully contributing member of society, could be seen as values proportional to the potential value of developing foetal life.

Women must be trusted to make reproductive decisions that support the well-being of their children, families and society and that enhance their own integrity and health.

None of this is to say that abortion is a simple and easy choice – far from it, but to see that abortion is a difficult and often painful choice, to recognise the increasing value of the foetus as it develops and to believe that we need to do everything we can to reduce the need for abortion in our society does not take away from the moral imperative to allow a woman to make this choice when her circumstances compel it.

The Roman Catholic faith tradition is rich and complex. To say that there is one fixed, unmoving and unmovable tradition is common, but it is a mistake. The church has always been – and continues to be – host to lively disagreements and controversies over teachings.

Although church officials insist that papal authority is the ultimate power in the making of church teachings, theologians, clergy and the laity also have a part in developing teachings. Another Catholic principle reception – asserts that for a church law to be an effective guide for the faithful, it must be accepted by that community.

On questions of reproduction, such as contraception and abortion, the consensus of the faithful, or sensus fidelium, cannot be said to support the hierarchy’s position.

Catholics all around the globe are beginning to take their rightful place as adults in the church. At times our leaders continue to treat us as if we were children and lacked good judgment but, on matters of sexuality and reproduction, one might fairly conclude that it is our church teachings that must mature.

Until they do, we are developing a workable and honourable sexaul and reproductive ethic of our own.

This article appeared in the 9 March 1999 edition of the Irish Times.


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