One reason why at the moment Victorian Catholics are intensely interested in the US political race is because we are facing similar issues in regard to abortion. At this very moment, our local house is debating a bill to completely decriminalise abortions for pregnancies up to the end of 6 months.
The Pelosi affair was bad enough, but now comes Senator Joe Biden’s turn to put his foot firmly in his mouth and thereby to create what we Catholics call a “teachable moment”. And, true to form, the USCCB were quick to respond with an excellent public statement.
The whole thing rather deftly demonstrates the points I have been trying to make in some recent blogs (eg. Everyone has a right to their own opinion? and “True Islam”, the Regensburg Affair, and Interfaith difficulties in Bioethics and in the combox to Is this “journalism”?).
For those of you who do not follow the clicks, here is some of what Senator Biden said:
MR. BROKAW: If Senator Obama comes to you and says, “When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe,” as a Roman Catholic, what would you say to him?
SEN. BIDEN: I’d say, “Look, I know when it begins for me.” It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They’re intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life–I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.
Of course, you, like me and like the USCCB, will see the problem here immediately. Rather than say it myself, here how the USCCB statement stated it:
The Senator’s claim that the beginning of human life is a “personal and private” matter of religious faith, one which cannot be “imposed” on others, does not reflect the truth of the matter. The Church recognizes that the obligation to protect unborn human life rests on the answer to two questions, neither of which is private or specifically religious.
The first is a biological question: When does a new human life begin? When is there a new living organism of the human species, distinct from mother and father and ready to develop and mature if given a nurturing environment? While ancient thinkers had little verifiable knowledge to help them answer this question, today embryology textbooks confirm that a new human life begins at conception. The Catholic Church does not teach this as a matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact.
The second is a moral question, with legal and political consequences: Which living members of the human species should be seen as having fundamental human rights, such as a right not to be killed? The Catholic Church’s answer is: Everybody. No human being should be treated as lacking human rights, and we have no business dividing humanity into those who are valuable enough to warrant protection and those who are not. Even this is not solely a Catholic teaching, but a principle of natural law accessible to all people of good will. The framers of the Declaration of Independence pointed to the same basic truth by speaking of inalienable rights, bestowed on all members of the human race not by any human power, but by their Creator. Those who hold a narrower and more exclusionary view have the burden of explaining why we should divide humanity into the moral “haves” and “have-nots,” and why their particular choice of where to draw that line can be sustained in a pluralistic society. Such views pose a serious threat to the dignity and rights of other poor and vulnerable members of the human family who need and deserve our respect and protection.
It really shouldn’t be that difficult, should it? I mean, try this little thought experiment. Imagine if Senator Biden had said that as a matter of faith he believed negros were real human beings, but that he didn’t want to impose that belief on others? Who would give him the time of day on this? Wouldn’t everyone have pointed out to him that the matter is one of biology and morality and ultimately “not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice” (USCCB statement). Wouldn’t you expect someone to point out to him that in making law for the protection of all members of a given society one necessarily imposes an “opinion” (backed up by objective reality and rational argument) on others?
There is one interesting side point to all this which I tried to bring out in “True Islam”, the Regensburg Affair, and Interfaith difficulties in Bioethics. As Senator Biden said, “there are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view”. That is because their views ARE based on religious laws and traditions rather than on the natural law, ie. on scientific evidence and rational thought about moral action. The Catholic Church’s bioethical teachings are NOT so. It is true that the Bible (read: God) says “Thou shalt not kill”, and indeed (for us) this gives the command the greatest possible authority. But even if our Scriptures had not explicitly given such a law (just as the Scriptures do not give an explicit condemnation of abortion per se) yet we would conclude that it is unethical to kill an innocent human being (ie. one not guilty of a crime deserving death – whatever sort of crime that might be) on the basis of the NATURAL law. Thus our Catechism itself recognises that this is “a privileged expression of the natural law” (p. 2070). Yes, there may be other religious traditions, but as Archbishop Wuerl has written: “Religious belief does not change this scientific fact.” That goes even for the Church’s teachings, which have, as Nancy Pelosi has so kindly pointed out to us, always been formulated in response to the scientific understanding of the day.
By the way, it is worth reading Archbishop Chaput’s statement on this new development.
Sen. Biden used a morally exhausted argument that American Catholics have been hearing for 40 years: i.e., that Catholics can’t “impose” their religiously based views on the rest of the country. But resistance to abortion is a matter of human rights, not religious opinion. And the senator knows very well as a lawmaker that all law involves the imposition of some people’s convictions on everyone else. That is the nature of the law. American Catholics have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting the destruction of more than a million developing unborn children a year. Other people have imposed their “pro-choice” beliefs on American society without any remorse for decades.
Unfortunately we are seeing the very same taking place here under our very noses.
On a slightly different matter, the response of Archibshop Niederauer rather neatly explains some essential elements of this blog’s title “Sentire cum ecclesia” (“To think with the Church”). I will file that for when I finally get around to answering Brian Coyne’s challenge.