A Reflection for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Do Catholics try to impose their religion on others? Or, following the disappearance of Roe v. Wade, is an old prejudice being rearranged by those who perceive Christian moral teaching as personally limiting?
“Keep your religion away from my rights,” some abortion rights activists will say.
It’s an effective meme because most of us argue that faith in God is the business of the individual, not the community. Yet the accusation distorts Catholic moral teaching by suggesting that moral commandments, conveyed through Byzantine points of power and self-interest, are imposed on the faithful, who then seek to impose them on their societies.
Believers who oppose abortion do not do so by divine order. On the contrary, if our ethical thought is certainly inspired by our religious faith, it does not derive directly from it. The three major Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – teach that God entered history through acts of revelation, but only the fundamentalists of these religions believe that God dictated moral precepts that do not require any interpretation before application. Most Jews, Christians and Muslims are not fundamentalists. We do not believe that a quotation from a scripture silences the discussion.
Believers who oppose abortion do not do so by divine order. On the contrary, if our ethical thought is certainly inspired by our religious faith, it does not derive directly from it.
Yes, religious people are influenced by belonging to a group. Which are not? We all avoid swimming upstream. But it is not religious belief that divides the West on the issue of abortion. Believers and unbelievers stand on both sides. Indeed, our senior ethicist has never heard of Moses, Christ, or Muhammad. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined humans as those who reason. We observe and react when we interact with a changing world.
Here is a big number that the theory of evolution cannot decode: reason inevitably seeks to preserve itself. We are compelled to choose, both as individuals and as communities, what allows us to flourish, and we avoid what prevents it. As Aristotle first stated, reasoning involves obligation, a sense of purposeful involvement.
Most of us who profess to believe in God do not believe that God dictates laws to us. We believe, however, that a goal has been inscribed in reality, by the very intelligence from which it stems. Over time and through collective effort, we believe our intelligence is compelled to perceive and respond to this purpose, allowing ourselves and our surrounding world to flourish.
It is what believers and non-believers alike have traditionally called “natural moral law.” Of course, this is not natural in the biological sense. (One wouldn’t hesitate to amputate a gangrenous limb.) And it’s not a “law” in the sense of being enacted. If you understand natural moral law as “learning interactive with the world”, you can see why it defies both codification and rapid consensus.
If you understand natural moral law as “learning interactive with the world”, you can see why it defies both codification and rapid consensus.
The West has another great proponent of natural moral law. When a fundamentalist asked Jesus to spell divine moral precepts, he responded with a story, not a list. The Good Samaritan is a pointed parable, asking if it isn’t obvious that we should care for someone in need. Religion, our attention to divine revelation, and the life and fulfillment we find there should make this apparent, but often it is not. The parables question us. Are we the Good Samaritan? Or do we keep our eyes on the faith and away from the palpable needs of others?
Legal abortion advocates present themselves as advocates for women and the poor, but many refuse to even discuss what grows inside a mother’s womb. To use the now infamous and rightly derided saying, is it really “just a bunch of cells”? If some of us deny that abortion is a basic human right, what do we see in the womb, especially as science has advanced since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling? We see a person, a person whose right to live cannot be legislated or excluded.
Reality cannot be reduced to personal preferences. We call this “tuft” a child, and we mourn its loss in a miscarriage. In certain circumstances, this “tuft” has the right to inherit from a parent who died before leaving the womb. And in most states, if you kill a woman with a wanted “cluster” of such cells, you are charged with fetal homicide. Does the choice of the word alone make all the difference: child or foetus? Reason rejects contradiction. How was it not so among us?
The United States has never been comfortable with Catholicism, but it’s not the distinctive traits and the practice of the faith that are scary. Nation states resist transnational institutions for fear of foreign interests. With Roe v. Wade now carried away, Catholic thought is again challenged as alien: given the opportunity, Catholics only impose; they cannot truly engage in the construction of the common good.
But who says that when the Catholic Church teaches that racism is a sin? Or when the church reminds us that we have an obligation to care for the poor?
Nobody really wants to live in a world where morality does not prevail.
Our system of nation states places the poor on one side of a border and their exploiters on the other. We then speak of illegal immigration. Transnational as it is, the Catholic Church responds by insisting that legislation cannot overrule our obligation to seek economic justice for all. Many Catholics don’t like to hear that. In response, even they begin to suggest that popes and bishops enforce belief.
It is true that abortion cannot be prohibited by law, but many pro-life Christians refuse to ask themselves: is there anything that would allow unborn children to flourish more than granting universal access to health care for their mothers?
Nobody really wants to live in a world where morality does not prevail. We legislate against tax evasion; we create laws that protect the environment; we describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine as immoral. Yet we rightly insist that communities impose on individuals only when a strong moral consensus has been reached and the very values at stake must be upheld.
Are the implications of the natural moral law obvious? No, that’s not what we are in the world. Does the natural moral law still claim us? The elite debate this question, but the discussion itself presupposes the essential and enduring core of natural moral law: that reason begets obligation.