Presidential Fallout

The recent rather contested presidential election in the United States raises all types of issues, which have certainly been discussed by many, but I am particularly interested in its implications for the Christian community, specifically the Church itself and certain ecclesial groupings. I am organizing my musings under two headings: the so-called Pro-Life movement in the church and the neo-Pentecostal movement. Both are found in both the evangelical world and the Church itself. And in both cases, there has been possible, perhaps probable, injury to those bodies.

When it comes to the Pro-Life movement, let me first make it clear that I abhor abortion and find it morally unacceptable. There are situations in which it may be necessary, such as in ectopic pregnancies when there is a grave risk of death to both mother and child (in fact, I have a friend who was precisely in that situation and would have died had there not been surgical intervention). In other words, I agree with the Church’s position, which is also commonly held by many evangelical groups, although some might say that only the mother’s life need be in grave danger if the pregnancy continued. But I do have three issues with how this concern is prosecuted. 

First, there is little attempt to connect the anti-abortion issue to other issues of life with the exception of euthanasia, and even then the connection does not seem to have penetrated the popular mind. We saw that in the postings, publications, and demonstrations surrounding the election – abortion for many was the only issue. There is no connection made between these issues of life and the issue of armed conflict and the issue of the death penalty and the like. In other words, it is not so much Pro-Life as anti-abortion. Now that may be a practical, political move that allows for greater coalition building, but it leaves the movement largely silent when the life issue concerns reasoning moral agents. That is, the Church (and by and large evangelicals as well now) teaches that a child dying before birth is an innocent soul that God takes to himself (the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledges original sin, is not clear on how this happens, only that God does it in his grace). The idea of limbo infantum for unbaptized infants is not current Catholic teaching and never was its dogmatic teaching. But in war, capital punishment, oppression that leads to starvation, etc. the people who die are, for the most part, above the age of reason and therefore at least at risk of hell, however conceived. There may be the hope that God will reach out in grace and “get through” to them, perhaps just before death, but there is no certainty of this. In some ways this makes the counting of numbers misleading, for how many blessed souls does it take to outweigh one possibly damned soul? (I say “possibly” because we are not the judge and can never really know if any given person is damned.) One wonders if this selectivity is due to emotional factors, due to strategic factors (how to hold the movement together), or due to political factors. But it is there.

Second, there is little awareness that the issue is a philosophical and pastoral problem. That is, I can show scientifically that a zygote has human chromosomes, etc. and is a living human animal distinct from the mother who surrounds it (or the father whose sperm contributed half of the chromosomes). What I cannot show is that that zygote (or any other stage of fetal development) is body and soul, a human being in the full sense. In fact, scientifically I cannot argue that a human being at any stage is so qualitatively different than an ape or a pig (I remember the dissection of fetal pigs in high school biology) or any other animal. And the reason is that there is no scientific test that will demonstrate the presence of a soul, which is what makes human beings qualitatively different – not a higher animal, but qualitatively different from all animals. The Nazi’s could kill so many human beings because they philosophically dehumanized most of them (some they killed as enemies of the state or on similar criminal charges, but most of their killing was of “inferior” races, i.e. of people they considered subhuman). Nor is it sufficient to cite a Bible verse or two to prove the soul is present from conception (which is what evangelicals would wish), for, first of all, that would mean that the issue is a religious issue not a scientific issue, and, second, biblical texts are not clear on when in gestation the developing child gets a soul. This was made clear to me when I was in seminary during a time when evangelicals were first discussing the issues of contraception and birth control. Towards the end of my seminary time a book came out edited by Walter Spitzer and Carlyle Saylor called Birth Control and the Christian: A Protestant Symposium on the Control of Human Reproduction. The article on abortion was written by the dean of my seminary, perhaps the most eminent evangelical theologian of the day. He argued that the soul developed along with the body and thus the seriousness of abortion did as well – one might do it for relatively simple reasons in the first two or three weeks and should have the gravest of reasons (e.g. both mother and child will die unless we abort the child) as one comes close to birth. I certainly did toy with such an argument for decades, for I respected this godly theologian and followed his reasoning (which began with the argument that the soul, like the body, came from both mother and father and developed). It was only when I accepted the Catholic position that each soul was created by God and was fully present from conception, doing so on the basis of scripture as interpreted by tradition (the earliest church documents we have cite abortion as a reason to refuse baptism unless the person has credibly repented), philosophically undergirded by developing philosophical reflection, and clearly taught by the Magisterium, that my degree of concern with early term abortion changed; that is, I became as concerned about early abortions as about later abortions. (In a sense the Church also developed on this point, for while it had, as I wrote above, always rejected from baptism those who procured abortion and excommunicated anyone who returned to such ways, in the criminal codes of the Middle Ages a difference was made between whether the unborn child was alive or quick or whether it was before quickening, abortion before quickening being a much less serious offense for one had not killed a – in their thinking – live child and after quickening being a much more serious offense for one had killed a live child). My point is that it was a theological shift or faith shift that was the basis of my change of thinking. It would be interesting to follow evangelical thought on this topic, for at some time it too appears to have shifted. The issue here, however, is that one deals with philosophical or theological errors and the practices that follow from them with conversion not punishment; at least one does if one does not live in a society in which church and state are fused and the consensus of society strongly supports the church’s position, so one must willfully reject it. We live in a post-Christian era and in a state that explicitly established the separation of church and state. Furthermore, law in scripture can limit evildoing, especially if the evildoers are a minority, but cannot solve the root problem.

Another aspect of the philosophical issue is that the abortion issue is systemically linked to a raft of issues in society. Charles Camosy’s Resisting Throwaway Culture lays some of this out. One can also look at the issue in the light of the history of philosophy and see that as the Renaissance brought back Greco-Roman modes of thought, as the Enlightenment developed, and with the philosophy of Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre, and  Foucault, one has lost the societal consensus that is necessary for a legal solution. Instead, legal solutions are playing whack-a-mole until the can be targeted only at societal deviants. One is trying to kill weeds by mowing them – the roots are left untouched and will sprout again. For example, look at Plough Quarterlyissue 26 What Families are for to see how society is giving negative attitudes towards child raising, children, and dependent adults, which is another symptom of the same complex that offers abortion as a solution to undesired pregnancies. 

That brings up the pastoral aspect in that most legal solutions proposed are fairly much one-size-fits-all in assigning guilt and do not recognize that both moral theology and pastoral practice point out that, especially in the case of the woman involved in the abortion, degrees of moral guilt vary in ways that legal solutions cannot resolve. The women vary in their awareness of the state of the fetus (how many have accepted the “it is just a lump of tissue” argument) and the degree of pressure they are under (some are threatened with death, some with abandonment, some with social ostracism, and some simply are not ready for a child now – I might add that the book Peyton Place (a 1956 book by Grace Metalious) gives an example of such pressure, although in that case it was to send the woman secretly to a home where she would have to give the child up for adoption – the point is that the pressure issue is not new). Moral theology (which is applied in the confessional) shows that the degree to which a person is a free moral agent changes the degree to which they are culpable, i.e. the gravity of the offense. To give a different example, a woman forced into marriage (say, a literal “shotgun wedding”) has not (in Catholic law) contracted a valid marriage and will not be held to her vows – the Church would declare her marriage null when presented with the case – even though she objectively spoke the proper vows. This is a big issue, too big to discuss here, but trying to handle it in law is like trying to do microsurgery with a butter knife. One ends up with some justice and a lot of injustice. 

Third, the final issue I want to discuss is about how the goal of preventing abortion is often being pursued by church men and women through political and legal means rather than prayer and spiritual gifts (preaching, evangelism, prophecy rightly understood, etc.). This is clear when church openly advocates only laws against abortion, sometimes with demonstrations and letters to politicians. But this is also clear when churchmen strongly state that a practicing Christian must vote for this or that candidate or party. While the latter action is prohibited in Catholic canon law (which is why the United States Council of Catholic Bishops puts out guidance for voting in terms of principles, not in terms of party or candidate recommendations) and while a few priests and bishops ignore that part of canon law, it is an important issue, for what advocating for parties or candidates does is turn the Church from the moral conscience of the nation into another political agent complete with demonstrations, slogans, and sometimes worse. On the one hand, it almost always means that the church representative ignores the sins of the candidate while ignoring the right actions of his or her opponent, and, on the other hand, the action becomes power against power; the Church or ecclesial organization appearing to be one more political army. Power against power is the devil’s game using the devil’s means – death (even if it is a political death, although some Christians threaten politicians with not just death but hell), anger, and the threat of death. Jesus did not beat the devil by “blowing him away” but by dying for our sins. Such playing of the power game became most clear in the Jericho Marches the preceded the inauguration of the present President. The very name indicates the marshalling of power and, in the end, the destruction of the “enemy” (as a recent article in the “Sightings” blog pointed out). 

There is also the issue of the dubious means used, such as the various cognitive distortions, including black-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking, the triangling of people or groups in or out in order to gain power, the polarizing speech, even to the point of being hate speech, and the demonization of the “other side.” Even the sacraments have been used in power politics in which individuals and clerics intrude into the pastoral relationship of a parishioner with their pastor and bishop and without being privy to any of what has been said to or by the Catholic (and if they were, as it would likely have been in the confessional, they ought not to share it) they publicly pressure the bishop or pastor (or some other priest whose mass the person is attending but who does not have a pastoral relationship with the person) to withhold the sacraments or take some other action. Certainly Sirach 19 would urge them to be more cautious, for they are acting on hearsay or their interpretation of public statements, and James 4:11-12 would urge them not to ask God to move off his throne so that they can judge. There are Church channels for reporting abuse, of course, but one had better have a clear case. Furthermore, the Church moves slowly and carefully (and may know more than the complainant) – it is more willing to err on the side of mercy and it is unlikely to be swayed by open letters published in the press. What such politicization of the sacraments and pastoral relationship does is give scandal to the Church and perhaps problematize the pastoral relationship. I might add that I have known several people who prayer with and/or spiritually advised several Presidents. I would not think of asking them about the content of their interactions. I was thankful to God that those people had those relationships and I did pray for them, that God would give them wisdom, insight, grace, and mercy for the good of the soul of that President and for the common good of the people of God. But such discretion is lacking is those politicizing the faith – they seem to want only condemnation (or perhaps undue exaltation). If this is true, about such James does not speak well.

Now I do want there to be an eventual outlawing of abortion, one that focuses on providers once society has overwhelming agreement that abortion is morally wrong. But unless the church wants to be another political  power block (in which case do not scream “persecution” when one is treated as a hostile political power block), a power block playing by this world’s rules, it must follow the way of the Church of the first few centuries. That Church made clear internally that it would discipline abortion. But externally, while some apologists do point to the unreason of Greco-Roman abortion and infanticide, the church basically dealt with the situation by three strategies: caring for women in need (for instance, if one was cast out due to a pregnancy), rescuing newborns who had been exposed (and bringing them up at the Church’s expense), and converting the world. Then, when the Church was indeed the conscience of the Roman Empire abortion was outlawed as was crucifixion and torture (this would return with the rediscovery of classical Greek and Latin literature, but that is another story). In other words, it seems to me that the proper strategy, one that uses the tools of the Spirit rather than the tools of the world, puts conversion first (and that does go on in some parts of the pro-life movement as do various aspects of caring for women who have aborted, such as Rachel’s Children) and legal tools second to “mop up” after the culture has been converted.

At the outset of this blog post I promised to tackle a second major issue, but realize that this blog post is already too long and should be book length to properly document and work through everything. Accept it as a brief outline rather than the full-length book! But I shall tackle that second issue in my next blog post.

But to summarize, when I today (January 22) am praying for the legal protection of the unborn, I realize that I am praying for a radical widespread conversion and cultural transformation that would be expressed in new social structures (perhaps even a new Constitution), among them laws against murder, laws providing adequate financial support for single mothers (for example) and their children so as to make abortion an option for which there was no pressure, and, yes, laws protecting the unborn against abortion itself.

About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years, writer, and editor). My present appointment is Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas. I am also a priest available to parishes and communities in the Diocese of Austin, and the resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community. I am married and so am a husband and also a father, and a grandfather.
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