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What's Wrong with the Cathoic Anti-Abortion Crusade?

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(Article changed on June 18, 2013 at 12:23)

(Article changed on June 16, 2013 at 15:54)

Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 16, 2013: In the issue of Commonweal Magazine dated June 14, 2016, Peter Steinfels, a practicing Catholic, has published a thoughtful critique of the Roman Catholic anti-abortion crusade titled "Beyond the Stalemate: Forty Years after "Roe'" (pages 12-18). Commonweal Magazine is a magazine of opinion edited by lay Catholics. It features articles of opinion about a wide range of public issues. The abortion debate in the United States is a hot-button public issue. How many Americans today do not have any opinion about legalized abortion?

Peter Steinfels, who grew up as a Roman Catholic in Chicago, holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He is the author of two widely known books; (1) THE NEOCONSERVATIVES: THE MEN WHO ARE CHANGING AMERICA'S POLITICS (1979) and (2) A PEOPLE ADRIFT: THE CRISIS OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IN AMERICA (2003). In addition, he is a former editor of Commonweal Magazine, a former religion writer for the New York Times, and the now retired co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. When Fr. Andrew Greeley of Chicago died recently, Dr. Steinfels published a lengthy obituary notification about him and his life in the New York Times.

In "Beyond the Stalemate" Dr. Steinfels writes as a practicing Catholic about the Catholic anti-abortion crusade in the United States and presumably for his co-religionists. However, I am no longer one of his co-religionists, even though at one time in my life I studied for the Catholic priesthood when I was in the Jesuits. I did my theological studies at the Jesuit theologate at the University of Toronto. My theological studies included studying Catholic moral theology and preparing myself for role of being a Catholic priest who would hear confessions.

Digression: Because Rob Kall of likes to work with the imagery of top-down and bottom-up, I would say that the Roman Catholic bishops today world-wide are opposed to both top-down change and to bottom-up change. In short, they are opposed to change -- period. Evidently, the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965) introduced all the change that the current crop of Catholic bishops today can tolerate. However, in principle, the bishops favor a top-down organizational and command structure. From their point of view, the only possible acceptable change would have to come from the top down. Basically, this is what is meant when the Roman Catholic Church is described as a hierarchical structure. Most Americans understand this much, even if they are not Catholics. But many non-Catholics may not understand just how extensive the grassroots structure of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere in the world today is. To one degree or another, all Roman Catholic priests are trained in theological studies, including Catholic moral theology. Yes, to be sure, clergy in other religious traditions also are trained in the theological traditions of their religions, including the moral traditions of their religions. End of digression.

Digression: In general, cultural and political conservatives in the United States today engage in spirited anti-1960s rhetoric. However, when cultural and conservative American Catholics today engage in spirited anti-1960s rhetoric, they may also have in mind certain changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965) such as the switch from Latin to the vernaculars in the celebration of the Mass. This switch was a top-down initiative that has had great impact on the grassroots practices of practicing Catholics.

Now, as I say, I have been trained in Catholic theological thought, including Catholic moral theology. As a result, I noticed that Dr. Steinfels does not explicitly mention the terms "theology" or "moral theology" or "Catholic moral theology."

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To be sure, Dr. Steinfels explicitly mentions the papal encyclical letter known by its Latin title as "Humanae vitae." This encyclical letter was issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968. In it, he re-affirmed an earlier papal teaching against artificial birth control (also known as artificial contraception). His basic argument against artificial birth control is that it closes off sexual intercourse from the possible act of procreation that he sees as the act of God. Thus he sees the natural course of procreation as the act of God. God is the God of nature, so the natural course of procreation is the act of God.

Now, most Americans know that the Catholic bishops in the United States have recently carried on a vociferous campaign against ObamaCare because of provisions for insurance coverage to cover artificial contraceptives. So the U.S. Catholic bishops are not yet ready to give up on the official Catholic teaching against artificial contraception and change the teaching to allow artificial contraception.

Now, in "Beyond the Stalemate" Dr. Steinfels says that he has "concluded that the hierarchy's continuing condemnation [of artificial contraception] was a tragic and self-destructive error" (page 13). However, because his main focus in the article is on the abortion debate, he does not explain what he considers the error to be.

Digression: Starting in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic bishops have claimed that the pope could make infallible judgments regarding matters of faith and morals. However, in the customary conventions of the Vatican, the pope would be required to state explicitly when he is making such an infallible statement regarding matters of faith and morals. But Pope Pius VI made no such claim when he issued the encyclical letter "Humanae vitae" in 1968. As a result, Dr. Steinfels and other practicing Catholics today could in principle argue that Pope Paul VI's reasoning in that encyclical is mistaken. End of digression.

But is it significant for the abortion debate that Dr. Steinfels does not explain what he considers the error in the pope's reasoning about birth control to be? Yes, I think it is.

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The Roman Catholic bishops and their priests have used the moment of conception as the key biological marker in their argument against legalized abortion in the first trimester.

But the expression "moment of conception" should alert us in to see the connection with Pope Paul VI's reasoning about not artificially blocking possible conception.

Therefore, if Dr. Steinfels and others today want to argue against the Catholic bishops' use of the biological marker of the moment of conception, they will have to also be prepared to argue against the basic reasoning of Pope Pius VI against artificial birth control.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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I do not expect to see the Catholic bishops change... by Thomas Farrell on Sunday, Jun 16, 2013 at 10:19:14 AM
Viability of the fetus is a biological not a mor... by paulvcassidy on Sunday, Jun 16, 2013 at 8:04:30 PM
The Church must be practical in its appraisal of s... by paulvcassidy on Sunday, Jun 16, 2013 at 8:05:59 PM
Like the debate over evolution versus creationism;... by molly cruz on Monday, Jun 17, 2013 at 12:27:03 PM
Molly,I feel I am advocating a practical trade-off... by paulvcassidy on Saturday, Jun 22, 2013 at 6:49:03 AM
Debates about the labels we apply to the unborn ar... by Jerry Engelbach on Monday, Jun 17, 2013 at 2:03:07 PM
Ever had one?... by molly cruz on Saturday, Jun 22, 2013 at 5:43:26 PM
Jerry, The Irish Government are currently working ... by paulvcassidy on Thursday, Jun 27, 2013 at 6:56:01 AM