Moving Beyond the Abortion Fixation (SOME THEOLOGICAL CONTEXT)
A recent statement by a Roman Catholic bishop that abortion and Roe v. Wade were the ultimate concern in this year’s presidential elect ion is beyond foolish—it is a fetishizing of the issue to the exclusion of all other moral concerns.
By viewing abortion in its historical and theological contexts, it is my hope that an obstruction in discourse that, for many, has become both a political obsession and red herring, can be removed to allow for a broader space where discussion on a variety of pressing issues can occur. Placing abortion in its proper context can bring into focus a true representation of the overall landscape of concerns held by the faithful. In contextualizing, and thus removing, this obstacle to discourse, I believe that a common ground can be cleared, upon which more expansive discussions pertaining to justice and the shared good of the faithful can be held by all parties.
In attempting to do this, let me first be up front and declare my position on abortion. Some 20 years ago, while engaging in a “Q & A” after lecturing on creation spirituality in a Methodist church, a woman in the audience asked me, “What is creation spirituality’s position on abortion?” My answer—then, as now went something like this: “In principle, I am against abortion, because I think we should be conservative about life in all its forms, but I am not against people who have abortions. It is my experience that the decision is never easy for women to make, and that circumstances are often dire in committing oneself to a 20-year commitment. Moreover, I am even more against allowing men—especially politicians—telling women what to do with their bodies.” With that answer, I received a sustained standing ovation.
Clouded as its context has become over the past several decades, when talking about Roe vs Wade in 2020, it is not uncommon that sunshine has to struggle to break into any conversation focused on abortion. To part those clouds and let the light in, so to speak, it is necessary to summarize some points I believe will aid in establishing a more accurate context for discourse in these divisive times, with the hope that in so doing, the current stalemate between laity and hierarchy—a deadlock that serves no on—can be relieved.
Foremost in establishing a more accurate context is this clearly stated point: Being in favor of Roe vs. Wade does not mean someone is in favor of abortion. Nothing in Roe vs Wade says a person must have an abortion. Nothing. Zero. Nada. What is said is that if women are going to have an abortion (and they will and always have), make it as safe as possible. That way, a woman’s life is not in danger, or is in far less danger than reverting to the not-so-distant era when wealthy women could hire doctors for such procedures, but poor, young and middle-class women had to sneak into dark places to undergo a dangerous procedure that often cost them their lives.
Put more directly, good law and good morality are not always the same thing. Both to allow for as safe a procedure as possible, and for the diversity of conscience on this matter, you can be against abortion but in favor of Roe v Wade. This one, simple acknowledgment is crucial—from it, we can begin to understand and approach a range of opinions, not only those within the Church, but others throughout society. Living in a pluralistic culture and time, we must recognize that 75 percent of women in America are not Roman Catholic, and they have a right to their conscience about abortion. We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. This means, among other things, that churches should not dictate their own deeply held beliefs to society as a whole. Separating support for Roe v. Wade from support for abortion creates a context in which we can not only better understand those who disagree with our opinions, but also better understand many who fail to agree with us.
Along these lines, an additional consideration is present in the Catholic tradition called “the lesser of two evils.” Yes, you may believe abortion is evil, but so too is men telling women what to do with their bodies, especially politicians, who often are far from sinless themselves. Many, if not all, of those who fall into the second category frequently view sexuality as something sinister and sinful, justified only for procreation. While he is certainly no modern politician, this was very much the position of Augustine of Hippo when he identified sexuality with original sin. Whether modern or ancient, such an attitude is in no way a teaching of Jesus or of his Jewish tradition. In fact, in Jesus’ tradition, one rule for celebrating the Sabbath is that a couple should read the Song of Songs, which celebrates lovemaking as a theophany, or mystical, experience, before making love themselves.
In line with that tradition, Jesus never spoke about abortion. As such, how could abortion define a follower of Jesus? Isn’t doing so to neglect his teachings entirely? The same could be said of Jesus’ position on birth control—it is nonexistent. The church’s teaching against birth control actually originates from St. Augustine’s negative view of sexuality, which derives from his own promiscuous youth and subsequent conflicting attitudes towards his own sexuality—an attitude of guilt and shame left unresolved and thereafter dumped on centuries of Christians ever since.
Advances in psychology since the fifth century BCE, however, have done much to erode Augustine’s view, if not the church’s adoption of his approach. With strides in research and the absorption of diverse cultural perspectives from other traditions outside the faith, we once again see that our second chakra (our sexuality) is not a “problem.” It is a blessing and a power we all share and for which we all must take responsibility.
This is where conscience comes in. Consider these strong affirmations of conscience from St. Thomas Aquinas, a doctor of the church. “Every judgment of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such a way that anyone who acts against their conscience always sins.”1 And again, “Conscience is more to be obeyed than authority imposed from the outside… The dictate of conscience is more binding than the decree of external authority.”2
By way of example, take the 12th-century accomplishment of declaring marriage a sacrament. While met with strong opposition from many monastic communities, this enshrinement of individual conscience and commitment in sexual relations represented a major step forward in the church’s view on sexuality and on the rights of laypersons—championed by no less than St. Hildegard of Bingen. Sadly, however, suspicion of sexuality, the body and of women continued, and continue, to plague the church.
One such example is the declaration that women cannot be priests “because Jesus did not ordain women.” That is true—Jesus did not ordain women. But he did not ordain men either. The concept of an ordained priesthood is a second, not first, century concept. History reflects that many women were leaders in the early church—a fact in no doubt whatsoever. As New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza makes clear, “Women, in this egalitarian movement, were not marginalized figures but exercised responsible leadership… The earlier countercultural and later extraecclesial
groups accepted women as equal members with equal responsibility and leadership.”3 Furthermore, it is clear that Jesus did have a special relationship with Mary Magdalene. New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton teaches that Mary Magdalene was the mother of the sacramental system, insofar as she was put in charge of the healing and anointing ministry by Jesus and taught him such.4
What follows from each of my previous observations is that the larger context for discussing abortion must arise from the role of women in Christianity, of sexuality and of the body in the church. The clarification of context that emerges requires critical thinking and research, much of which have, happily, been advanced in our lifetimes. The creation of a clearer, broader context for abortion also, however, means paying attention to science. As Thomas Aquinas put it centuries ago, “[A] mistake about creation results in a mistake about God.”5 If we have a less than accurate understanding of sexuality, we are obviously prone to providing ill-advised advice about sexual morality and choices.
Let us speak to a few examples that clearly illustrate the need to synthesize scientific discoveries with the moral imperatives of conscience.
Not until the mid-19th century did humanity learn that the woman provides the egg in conception. Up until then, for centuries, it was believed that the male sperm was the lone “seed” and entire basis for a fetus, and that the woman provided a furrow in which to plant that seed. Obviously, the information that the ovum is provided by the woman changes the biological awareness of sexuality and reproduction drastically. Similarly, it was not until the 1970s the American Psychiatric Association established that homosexuality is (in addition to being currently identifiable in 484 other species) natural and found in all human populations—with 8 to 11 percent of any given human population presenting as gay or lesbian. It is a minority, but it is not unnatural. As with ill-informed notions of fertility that persisted up until the mid-1800s, condemnation of homosexuals and the teaching that they should all be celibate and that God is judging them are “a mistake about creation that results in a mistake about God.” Period.
The hierarchy’s positions on the science of each these issues can be compared to its condemnation of Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno in the 17th century. Pope Saint John Paul II, on lifting the condemnation of Galileo after 500 years, promised that such a mistake would never happen again, but it has—with much of it occurring on his watch. Such condemnation brings us, quite naturally, to the revelations found in the serious exploration of what happens in a society in which homosexuals are reared to hate themselves and forced into a closet to survive. The recent exposé, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, tells the sad story of self-hating gay cardinals and other decision makers in the church hierarchy, the very ones who are loudest about the sin of being gay and the sin of birth control and the sin of abortion, but are living duplicitous lives. One of the important revelations of this work—which I address with detail in a review6—is that the most antigay officials are not uncommonly the self-hating closeted gay cardinals. These individuals, as well as members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, make laws and rules against LGBTQ+ people and same-sex marriage during the day but frolic at night, whereas leaders trying to lean away from the homophobia of the church, foremost among them Pope Francis, receive fierce opposition from them.
Clarifying the context of the abortion “debate” in the Catholic church today involves accepting that the hierarchy’s attitudes can in no way be separated from its history of ignorance of women’s sexuality and of sexuality in general. This includes the commitment to dualism by many platonic-oriented theologians over the centuries, a dualism that can rightly be understood as a defining characteristic of patriarchy, indeed, an often hysterical patriarchy so fully incarnated in many of the current hierarchy.7
By introducing the word “patriarchy,” we produce a significant inquiry, and larger context, for any discussion about abortion: “Why do men feel driven and empowered to tell women what to do with their bodies?” I believe the best answer to this question comes from one of the founders of chaos theory, mathematician Ralph Abraham, in his groundbreaking book, Chaos, Gaia, Eros.8 Abraham hypothesizes that, during pre-patriarchal times, the goddess ruled over communities. As a result, Chaos was honored as a goddess integral to the life and survival of the community. Following the rise of patriarchy around the year 4500 BCE, however, the goddess Chaos was dethroned, and antifeminine myths emerged. A prime example of this is Marduk, who was extolled for killing and dismembering the goddess Tiamat, thereby controlling the feminine impulse of creativity.
According to Abraham, religion then redefined itself, enshrining the idea that a male priesthood must control the chaos (aka femininity/womanhood) that comes with creativity. This situation prevailed until the 18th century, when science more or less said: “Move over religion. We will now control chaos—and conquer nature, including women’s nature.” Beginning in the 1960s, however, science got a rude awakening. A paradigm shift occurred, one in which discoveries revealed that order alone was not the law of the universe and that chaos was equally integral to nature’s functioning—from weather patterns to imperfect ellipses of planetary movements, and much more. Chaos theory was born, and in many ways, it represented a throwback to the wisdom of the goddess epoch. The resulting conclusion proved as succinct as it was powerful: Men are not here, religion is not here, science is not here to control women—or their bodies.
Following a public dialog with Ralph Abraham on “Science, the Mystics and Chaos,” a woman approached me. “I am a midwife,” she stated. “Nothing is more chaotic than childbirth. But look at what happens—a new being comes into the world.” Surely this confirms the teaching in the time of the goddess—chaos is something sacred; childbirth is part of that sacredness; all is creativity. Not only all mothers, but also all artists know about chaos.
This is not the whole story, however. Another crucial historical context for control of the mother and the feminine must be named as well. As I point out in my new book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond, during the bubonic plague that terrorized 14th century Europe, Julian represented an anomaly. Even during the plague, she stayed grounded and true to a creation-spirituality awareness, declaring that “God is in nature” and “God is nature,” and that “the goodness in things is God.” To these convictions she held fast, even as many around her, especially men, were behaving in a manner that led to fear of nature displacing love of nature. Redemption—not love of creation—took over the religious consciousness of many. Men created fraternities for beating, or flagellating, themselves because it was thought their sins were the reason for the plague.
Unpublished for 300 years both because of her gender (she was the first woman writer in English) and the plague, Julian’s book and the creation-spirituality it espoused, as Thomas Berry points out, were largely shelved in favor of a redemption orientation within Western religion. Creation-spirituality was central to the wisdom lineage of Israel, and thus the historical Jesus who derives from that lineage; as well as to Benedict and Scholastica, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Meister Eckhart and Julian.
Could the “Doctrine of Discovery” papal bulls of the 15th century that countenanced Christian kings and empires invading Africa for slaves and treasure, as well as similar atrocities against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, have been averted with Julian’s theology? Given that the basic thrust of the Reformation and Counter-Reformat ion centered on redemption and not creation, is it also out of the question to suppose her theology might also have averted the disastrous rupture between science and religion that occurred in the 17th century?9
Traveling hand in hand with a reorientation towards the extremism of an exclusively redemption theology, another issue that must be correspondingly highlighted in the abortion debate is that of
fanaticism. An insistence that abortion is the number one issue in defining oneself as a Christian is not only absurd, it is fanatic. Over the years, I have encountered many a fanatic priest preaching exactly that message, placing all their theological eggs into that lone basket. Preoccupation with abortion (or with LGBTQ+ people or birth control or premarital sex) is a sign of theological banality. Clearly, the American hierarchy is not exempt from such fanaticism. Fanatics are scary to be around, and when it comes to abortion, not a few have resorted to threatening, bombing and murdering medical workers.
One of the most extreme forms of fanaticism, currently experiencing a terrifying global resurgence, is authoritarianism—with a particular emphasis on fascism. Political activist Susan Sontag defines fascism as “institutionalized violence.” Encompassed in this is violence against women, which is intrinsic to much of Western and patriarchal culture and which feminist Adrienne Rich astutely calls “fatalistic self-hatred.” Men operating out of unexamined consciences often project their fatalistic self-hatred onto others, especially women. Thus, the compulsion to control them and their bodies.
Under two 34-year-long papacies that dismantled the work of Vatican II, authoritarianism returned to Catholicism. The elevation to power of Opus Dei, Legion of Christ and Communion and Liberation, and their combined record-breaking money-raising are deeply disturbing, as is the silencing—and often expulsion—of theologians and the “killing of theology” (a term used by a professor at my alma mater, the Institute Catholique de Paris). Elevating obedience as a primary virtue is part and parcel of any authoritarian movement. What does any of this have to do with the Gospel? Opus Dei’s founder expressed sympathies for and support of various fascist movements, and rules were changed in the canonization process so that he was rushed into canonization in the absence of any devil’s advocate to tell truths about his extreme sexism and abuse of women coworkers, which is troubling to say the least.
A brief glance at other religious traditions in this time of interfaith cooperation and deep ecumenism proves informative. In the Jewish tradition—which was, after all, the tradition of Jesus—for the first 40 days of pregnancy, the fetus is “mere fluid” and is considered part of the mother. There is no punishment for feticide. (This very much parallels Aquinas’ teaching that the human soul does not arrive in the fetus until very late, that up to then there is a plant and then animal soul.) In the Jewish tradition, a “great need” of the mother is enough for a therapeutic abortion, and that need may be psychological or physical. “Women don’t have abortions they want. They have abortions they need,” said one rabbi.10
In Islam, there are diverse views, but the most common is that abortion is unlawful after 120 days of gestation (a minority of Muslims state 40 days). Additionally, if at any time there is a choice between saving the mother or the fetus, it is widely held that the mother should be saved, for she has obligations to fulfill that a baby does not.
Catholic theologian Daniel Maguire does a fine job of summarizing 10 global religious traditions around he topic of contraception and abortion in his book Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions. One of Maguire’s key conclusions: “Those who are dogmatically opposed to all abortions must realize that most people and most cultures do not agree with them.”11
Seen as a whole, all of these often overlooked and excluded considerations generate a more three-dimensional context in which to view the abortion debate—one within which “prolife” and “prochoice” individuals are more likely to reflect on the views of others and seek understanding while discussing the issue. In clarifying the historical and theological environment framing the conversation around Roe v. Wade, the possibility of moving on to address larger questions about the future of life, human and otherwise, on this planet quickly expands into the realm of the probable.
At this unprecedented moment in human history, questions of global warming and how we can and must change our lifestyles, including eating habits, transportation, energy, farming, immigration and economics, politics and religion must come to the fore. A compassionate and concentrated ability to address the existential questions that face us all—isn’t that the gift that healthy religion brings to the table? Let us not be distracted by interminable debates about something that is, in my opinion, no longer a debatable issue. God is good. Nature is good. Sexuality is good. Humans, along with all creatures are good , as we learn in the first chapter of Genesis. But we have to work at it by the choices we make and refuse to make. Pope Francis said as much in his fine encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, which may be the finest statement on religion and science ever produced by a pope.
1 Cited in Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality (Mineola, NY: Ixia Press, 2020), 475.
3 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “Word, Spirt and Power: Women in Early Christian Communities,” Women of Spirit: Female Leaders in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979).
4 Bruce Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography (NY: Doubleday, 2005).
5 See Matthew Fox, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times (Bloomington, IN: iuniverse, 2020), 24–30.
6 See https://www.tikkun.org/review-offrederic-martels-in-the-closet-of-thevatican.
7 Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Patristic Spirituality and the Experience of Women in the Early Church,” in Matthew Fox, ed., Western Spirituality: Historical Roots, Ecumenical Routes (Santa Fe, NM, Bear & Co., 1981), 144–152; and Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation (NY: Seabury, 1975), 3f. Calling on several feminist philosophers, I share their agreement on this issue in Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Press, 2016), 243–247.
8 Ralph H. Abraham, Chaos, Gaia, Eros: A Chaos Pioneer Uncovers the Three Great Streams of History (NY: Harper Collins Publishers 1994).
9 See Matthew Fox, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond (Bloomington, IN: iuniverse, 2020).
10 See https://www.tikkun.org/abortion-foesshould-vote-democratic; https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/07/24/abortion-laws-jewishfaith-teaches-life-does-not-startconception/1808776001/; https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/abortion-injewish-thought/
11 Daniel C. Maguire, Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 85.