Laity and Catholic Hierarchs on Abortion
Jon O’Brien, the President of Catholics for Choice, took the time to discuss reproductive health issues and the Roman Catholic Christian faith with me. I asked, in particular, about the situation in America regarding both, especially touching base around pro-choice issues.
When asked about the more pressing issues within the faith community, O’Brien said, “One of the biggest problems is the disconnect between the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic people on issues of contraception and abortion. For example, in the failing days of the Pinochet regime of Chile, the Catholic hierarchy there pressured General Pinochet to introduce a restrictive anti-abortion law. In 2017, Chile, a country that is still predominantly Catholic, changed this Pinochet-era law on abortion. We see that sort of law all over the world, especially in Latin America.”
A stark example of the differences between the hierarchs of the Catholic Church and Catholic laity. O’Brien stated that there does need to be a deeper comprehension of civil rights, human rights, women’s rights tied to the ideas of conscience and autonomy.
He pointed to the stereotypes, from the outside, of the Catholic laity, where if someone is known as Catholic then they are viewed as anti-abortion or pro-life.
O’Brien gave an example of the prime minister for Chile, Michelle Batchelet, who introduced a law to reform the complete ban on abortion with the now limited allowance of abortion dependence on the case, e.g. the pregnancies that may result from a rape or with fetal abnormalities and to save the life/health of the woman.
He does note an important point, “What is significant is we’re seeing Catholic voters and Catholic politicians no longer feeling intimidated by the institutional Church and standing up and saying as Catholics, ‘We don’t see a contradiction between allowing people to follow their conscience,’ which is a Catholic thing.”
He points to two intellectual giants within the theological traditions of the Catholic Church with Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine. Both Aquinas and Augustine taught that the final arbiter in an ethical decision is conscience.
That is, the individual conscience of the Catholic Church layperson in opposition to the hierarchy’s teaching within the church. It amounts to issues around autonomy, personal freedom, and LGBT issues as well.
Catholics support homosexual marriages in the United States. O’Brien reflected, “Although the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic hierarchy ran really highly funded campaigns against the idea of marriage equality, they lost. In the Republic of Ireland, the country of my birth, we’ve seen a referendum on the same subject. In other words, the people themselves voted in favor of marriage equality, despite the views of the Catholic hierarchy.”
It comes to the same story over, and over, again with conscience deciding against the hierarchical authority in favour of the ordinary believer of the church, the laity. He does not view these people as less Catholic. He views them as living social justice as they view it.
Catholics are making decisions for themselves. They say, ‘Your baptism makes you Catholic,’” O’Brien stated, “Being Catholic is not a litmus test as to whether you adhere to the letter of law in every teaching. Nor does it mean you get up in the morning and do whatever you want to do. It means you properly form a conscience and follow it. You must examine your conscience and that is a serious process of looking at what the church leaders have said, looking at what the Church has written and looking at your impact on others.”
He made a stark point that 99 percent of Catholic women who are active, sexually, in America use a form of birth control, which the bishops of the Catholic Church does not like.