Pro-Life: From Liberal Catholics to Conservative Protestants

Who are the folks who stand outside of family-planning clinics these days, warning young women that some planning services are nothing but the cruelest form of murder? As historian Daniel Williams argues in a recent article in the journal Religions, the “pro-life” movement shifted from its early roots as a socially liberal Catholic cause to a politically conservative Protestant one.

Is this kind of thing inherently "conservative?"

Is this kind of thing inherently “conservative?”

For those of us interested in the historical development of America’s culture wars, Williams’s article is a must-read. As he explains, in 1972 the first generation of pro-lifers pulled from the civil-rights and anti-war wing of liberalism. At the time, Williams argues, “it seemed unthinkable that anyone would equate the pro-life cause with political conservatism.”

What happened?

As anyone with a pulse is well aware, these days the pro-life movement is firmly in the hands of culturally and politically conservative evangelicals.

Williams argues that pro-life Catholicism had its roots in the 1930s. Back then, Catholic intellectuals and activists often tied their theological arguments against abortion to the dominant New Deal liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After Vatican II’s liberalizing reforms in the early 1960s, liberal Catholics forged even tighter bonds between liberal Catholicism and secular Great-Society anti-poverty programs. As Williams recounts, anti-racist liberals tied new abortion laws to genocide against African Americans.

Around the time of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, liberals began shifting their thinking. Instead of an issue of the rights of an oppressed and voiceless minority, abortion became a question of women’s rights.

On the conservative side, anti-abortion activism lost its connection to anti-war and anti-poverty campaigns. It lost its overwhelming connection to liberal Catholicism. Instead, it became wrapped in the Protestant-dominated language of “family values,” Williams writes.

For many of us who follow culture-war politics, it can come as a shock to read Williams’s re-creation of recent evangelical history. Even up to and during the early 1970s, many conservative evangelical organizations and intellectuals did not take a recognizably pro-life position.

Everyone interested in the full story should check out Williams’s article as well as his other work. It serves as a reminder that the seemingly hard-and-fast positions of our culture-war trenches have actually shifted dramatically over the years.

And for many of us, it prompts important questions:

  • Does pro-life seem inherently “conservative?”
    • Why?
  • Do some SAGLRROILYBYGTH who consider themselves “liberal” also consider themselves “pro-life?”
    • Why?
  • If you are “pro-life” and conservative, do you think the two go together?
  • Would it be possible these days to be a real pro-life liberal?
  • Is there something different about Catholic pro-lifers vs. Protestant ones?
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35 Comments

  1. Within the abortion debate, technology via 4D ultrasound shows some remarkable development of the human in the womb. I’m all for contraception, and morning-after pills. I also don’t want interference in first trimester abortions. But I cringe, especially coming from the background of being a nurse, when I learn about late term abortions and how they are carried out. Surely there must be a better way. But I still can’t see myself seeing all abortion outlawed, thereby forcing a woman to remain pregnant against her will. Also, the pro-life community and conservative political leaders offer no real solutions as to what happens to the baby after it is born. Who cares for it? Why are anti-poverty programs constantly under attack by conservatives? The whole thing is a mess.

    Reply
  2. Agellius

     /  July 23, 2015

    My grandparents were devout, liberal, anti-war and anti-racist Catholics who were also ardently pro-life. It always seemed like a natural combination to me. I never wondered how they could be anti-war and anti-racism while being anti-abortion. If you oppose killing and want minorities to be treated with equality and dignity, why wouldn’t you also oppose killing babies in the womb and want them to be treated with equality and dignity?

    But the pro-life position can be harmonized with conservativism as well. Conservatives for the most part want to conserve traditional moral values, and opposition to abortion is certainly a traditional moral value.

    Reply
    • I always thought anti-abortion activism harmonized perfectly with what I knew of conservative Christianity. That’s why I was surprised by Professor Williams’s descriptions of pre-1970s evangelical intellectuals’ approach to the issue. I was surprised to read of the openness of many leading thinkers to fairly expansive abortion laws.

      Reply
      • I’m surprised you are surprised. It may be under-examined by academic historians, but it’s hardly a secret or an obscure fact. Just look at how the Democratic and Republican platforms changed over time. It’s part of the other changes that flipped the southern and “white ethnic” voters into the conservative movement. The old country club Republicans saw (and still see) abortion as an extreme form of contraception that’s especially helpful for poor people and “young women in a jam.” Boomer generation “moderate” liberals and conservatives agree on this; it’s about a shared view of socioeconomic class and the predominant value of upward mobility.

        Changing stances on abortion in 20thC America track white Protestant-Catholic identities and relations in the 20th century, which is really about class and social enfranchisement. The price of admission to the WASP elite club for Catholics (and everyone else) was acceptance of things like abortion. This generated an ecumenical reaction from the pious in the working and lower middle classes — the supposed beneficiaries of liberal largesse. Nixon destroyed McGovern by getting a huge majority of those folks to vote against “abortion, amnesty, and acid.” Midwestern Poles, Germans, and Swedes + Southern Baptists who usually voted Democratic decided the country had had enough easygoing godlessness from liberal elites. Accustomed to austerity, they wanted everyone to enjoy the benefits of NOT having handouts, do-overs, and generally easy living. “Broad is the path to perdition,” etc.

        Just look at Kennedy family positions as they changed over time. Ted was still pro-life into the 80s. You can probably find a lot of material online about this in Catholic culture warring partisans like First Things. Michael Novak in particular has written autobiographically about how these things played out in his extended Catholic family.

      • PS – you can also see this all on VERY clear display in Chuck Colson’s awful, awful, fascinating trainwreck of an apocalyptic anti-government novel whose heroes are radical anti-abortion militants. https://books.google.com/books?id=z_BQsel6SewC&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=catholic

  3. Patrick

     /  July 23, 2015

    This is a great article–thanks for sharing. I do wonder why there is such a widespread assumption that caring about human rights is a liberal rather than a conservative impulse. I suspect it’s because liberals do a more effective job talking about it than conservatives do–and yet it seems to me that a concern for human rights is a fundamental part of the actual ideologies of those on both sides of the political spectrum. For that reason, I’d like to think that being Pro-Life (to some degree or another) would be a significant priority for both liberals and conservatives who are consistent with how they view human beings.

    I heard an interview yesterday with AEI President Arthur Brooks, who has a new book coming out in which he makes similar points. It looks quite interesting.

    Sheila–I used to share your skepticism that Pro-Life people don’t care as much about what happens to a baby after it’s born, but from getting to personally know people who work at crisis pregnancy centers and reading articles like this one, I’ve been glad to discover that it’s simply not true. Granted, conservatives and liberals disagree about whether solutions to helping the poor should be pursued at a federal level vs. a local level (which gives liberals the temptation to accuse conservatives of being mean when the latter fight against federal programs), but these are simply different methods of reaching the same goal.

    Reply
    • Patrick, recently I read another article in which the stats for abortion are completely different. I wish I had saved it. Abortion rates went down around the world when contraception was more readily available. The article to which you referred me seems to indicate that this is not true for America. I still think we need to have better access to birth control and the morning after pill. Surgical abortions end, in a violent way, a developing human life. But, as I said, can one use the force of law to keep a woman pregnant? I see both sides of the argument.

      Reply
  4. It has long seemed to me, perhaps wrongly, that:

    The catholic concern was that an embryo already had a spiritual soul.
    The evangelical concern was that the women must carry the baby to term as punishment for having sex outside of marriage.

    Reply
  5. Agellius

     /  July 23, 2015

    Neil:

    You write, “The catholic concern was that an embryo already had a spiritual soul.”

    More simply, that it’s a human being, albeit in an early stage of development.

    Reply
    • There is no such “Catholic concern” until VERY recently. Aquinas was entirely in line with Jewish and Muslim (all Aristotelian) views on this subject.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  July 27, 2015

        Yes, modern science and the discovery of DNA, etc., have made things clearer. Nevertheless, abortion was considered a grave evil from the beginning.

      • Clearer? It seems to be it’s made it impossible to say when life begins by generally complicating the notion of life while being reductionist at the same time. Quickening was a pretty good rule of thumb for the medievals and ancients; this marked the fact that “ensoulment” had occurred. I am not so sure it would have been considered so grave a sin to induce a miscarriage before then. Yes, the all male authorities would see this as an acting to them and their patriarchal notion of God, but in the society of women such cures were common and probably often in favor of the health and just interests of mothers, though still at the cost of potential life. I wonder if any historians have found access to the voices of those women.

      • But not always the the gravest evil. Jewish tradition has always prioritized the life of the mother. There’s more complexity and tolerance for a range of views there, whereas Christians have gotten very binary about it since the 1970s. I think the only true consensus point would be that abortions after quickening (the pretty-good classical standard) that have nothing to do with a medical crisis are a grave sin. In actual practice, however, premodern Europeans were pretty accepting of early term natural methods to terminate a pregnancy, and infanticide was shockingly common.

      • Agellius

         /  July 27, 2015

        “I think the only true consensus point would be that abortions after quickening (the pretty-good classical standard) that have nothing to do with a medical crisis are a grave sin.”

        Abortion and birth control were always grave, i.e. mortal sins. (Sins are divided into venial and mortal, mortal being the kind that send you to hell.) Augustine condemned both in extremely strong language (see e.g. paragraph 17 of “Marriage and Concupiscence”: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/15071.htm ).

        Obviously “actual practice” is another matter. No one denies that Christians often sin and will find ways to justify their sins.

        “Quickening” seemed like a good way to draw the line when people didn’t understand how conception and gestation worked. Now that we’ve seen the process in utero with our own eyes, it’s become a lot harder to say that it’s human at this point whereas yesterday it wasn’t. Therefore yes, we’ve become more binary about it as our understanding has improved.

      • “Birth control” basically meant abortifacient drugs back then to induce a miscarriage, or other aggressive methods. That’s certainly what Augustine was talking about, especially when he compared it with sodomy, whether performed by same sex couples or hetero couples. Luther and Calvin repeated the same ethic, but Protestantism never really articulated it so fully as the Catholic church did, where terminating a pregnancy = preventing one = having sex in a way that cannot result in pregnancy. This reasoning is the work of Aristotelian celibates. Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy have never accepted such a reduction to absurdity as dogma, but they maintain the same core principle about the sanctity of life.

  6. Agellius

     /  July 27, 2015

    To clarify, when I say that we’ve become more “binary”, I mean in terms of determining when the fetus is considered a human being and when it’s not. But this has nothing to do with determining when killing the fetus would be a mortal sin and when it wouldn’t. Killing a fetus at any point was always a mortal sin.

    Reply
  7. Agellius

     /  July 29, 2015

    Dan:

    You write, “Clearer? It seems to be it’s made it impossible to say when life begins by generally complicating the notion of life while being reductionist at the same time.”

    If it’s impossible to say when life begins then it’s also impossible to say when you can be sure that, in aborting a zygote/fetus, you’re not murdering a human being.

    “Quickening was a pretty good rule of thumb for the medievals and ancients; this marked the fact that ‘ensoulment’ had occurred.”

    The same people thought that quickening occurred earlier for boys than for girls. Would you accept that rule of thumb as well?

    “I am not so sure it would have been considered so grave a sin to induce a miscarriage before then.”

    Since contraception was considered a grave sin from the beginning (which Protestants agreed with until 1930), it’s hard to see why inducing a miscarriage would not be one as well.

    “Yes, the all male authorities would see this as an acting to them and their patriarchal notion of God, but in the society of women such cures were common and probably often in favor of the health and just interests of mothers, though still at the cost of potential life. I wonder if any historians have found access to the voices of those women.”

    Well, the topic was the “Catholic concern” over abortion, that is, the Church’s official position, which a faithful Catholic, by definition, would adopt as his own.

    Reply
    • That’s right, I think it’s impossible to say when life begins because what’s really at issue is the definition of “life,” specifically “human life,” in a sense equal to what has been meant in the Abrahamic traditions with their common concern for “the soul.” Mere “moment of conception” as your standard is a modernistic reduction of the human the the most minimal cluster of cells you could possibly call “human” — in a technical sense. Even Augustine and Aquinas say it’s not “murder” to cause these cells to die prior to quickening and “ensoulment.” They argue abortion is tantamount to murder in terms of what a person intends in having one. If you are consistent in your concern for not perpetuating their misogynistic assumptions, contrast it with the maternally focused Jewish tradition that has always prioritized the well-being of the mother. What does your “faithful”/letter-of-the-law Catholic view have to say to her without falling into the misogyny of church fathers like Augustine who could only see women as whores (instruments of the devil), wives (instruments of their husbands), or mothers (instruments of God)?

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  July 29, 2015

        Dan:

        You write: “Mere ‘moment of conception’ as your standard is a modernistic reduction of the human the the most minimal cluster of cells you could possibly call ‘human’ — in a technical sense.”

        You could say it’s a reduction of the human, or you could say it’s an elevation of the zygote.

        “Even Augustine and Aquinas say it’s not ‘murder’ to cause these cells to die prior to quickening and ‘ensoulment.’ They argue abortion is tantamount to murder in terms of what a person intends in having one.”

        Be that as it may, they still consider it a grave, i.e. mortal sin.

        “If you are consistent in your concern for not perpetuating their misogynistic assumptions, contrast it with the maternally focused Jewish tradition that has always prioritized the well-being of the mother.”

        We equally oppose killing male and female fetuses.

      • So you have nothing to say to the woman other than “these medieval celibates (including the one who knocked up his mistress) say it’s a sin.” What is the value of the rules you keep citing to everyone who does not immediately see the enlightenment or recognize the authority of canon law?

        To be perfectly accurate, it’s only a mortal/grave sin if your action involves full knowledge and complete consent. I’ve often heard it argued from the pro-life perspective that few or no women having abortions ever truly have full knowledge of what they are doing and cannot be capable of informed consent. If so, that’s venial sin.

  8. Agellius

     /  July 29, 2015

    Dan:

    You write, “So you have nothing to say to the woman other than ‘these medieval celibates (including the one who knocked up his mistress) say it’s a sin.’

    Don’t forget the ancient and modern celibates.

    “What is the value of the rules you keep citing to everyone who does not immediately see the enlightenment or recognize the authority of canon law?”

    This discussion is about the Catholic position on abortion; that is, what that position is; not the basis and justification of Catholic teaching authority generally. If someone is sincerely interested in understanding the Catholic faith I would be glad to take the time to explain it to him to the best of my ability. If that describes you, feel free to email me privately.

    Personally I think the prohibition of abortion is very easy to understand. I understood it the very first time it was explained to me as a kid, and my kids have never expressed any difficulty in grasping it either. I think it takes a more difficult and complex argument to justify abortion than it does to realize why it’s wrong. Of course a lot of that may have to do with the presuppositions that people bring to the discussion.

    “To be perfectly accurate, it’s only a mortal/grave sin if your action involves full knowledge and complete consent. I’ve often heard it argued from the pro-life perspective that few or no women having abortions ever truly have full knowledge of what they are doing and cannot be capable of informed consent. If so, that’s venial sin.”

    That’s not quite perfectly accurate. According to the Catechism, the conditions of a mortal sin are (1) that it involve grave matter; (2) that it be done with “consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice”; and (3) that it be done with “knowledge of the sinful character of the act.” In the case of an abortion, condition (1) is met since killing a fetus involves grave matter; condition (2) is met so long as the woman is in her right mind (which the law should require in any case); and condition (3) is met so long as the woman knows that the Church teaches that abortion is a sin.

    Of course, there may be occasions where the woman’s culpability is mitigated by her circumstances, but now you’re talking about her personal *culpability* for the sin.

    The Church distinguishes between the sinfulness of an act, and personal culpability for the act in a particular circumstance. When the term “mortal sin” refers to an act, as opposed to individual culpability for the act, it means a sin which would be mortal if performed with deliberation and knowledge of its sinfulness. Thus we say that the acts of murder or adultery are mortal sins, even though it’s possible that in some cases a perpetrator of those acts might not have full moral culpability for his actions. It is in this sense that we say that abortion is a mortal sin.

    Reply
    • An ironclad and relentless logic that, as Joyce observed, is coherent but based on absurd assumptions — which are also often misogynistic. You declined to answer the question “What does your “faithful”/letter-of-the-law Catholic view have to say to her without falling into the misogyny of church fathers like Augustine who could only see women as whores (instruments of the devil), wives (instruments of their husbands), or mothers (instruments of God)?” Those are the only ways women can imaged within the logic of the model you are using to understand human sexuality.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  July 29, 2015

        Dan:

        You write, “An ironclad and relentless logic that, as Joyce observed, is coherent but based on absurd assumptions — which are also often misogynistic.”

        Since I don’t know what assumptions you’re referring to, I can’t answer that charge.

        “You declined to answer the question ‘What does your “faithful”/letter-of-the-law Catholic view have to say to her without falling into the misogyny of church fathers like Augustine who could only see women as whores (instruments of the devil), wives (instruments of their husbands), or mothers (instruments of God)?’”

        I didn’t answer the question because I don’t accept its premises, nor do I see their relevance in any event. Even if you proved to me that Augustine believed that all women were either whores, wives or (God forbid) mothers, instead of merely asserting it (besides, what about nuns and spinsters?), what does that have to do with abortion being a sin?

      • I mean assumptions about male and female, the nature of men, women and gods. There is plenty of literature about the misogynistic element in western philosophy, theology, etc. that is serious and not to be dismissed as hostile, irreligious, etc. from however you may classify your position. See for instance Genevieve Lloyd’s classic The Man of Reason: Male and Female in Western Philosophy. Since you are willing to discard misogynistic assumptions in major church fathers, this sort of examination would simply develop that admirable revisionism more consistently in your thinking.

        You should be able to look at the complete logic of the system you have laid out above and answer what possible coordinates it leaves for women. Can you see anything other than virgin/child and wife/mother in the “good” category? All are quite dependent on human and/or divine patriarchs. The only independent possibility is the whore or perhaps a celibate religious woman who has the fortune and acumen to make her technical virgin/child status one of some power and agency in a world where the church put men in positions of power and rationality that were far less policed in the sexuality department. You can see the difficulties and historical reality for women within cultures limited by these coordinates simply by basic exposure to literary classics like The Canterbury Tales, around which a great deal of scholarship has collected and concerned itself with these issues from a rich variety of perspectives.

        I have not been trying to debate you about “whether abortion is a sin.” I have been trying to get you past prooftexting the catechism and its sources like a protestant biblicist. “Abortion is a sin.” “A zygote is a human life.” This does not communicate beyond the choir, and it does not relate what your tradition actually has to offer in a pluralistic society.

  9. Agellius

     /  July 29, 2015

    Dan:

    To be honest I have no idea what you’re saying here (is it getting smoky in here, or is it just me?). My position on abortion simply has nothing to do with misogyny. In explicating it, I never make reference to women being evil or inferior, nor does the Catechism, nor have I ever seen Augustine or Aquinas do any such thing in the course of explaining the sinfulness of abortion.

    “I have not been trying to debate you about ‘whether abortion is a sin.’ I have been trying to get you past prooftexting the catechism and its sources like a protestant biblicist. ‘Abortion is a sin.’ ‘A zygote is a human life.’ This does not communicate beyond the choir, and it does not relate what your tradition actually has to offer in a pluralistic society.”

    Nor have I been been debating whether abortion is a sin. This all started when Neil Rickert made a statement about what the “Catholic concern” was, which I thought missed the point, and so I thought I would offer a clarifying comment. You then disputed whether I had accurately stated the perennial Catholic position, and from my perspective that has been the point of our discussion until now. The point was never for me to lay out what my tradition has to offer a pluralistic society — though I have said at least twice that I am willing to explain, to anyone who wants to listen, what I think it has to offer to individual human beings.

    What the Church has to offer a pluralistic society is what the Church has offered every society in which it has existed: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Naturally, a lot of people in a pluralistic society will not find it appealing. What of it? Why must a religion must appeal to the society as a whole? How, in fact, could any religion appeal to a pluralistic society as a whole? The whole idea of a pluralistic society is to have conflicting points of view co-existing; that’s where the “plural” comes from. It seems to me that a religion which appealed to the society as a whole, would be not a pluralistic religion but a monolithic one. Therefore I’m content to hold my minority view as my small contribution towards the maintenance of pluralism. : )

    Reply
    • I initially pointed out that you were incorrect to suggest there has been a perennial concern with protecting a “human being,” which you agreed with. You clarified your view of the Catholic position as one that in recent times has decided to emphasize the moment of conception as the beginning of “human life.” You cited modern science as a better basis than Aquinas et al. for this view, noting that the traditional view was based on lack of scientific insight into gestation in the early term of a pregnancy and further derailed by Aristotelian misogyny that assumes males develop (their rational souls) sooner than females, which is part of a whole trainwreck of misogynistic pseudo-biology that undergirded many other infelicitous theological and philosophical constructs about sexuality and gender. Having admitted this, I invited you to explore the implications further, but you’re refusing to do the simple exercise I outlined.

      Again: Given the categories the strict Catholic view allows women to occupy that are morally licit, the options are virgin or wife and mother with the former traditionally viewed as a special but lesser calling with traditionally far fewer social privileges (apart from not having to marry) but none at parity with men. The woman is always defined by what she is doing/may do/has done reproductively (i.e., with a man), whereas there is no such spectrum or concern for men. Nor were male religious vocations ever a dumping ground for problem males, especially ones who were thought to be at risk of or engaging in “illicit sex.”

      What Neil said is entirely true, and we all agree with it in this form: The catholic concern was that an embryo already had a spiritual soul after the requisite periods for males and females and only then a human being was thought to exist. However, virtually the same level of moral regard was given to the earlier stage of pregnancy, and any attempt to prevent or end one at any point would be potentially a grave sin in its intent if nothing else. You can update this to your liking with modern science, but still the mother’s interests and situation are entirely out of the picture. I pointed that out as a legitimate problem that has only become clearer in the course of history and as Jews, Protestants and Catholics wrestle with the same core “life is sacred” principle and the same problems posed by modernity’s drive toward equal rights for all classes of people wherein the status of women and the unborn breaks from their historic male-prescribed interdependency and may meet in a deadlock of two competing interests or “life imperatives.” The abiding lack of a good general definition of “human life/person” keeps the problem open, and simplistic dogmatic formulations like “abortion is a sin” and “life begins at conception” “solve” it only for those who are willing to accept or ignore what it costs on the woman’s side of the equation. The reduction of “human person” to “zygote” creates new problems I think a modern Aquinas would appreciate, especially when combined with the practical effect of ignoring certain exigencies that women (and many men) care about a great deal. The strange and varied history of different American religious groups’ views on these issues (as discussed in the original post) has to do this at bottom; conservative Catholics too are capable of admitting this much and perhaps that further “development of doctrine” will arrive at a better (“clearer”) interpretation of “the truth that has been taught in every age.”

      Reply
    • Rather than rub your nose in examples of Catholic misogyny let me give you a great example I just experienced in a highly Protestant context that is still pretty anti-Catholic in many respects but also in line with the traditional Catholic view of women, sex, and reproduction. Recent Supreme Court decisions seem to have brought that back to consciousness a bit as well.

      Neil was quite right that the evangelical (or generally “low church protestant”) opposition to abortion (and contraception) was often tied to the punitive notion of pregnancy: “the women must carry the baby to term as punishment for having sex outside of marriage.” This is still a current view in places like the counties of northwest Iowa where I currently live. The best spin I can put on it is that some people think they are deterring “unwed mothers” or at least forcing them into a moral dilemma where lack of access to contraceptives makes it more likely that they will become pregnant and suffer from shame and classist stigmatization which it is the duty of good church people to pour on (even while offering “charity” to those in need) so as to enforce godly living and public morals.

      Earlier I was at an event where I met a home birth and home school type of family with ten children who, along with her teenage daughter, has been refused locally by pharmacists when attempting fill birth control pill prescriptions that were needed for health reasons not having to do with preventing pregnancy. She had to travel and hour to the nearest large-ish city to fill these prescriptions — two incidents at different times and places. A young man I know chimed in and said it was also the experience of a member of his family. I was very surprised. I have heard stories from people who grew up here in the 1980s and 1990s about doctors scolding girls for having bikini tan lines and therefore wearing immodest clothing that “leads men into sin.” I can tell you about many young men who are leading themselves by many other means but the response of their immodest behavior is “boys being boys.” More could be said; it is all material I once thought was an exaggeration of how things might have been 50+ years ago.

      This is the practical and rather typical consequence of virgin/mother/whore theology, and one of the many fine “traditional” medieval legacies we carry with us. Making “abortion is a sin” the emphasis in sex education and politics (which is how I would describe it in these rural cultures) is the wrong emphasis to the wrong people without a bit of the personalism that could just as easily be drawn on by conservatives from their religious traditions.

      Reply
  10. Agellius

     /  July 30, 2015

    Yeah, again this strikes me as smoke and mirrors and an attempt to cloud the basic issue. It has always been the Church’s position that you may not thwart the natural results of sexual intercourse. This makes contraception a grave sin, and if that is a sin then obviously terminating the fruit of sexual intercourse already in the womb is also a grave sin, and always has been. The underlying principle is that our reproductive faculties (like the rest of us) are not ours to do with as we please. We are God’s and not our own — and this applies to men every bit as much as to women. It’s every bit as much of a mortal sin to use a condom or get a vasectomy as it is to take the pill or get an abortion. It’s every bit as much of a mortal sin for a man to impregnate a woman outside wedlock as for a woman to get pregnant in that circumstance. It’s every bit as much of a mortal sin for a man to utilize the services of a prostitute, as for a woman to be a prostitute. It’s equally a mortal sin for both sexes to masturbate or commit sodomy.

    I hear what you’re saying: That a woman has to bear the child, and her “right” not to do so is impinged upon by, I don’t know, male-dominated whatchamacallits, which are the “real reason” abortion is forbidden. But the prohibition of abortion does not depend on misogyny as its basis. Nowhere do you read, as one of the premises upon which the conclusion that abortion is a grave sin is based, that men are better than women, or women are stupid, or whores, or sex-slaves, or what have you. If Augustine and Aquinas were misogynists according to modern standards, so be it, but that has nothing to do with their saying that abortion and birth control are wrong. You can’t show that if they thought women were equal to men, then their conclusion on abortion would be different, because that conclusion never depended upon that premise.

    What I see happening is basically: In our enlightened modern age, we have finally figured out that a woman’s right to live AND control her body overrules the right of a fetus merely to live, let alone control its body. Given that this is obviously true — beyond any reasonable doubt — people who ever thought otherwise were either stupid or misogynistic. Augustine and Aquinas were obviously not stupid, therefore they were misogynists. That being the case, their conclusions could not possibly be the actual result of their honest inquiry into the truth; their conclusions can’t really have the bases that they claimed to have, but must actually be based on misogynistic premises rather than the premises and reasoning processes that they actually set forth in their voluminous and admittedly brilliant writings.

    Well, I’ve read Augustine and Aquinas, and other saints, theologians and popes, and I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it. It doesn’t ring true. The facts, in my view, don’t bear it out. Yes, misogyny existed during the times when abortion was condemned (as it does today); and I’ll even concede, for the sake of argument, that it existed in the people who condemned it. But correlation does not equal causation. It’s fallacious to argue that because a philosopher is a misogynist and lived (as conceded for the sake of argument) in a misogynistic society, therefore his conclusions have misogyny as their basis. It’s possible that they simply meant what they said, and it’s also possible that they were right. I can understand you, coming from a modern liberal-democratic perspective, being skeptical, but I maintain the right to take their arguments at face value, and I happen to find them convincing.

    Reply
    • To you “the basic issue” is adhering to dogma. To others it is cura personalis or love of neighbor. To the church (and to other religious traditions in general) the doctrine is a pale shadow attempting to articulate and protect the latter. Losing the spirit in the letter of the law undoes faith with a spiritless theological bean counting.

      Your and the church’s traditional notion of “the natural results of sexual intercourse” are morally and scientifically inadequate even by the standards of ancient and medieval rabbinical tradition. Judaism puts Christianity to shame on this issue. You might benefit from encountering the Orthodox Jewish community and their centuries of wrestling with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs disease which cripples, blinds, dements, and kills children usually from 6 months of age to 5 or later at 10 and 12. Jewish teachings have always declared a both/and — life begins at conception, but it is not a person; to kill it may be murder and a capital offense, but to not kill it when the mother’s life is at stake is a crime as well. Instead of miring themselves in metaphysics and a slavish devotion to the past, the human, neighborly and pastoral problems of individual people and families have been ministered to by these people who know best of all what the value of human life is and the evil of denying and destroying it. It is a very naive view of principle and value to think that no variation, no compromise, no change can be associated with it.

      You didn’t hear me at all about the cultural ramifications of people who take your views and principles to mean they should slut shame women and deny contraceptives to people across the board. Your definition of misogyny is misguided. One does not have to be an open and intentional bigot to operate in a bigoted way within categories of thought that are encoded with bigotry. Like structural racism, there are other “structural sins” like a system of doctrine that has no place of honor for a sexually mature woman who is a mother but not a wife, or a wife but not a mother, or simply a single woman whose moral life is of the same as a man’s. Most of your last reply was jousting with a straw man. I’m not advocating a position on the American pro-choice/pro-life spectrum or trying to “debunk” Catholic theology on the basis of the misogyny of Aquinas or Augustine. I am trying to debunk the idea that there is not a misogynistic element in there that precedes them and runs throughout western society — and others. It’s not a thing to minimize; it impairs the work of grace and charity in the world.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  July 30, 2015

        Dan:

        You write, “To you ‘the basic issue’ is adhering to dogma. To others it is cura personalis or love of neighbor. To the church (and to other religious traditions in general) the doctrine is a pale shadow attempting to articulate and protect the latter. Losing the spirit in the letter of the law undoes faith with a spiritless theological bean counting.”

        Since I consider dogma to be truth, then yes, for me the basic issue is adhering to truth. I see no conflict between speaking the truth about good and evil, and love of neighbor. Love of neighbor requires speaking the truth about good and evil, as surely as love of your children requires teaching them right from wrong. The idea that this rules out kindness and requires one to be cruel and unloving to one’s neighbor, is a lie.

        The fact that I don’t respond to some of your statements doesn’t mean that I don’t hear them. I just don’t choose to pursue any and every topic that may arise in the course of a conversation.

      • Really, dogma is truth? That is a formulation Augustine contradicts, and I’m sure Aquinas does somewhere too. You really are treating dogma the way protestant biblicists treat their preferred edition of the Bible or some notion of an “original text.” This is kind of a basic semiotic confusion where one takes the sign for the thing signified, the verbus for the res (Augustine), or the verbum for the sermo (Erasmus’ translation of logos), or the Bible for the Word of God, i.e. Christ (Barth). There are a number of Buddhist fables to make the point, such as the zen koan about the moon. The moon cannot be stolen. Neither can the truth. Dogma is a thing that can be “stolen.”

  11. Agellius

     /  July 31, 2015

    “Really, dogma is truth?”

    Certainly. Catholics are required to believe dogmas, under pain of heresy, precisely because they are held to be true without question. (Did you suppose that a dogma was something the Church required people to believe without regard to its truthfulness?)

    The word has apparently been used in different senses in the course of history, which is unsurprising. “But according to a long-standing usage a dogma is now understood to be a truth appertaining to faith or morals, revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by tradition, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05089a.htm

    Reply
    • No, dogma is not truth; it is the magisterium’s version of the truth offered to the church as God’s truth which Catholics are technically obligated to accept as such. The precise language of the catechism speaks of dogma as that which the church proposes, either as revealed truth or logically necessary based on revealed truths. The church itself recognizes eight levels of varying certainty for non-infallible doctrine all the way down to tolerated but discouraged opinions.

      My point is that dogmatic formulations proposed by the magisterium have always been understood by Catholics as distinct from the revelation or “deposit of faith” and therefore are not only capable of being wrong but must always exist in a state of incompleteness and imperfection because they cannot fully comprehend the mind of God. Of course that is just not said, but it is obviously true in history and as a logical necessity of the magisterium’s self-definition. All kinds of rhetoric is used to mystify the magisterium as being “as close to the mind of God as you can get,” but obviously they are not identical. Historical change of doctrine by expansion, augmentation, or revision and what happens on the level of discipline rather than doctrine is what matters most. The church only got around to condemning slavery, for example, because all the Protestant nations had and the guilt and corruption of the church’s position was clear even to it.

      You have tried to maintain that there is no way Catholics (or any kind of Christians) could be pro-life and in some cases pro-choice the way Orthodox Judaism allows adn most Protestants accept because you present “life begins at conception” as a dogma (which it isn’t) even while you admit it developed recently as a correction and expansion of older views. Those older views were closer to the consistent Jewish position in their recognition that early human life lacks personhood but intentionally killing it may be a type of murder. There is an ambiguity in that “may be” that is necessary to take seriously as the moral arena where the life and personhood of the mother has its place. This arena is surprisingly underdeveloped in Catholic thought, perhaps because the traditional assumption is that a woman wanting an abortion must be a whore. When confronted with modern medicine the church continues to try to save the appearances of this misogyny. It is deemed permissible to sacrifice the child to save the life of the mother when (as in most cases) it can be argued that the death of a child is indirectly the effect of removing a cancer or treating some other condition. This is supposed to be morally licit because the inevitable death of the child is not “directly intended.” Similarly, the as yet undefined Catholic position on frozen embryo leftovers from couples who make use of IVF has a very clear logical resolution: either implant them all, commit a mortal sin, or leave them in a state of morally indeterminate frozen suspension. I suspect a measure of shame and conscience has prevented this from being articulated as doctrine.

      Reply
  12. Agellius

     /  July 31, 2015

    And with that I give you the last word, as it doesn’t seem like there will ever be a convenient stopping point. : )

    I’ve enjoyed it as always.

    Reply

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