Pro-Choice Catholicism 101
You may have heard the claim that “you can’t be Catholic and pro-choice.” But the reality is that the majority of Catholics in the United States believe, in good conscience, that abortion should be legal. Catholics like us are pro-choice because of our faith, not in spite of it. We must speak up to reclaim the moral high ground from the anti-choice religious right. This section of the toolkit will give you some history of church teaching and theological thinking about abortion to help you respond to the false claim that you can’t be Catholic and support the right to an abortion.
For Catholics, casual disagreement is not sufficient grounds for ignoring moral teachings. Catholics are obliged to understand and thoughtfully consider Catholic teaching. Church teachings on moral decision-making and abortion are complex. In Catholic theology there is room to question and disagree with church teachings and support positions and policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion. That’s why we are fully Catholic and fully support abortion justice.
Did you know?
In the United States, 56% of Catholics think abortion should be legal in all or most cases (Pew 2019), 68% of Catholics support Roe v. Wade (Pew 2019), and just 14% of Catholics agree with the hierarchy that abortion should be illegal in all cases (Pew 2019).click to read more facts
Catholicism is a rich and complex faith tradition that draws upon various sources in its search for theological truth, including teachings from Scripture, the insights of theologians, facts presented from science and other academic disciplines, and the wisdom of human experience, including the experience of the laity. Because of the tradition’s long history, someone’s stance on a particular social issue does not determine whether they are Catholic. To define what Catholic identity means, perhaps it is best to explore what makes the Catholic tradition unique among the Christian faiths.
Though Christians share many beliefs across denominations, Catholicism has a unique understanding of humanity’s relationship to God and nature. For Catholics, grace perfects nature, which means that human beings and God are in a dynamic, co-creative relationship. Because grace perfects nature, all finite things in creation are capable of revealing truths about the eternal.
This means that Catholics have a sacramental view of the world. That is, for a Catholic, all of creation is good, and everything in our finite world can be a vessel of God’s presence and God’s transforming grace. This is why Catholicism has a history of mysticism and spirituality, a focus on caring for the poor, and an exquisite legacy of artists and writers. If there can be any litmus test for what makes someone Catholic, a sacramental imagination should be it.
Everyone. The Catholic hierarchy’s role in influencing public policy affects all people — Catholic and non-Catholic — by limiting the availability of reproductive healthcare services globally. People all over the world suffer because they lack information and resources to plan their families and keep themselves safe and healthy. The hierarchy’s lobbying efforts against contraception and abortion have disastrous effects on people’s health and lives around the world, especially people of color and those oppressed by unjust economic structures. Similarly, centuries old ideas about gender and sexuality harm women and LGBTQIA+ people by shaming them for how God created them. As Catholics, we are in awe of our faith’s potential to be a force for good. But we also recognize and reckon with the harm that these doctrines have inflicted on many, including ourselves.
Those who disagree with us often ask us to point to religious texts that specifically permit abortion. The fact is that the Bible does not ban abortion. In fact, the Bible suggests that fetuses are not people. Exodus 21:22-25 is a legal passage that explains the punishment for accidentally hitting a pregnant woman and causing her to lose her pregnancy. If the woman dies from her injuries, the punishment is death, which is the typical penalty for murder. If the pregnant woman miscarries but is otherwise OK, the penalty is only a fine. In other words, the punishment for killing a pregnant woman outweighs the punishment for causing pregnancy loss. The fetus is not a person, but the woman clearly is. In the Bible, ending a pregnancy is not murder.
Given the bishops’ obsession with abortion, you’d think that Jesus frequently taught about abortion. The Gospels tell us that this was not the case. The word “abortion” does not even appear once in the Bible. Instead, Jesus teaches that we must “love one another” (Jn 13:34). In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently champions women, who had the same social standing as slaves because they were understood to be owned by men. Jesus reaches out particularly to stigmatized women who were ostracized because of perceived sexual sin, such as the Samaritan women (Jn 4:4-42), the women caught in adultery who is about to be stoned (John 8:1-11), and the women who had menstrual bleeding for seven years (Lk 8:43-48). In each case, he treated these women as equals, supporting their desire for liberation, lifting the weight of societal shame, and entrusting them to share his message.
As pro-choice Catholics, we know that Jesus would have welcomed people who have had abortions to his table. He would have met them where they were and listened deeply to their stories. He would have defended them against the judgments of the religious extremists of his time and challenged the taboos that oppressed them. Supporting people during pregnancy and during their abortions is a way to model Jesus’ teachings and his way of life.
Catholic teaching on abortion has changed over time. Although the Catholic hierarchy claims that the prohibition on abortion is both “unchanged” and “unchangeable,” church historians have proven otherwise. The early prohibition of abortion was not based on concern for the fetus: It was based on a view that only people who engage in forbidden sexual activity would attempt abortion rather than that abortion is fundamentally wrong.
Church hierarchy no longer argues that people need abortions only after “immoral” sex, partially because statistics show that many people who have abortions are married Catholics who already have children. However, this argument, which is called the “perversity view” of abortion, still underlies the hierarchy’s reasoning: They condemn abortion because they fear women’s sexuality and resent women’s sexual pleasure.
Because it is no longer as palatable to shame women for all forms of sexuality, many church officials and anti-choice Catholics have shifted to the “ontological view” of abortion, which argues that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. This view, however, is based on faulty science, dating from the 17th century, when scientists, looking at fertilized chicken eggs through magnifying glasses and primitive microscopes, imagined that they saw tiny, fully formed animal fetuses.
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, saying, “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.” This disagreement has a long history as well. 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, or “ensouled,” as they expressed it. For this reason, both believed that abortion was permissible up to a certain point in fetal development (40-90 days). Hearkening back to the perversity position, St. Augustine believed that early stage about abortion was not homicide, but rather a sin against marriage because, for him, the purpose of sex within marriage was procreation.
No. The truth is the hierarchy’s absolute ban on abortion is actually only 150 years old. For most of the Catholic church’s history, the prevailing view was that abortion only took a life after the soul entered the fetus (believed to occur 40-90 days into the pregnancy). Some of the most popular and respected theologians from Augustine to Aquinas recognized a clear distinction between abortions that occur in the early and later stages of pregnancy. When Pope Sixtus V was addressing sex work in Rome in 1588, he tried to equate abortion with homicide. His successor, Pope Gregory XIV, overturned this statement on the grounds that it was not in line with previous teachings.
The Catholic church’s so-called “constant teaching” on abortion has changed significantly throughout the ages. It reflects cultural mores and attitudes about sex and the hierarchy’s desire to control women, not divine decrees from on high. It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church first prohibited abortion at any stage of pregnancy, and the teaching was not codified until 1917. This shift in 1869 was inspired by Pope Pius IX’s alarm at declining birthrates in Catholic countries like France. Clearly, the church’s position on abortion changes depending on different social situations.
No. While some ultraconservative groups claim that the teaching on abortion is infallible, it does not meet the definition of an infallible teaching. The doctrine of papal infallibility, which states that in certain situations the pope cannot be wrong, was first defined in 1870. Since then, various popes have only declared two teachings infallible: the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Canon law states that “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident” (747 § 3). In other words, a pope must declare a teaching infallible. Not everything the pope says is infallible.
The Vatican has not declared anti-abortion teachings infallible: In fact, they explicitly decided not to. Before Pope John Paul II published the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” or “The Gospel of Life,” in 1995, theologians speculated about whether the Vatican would assert the infallibility of the teaching on abortion. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, confirmed that they had considered adding the word “infallible” to the encyclical. However, the Vatican decided against it. Ratzinger explained that while the teaching on abortion is authoritative and deserves obedience, the encyclical stopped short of the “formality of dogmatization.”
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. In the 1971 pastoral instruction “Communio et Progressio,” the Vatican said that, “Since the Church is a living body, she needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.” Rather than reinforcing opposition to abortion as an infallible church teaching, official church writings illustrate that there is a diversity of opinion among leading theologians on the Vatican’s teaching on abortion.
Even though 98% of Catholic women report using a method of birth control other than natural family planning, the Vatican continues to describe contraception as evil. Sex is permissible only in the context of heterosexual marriage, and all sex acts must be open to the possibility of conception — all other sex acts are considered immoral, sinful, and even unnatural. This stigmatizes the expression of one’s sexuality, shames sexual desire, and judges harshly those who have sex outside of the church’s strictly prescribed norms. However, Pew Research found that just 8% of Catholics think that artificial contraception is morally wrong. Considering that Catholics have sex, use contraception, and have abortions at the same rate as other people, this is a clear demonstration of how disconnected many church leaders are with the lived experience of people in the pews who they claim to represent.
One of the most fundamental teachings in the Catholic tradition is the primacy of conscience. This doctrine states that Catholics must use their reason to discern ethically complex situations and that our individual consciences should be the final arbiter in all moral decision-making. The Catechism states that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his [sic] conscience” (paragraph 1790). In other words, official church teaching tells us not to passively accept what the hierarchy says.
The church cherishes and respects the power of conscience. Prominent Catholic theologian Richard McBrien said that Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.” St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most respected theologians in church history, agreed. Catholics have a moral obligation to consider church teachings in the context of their own moral compass and their relationship with the sacred.
As Catholics, we believe that we must use all the resources available to us to form our consciences so that we can make the best possible decisions for ourselves, particularly in morally complex circumstances. We do not simply ignore church teachings or flippantly choose to support abortion access just because we feel like it. In forming our opinions about abortion, we consider church teachings, Scripture, the guidance of Catholic leaders and theologians, the experiences of fellow Catholics, and our own relationships with reproductive health. Together, all these elements form our conscience. Catholics for Choice fights for the rights of all individuals to make decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health based on their own consciences.
Many progressive, social justice-oriented Catholics scratch their heads about this one. In fact, Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, famously called folks like this “pro-birth” rather than “pro-life.” When we look how anti-abortion politics became a rallying cry for conservative Christians, the reason there is little interest in protecting life after birth becomes clear. In the 1970s, white conservative evangelicals and Catholics were seeking a way to rebuild power amid the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. In the early 1970s, they used pro-segregation ideas to build power, but as that issue became less sympathetic, even among white conservatives, they pivoted to abortion as the issue that would animate their base. Anti-abortion politics arose out of a need to maintain white, male Christian dominance in U.S. politics, culture, and society. The anti-abortion movement isn’t interested in other issues that would defend the lives of actual people because the purpose of their cause was never really about protecting life. It was about building power for a white supremacist, Christian nationalist movement.
If you are finding yourself with discomfort around abortion or even some of the messaging that you have heard from parts of the pro-choice movement, you are not alone. While Catholics for Choice does fiercely support abortion access, one of the reasons we created this Advocate’s Bible was to engage and educate people of faith, particularly Catholics, who face uncertainty because they believe abortion is a morally complex issue. We join with the faith-based reproductive rights advocates and scholars who are calling for new moral language that expresses the complexities of pregnancies, gestation, and the value of the fetus — while also still fundamentally supporting abortion access.
Debates over abortion’s morality often force a woman to justify why she wants an abortion. When we focus first on the fetus and pass judgment on whether certain abortions are justified, we overlook or even erase the value of the child-bearer’s life. We reduce her to a vessel, where the potential, theoretical life that might be is privileged over the living, breathing person whose body is experiencing pregnancy. Instead of forcing abortion into a binary debate, we need to change the question, and instead center the person who is pregnant first and her need to make the decision she needs to make. As Diana Greene Foster, author of “The Turnaway Study,” so eloquently put it, when someone is pregnant “there is more at stake than just women’s bodily autonomy and the well-being of a fetus who will become a baby.”
So, the perhaps the first and most important question is this: Do you believe that a woman is capable of being a moral agent? If your answer is yes, then you believe in a fundamental pro-choice value.
“It’s not just her body, but her whole life trajectory, her chance of having a wanted baby later, her chance of having a good, positive romantic relationship and her chance of supporting herself and her family. It affects their existing children and the well-being of her future children.” — Diana Greene Foster
The importance of lay Catholics’ experience in the establishment of church law is recognized through the doctrine of reception, which says that the community of believers must accept a law for it to offer proper guidance. Canon lawyer James A. Coriden reaffirmed that “the obligatory force of church law is affected by its reception by the community.” 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.
Church teachings, tradition, and core Catholic tenets including the primacy of conscience and the role of the faithful in defining legitimate laws leave room for supporting a different positions 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. Indeed, many of us do.