This is the third installment of thoughts on the sanctity of life. The previous two entries are posted on Sunday’s and Monday’s streams.
The Catholic catechetics regarding abortion in my lifetime has been molded in a deductive fashion. The Oxford Dictionary defines deduction as “the inference of particular instances by reference to a general law or principle;” in teaching of abortion, for example, our Catholic textbooks begin with the principle of the sanctity of life. Cardinal Bernardin argued eloquently a generation ago that there is no justifiable exception to the principle of the sanctity of life as a matter of belief. His “Seamless Garment” metaphor remains one of the finest exemplars of moral instruction. It is no accident that last Sunday Pope Francis named three American bishops to the College of Cardinals, each of whom had distinguished himself for breadth of mission in the defense and welfare of all human life in a pastoral manner of persuasion and example.
While the moral doctrine of the sinfulness of abortion is a divine and deductive reality derived from the Scripture and Church Tradition, it is also true that throughout history, and particularly since the scientific age and the Enlightenment, we tend to do our practical thinking inductively, from observation of particulars to principles. Curiously, deduction and induction are the methods of Plato and Aristotle respectively, and Church theologians and philosophers have borrowed liberally from both. I will go out on a limb here and assert that the Catholic Faith is shared and taught by principle and experience.
It is the experiential aspect of the Church’s Pro Life ministry that I would like to see reinforced. I referred to one reality of the issue a few days ago when I observed that the legal right to abortion established in 1973 is now so deeply embedded in the American experience that overt attempts to overturn the ruling would be rejected with the same passion as the overturn of the second amendment right to bear arms or the right of women to vote. According to PEW research in 2014, only 44% of those under age 30 recognized Roe v. Wade as a ruling on abortion. In my generation, that figure is astounding. Going further with the PEW research, younger adults also are less likely to view abortion as an important issue: 62% of Americans ages 18 to 29 say it is “not that important” compared with other issues, while 53% of adults overall say it is. What a generation gap.
The optics of “taking away” from women would not sit well. As we had dramatized last Friday, women have to fight constantly to maintain dignity. Something that we men rarely think about is how our society is perceived by women. I dislike generalizations, too, but American women still have a hard time of things in our country. I would say that one of the biggest shocks to me when I entered the mental health field was the high percentage of women patients who reported sexual abuse or unwanted sexual encounters in their psychosocial histories. My home state of Florida requires that I update my “domestic violence diagnostics” every two years as a requirement for renewal of my providers’ license. Issues involving inequality in pay and other stresses of the workplace are fairly well known. My wife holds an earned Ivy League doctorate, and it was very difficult to observe up close the many indignities she endured from bullying male parents and on occasion narcissistic clerics.
It would seem to me that a critical component of the Church’s Respect Life ministry must be a genuine interest in the experiences and sufferings of actual lives. I have cited the experiences of contemporary women, but the late Cardinal Bernardin’s Seamless Garment would have included under its shade all the suffering and marginalized in the shaping of the Church’s ministry. Sin begets sin, so to speak; the act of obtaining an abortion, for example, is the end of a lengthy chain of attitudes, events, and choices. One has to think that virtue begets virtue, too. I would like to believe that new chains of events can be forged with different moral outcomes. Again, remember that we are inductive people by nature; we draw inferences from what we see. When we see personal mercy, protective concern, and concrete support for the lives in front of us, as Mother Teresa exercised, we are more likely to extend it to the lives of those visible only through the microscope. Mother Teresa, remember, was an ardent defender of the unborn, precisely because she saw divine worthiness in the living outcasts of the streets of Calcutta. Hers was indeed a seamless service to life.
One of the newly named Cardinals from the United States, Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, knows something of human weakness and the strength of good example. Archbishop Tobin has been a recovering alcoholic for 29 years. I do not know the full story of his recovery, but I would bet it involved AA and the 12-step process. AA came into being in the 1930’s when a few businessmen discovered that by daily meetings of support and encouragement they were able to maintain sobriety. They learned, among other things, that their sobriety was as strong as their willingness to help struggling newcomers, “by attraction, not persuasion,” as the AA literature explains.
Archbishop Tobin met with the press on Tuesday and I have a link to his interview with National Catholic Reporter. If you have the time, it is an intriguing and hopeful piece. The new Cardinal was candid about divisions on the home front. "I think what bishops need to do is talk with each other, always invoking the Holy Spirit to help us see." As a Church, as a country, we do need to come together and support one another. At least that’s my inductive take.