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Prochoice Catholic Policy Makers in the News

September 30, 2008

In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about Catholic teachings on abortion and the responsibility of Catholics in public life to their constituents. There is a concerted effort by some conservative Catholic bishops and the Pro-Life Activities Office of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and several conservative Catholic organizations to 1) present the erroneous idea that there is a monolithic worldview of what Catholics think about abortion and 2) overstate the reality of the importance of abortion in the upcoming election.

Catholic teachings on abortion are far more nuanced than the monolithic teachings as represented by the bishops. Several articles are repeating this monolithic worldview as fact and presenting abortion as a divisive, and deciding, issue in the upcoming election. Independent polling, however, has shown this to simply not be true.

The US bishops and conservative Catholics provide one opinion and one side of the story. However, they do not reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching on abortion; nor do they represent what Catholics actually believe.

Abortion and Moral Decision-Making
Church teachings on moral decision-making and abortion are complex. In Catholic theology there is room for the acceptance of policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion.

At the heart of church teachings on moral matters is a deep regard for an individual’s conscience. TheCatechism states that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” [1] The church takes conscience so seriously that Richard McBrien, in his essential study Catholicism, explained that 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.” [2]

Casual disagreement is not sufficient grounds for ignoring moral teachings. Catholics are obliged to know and consider thoughtfully Catholic teaching. Catholics believe that “the Church…is a major resource of…moral direction and leadership. It is the product of centuries of experience, crossing cultural, national, and continental lines.” [3] But in the end, a well-formed conscience reigns. 

Catholic Teachings on Abortion Have Changed over Time
Although the Catholic hierarchy says that the prohibition on abortion is both “unchanged” and “unchangeable,” this does not comport with the actual history of abortion teaching, and dissent, within the church. While members of the Catholic hierarchy oppose abortion, their reasons for doing so and their subsequent teachings have varied over time. 

It is disingenuous, for example, for the USCCB to claim that the Didache (an early Christian document) reveals continuity in church teaching. The Didache was lost for more than a millennium and only rediscovered in the late 19th century. In the interim, many different positions on abortion emerged, were discarded, re-adopted and rejected again. In fact, through most of history the church did not pay much attention to abortion except as a sexual issue. The early prohibition of abortion was not based on concern about the fetus but on a view that only people who engage in forbidden sexual activity would attempt abortion.

Many church officials and antichoice Catholics argue that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. However, in its last statement on abortion, the 1974 Declaration on Procured 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.” [4] This disagreement has a long history; neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas, two of the most important theologians in the Catholic tradition, considered the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy to be a person.

Catholics can and do support public policies that acknowledge the moral agency of women, respect developing life, and appreciate the Catholic tradition while honoring the views of other faith groups. Many of these Catholics support a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Abortion Is Not an Infallible Teaching
The popular notion that whatever the pope says on a serious topic is infallible is an exaggeration of the principle of infallibility. While some ultra-conservative groups claim that the teaching on abortion is infallible, it does not in fact meet the definition of an infallible teaching. Since the doctrine of papal infallibility was first declared in 1870, only three teachings have been declared infallible: the Immaculate Conception of Mary; the Assumption of Mary; and the declaration on infallibility itself.

Before the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) was published in 1995, there was speculation that Pope John Paul II would assert the infallibility of the teaching on abortion. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer and now-Pope Benedict XVI, explained that the word infallible was rejected because while the teaching on abortion is authoritative and deserves obedience, the encyclical stopped short of the “formality of dogmatization.” [5] 

Lay Catholics Have a Role in the Establishment of Church Law
The teaching authority of the church 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 declared in the 1971 Communio Et Progressio, “she needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.” [6]

There is a diversity of opinion among leading theologians on the Vatican’s teaching on abortion. As long ago as 1973, noted Catholic theologian Charles Curran wrote in the Jurist that “there is a sizable and growing number of Catholic theologians who do disagree with some aspects of the officially proposed Catholic teaching that direct abortion from the time of conception is always wrong.” [7] 

The importance of lay Catholics’ experience in the establishment of church law is recognized through the concept of reception. Like the concept of the primacy of conscience, the principle of reception does not mean that Catholic law is to be taken lightly or rejected without thoughtful and prudent consideration. James Coriden, a canon lawyer, writes, “Reception is not a demonstration of popular sovereignty or an outcropping of populist democracy. It is a legitimate participation by the people in their own governance.” [8] 

Many of the hierarchy’s teachings on reproductive health and rights have not been received by the faithful.Rather, Catholics all over the world have soundly rejected the Vatican’s ban on contraception and in many countries only a minority of Catholics agree with church leaders on abortion. According to a major poll of likey Catholic voters recently conducted by the prominent DC polling firm Belden Russonello & Stewart, the majority—whether they are Democrat, Republican or Independent—strongly agree that Catholics are not obligated to heed the bishops’ recommendations. In fact, 69% of Catholics do not feel obligated to vote against candidates who support abortion. An even larger majority (75%) disapproves of denying communion to Catholics who support legal abortion. [9]

Church teachings, tradition and core Catholic tenets—including the primacy of conscience, the role of the faithful in defining legitimate laws and norms, and support for the separation of church and state—leave room for supporting a more liberal position on abortion. The church has acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person and has never declared its position on abortion to be infallible. Catholics can, in good conscience, support access to abortion and affirm that abortion can be a moral choice. 

Catholics in public life must protect the freedoms of all Americans, from every faith group and no faith group, and must let their conscience and constituents guide them in making decisions that are best for all Americans.

For more information, please do not hesitate to call at (202) 986-6093. You can also find more information about prochoice Catholics at and

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 1994), p. 438.
[2] Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: New Edition, (HarperCollins, 1994), p. 973.
[3] McBrien, p. 974.
[4] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Declaration on Procured Abortion,” 18 November 1974.
[5] “Pope stepped back from making encyclical statements infallible,” National Catholic Reporter, 7 April 1995.
[6] Roman Pastoral Instruction, “Communio Et Progressio,” 1971.
[7] Charles Curran, “Abortion: Law and Morality in Contemporary Catholic Theology,” Jurist, 1973.
[8] James A. Coriden, “The Canonical Doctrine of Reception,” Jurist, 1990.
[9] Belden Russonello & Stewart, “Secular and Security-Minded: The Catholic Vote in Summer 2008,” Catholics for Choice, July 2008.