How well does the Catholic church understand its own teaching on abortion?

This is well worth noting before it passes over us, on the question of abortion in the south. James P Mackey is visiting professor at the school of religions and theology at Trinity College. And he’s been looking back at some of his old Catholic textbooks from Maynooth:

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has formally stated its position on abortion by declaring definitively that the direct and intentional killing of the unborn is immoral. Yet, my dog-eared old Maynooth textbook tells me otherwise.

Abortion is there defined as the expulsion of a living but non-viable foetus from the womb. The expulsion is then further defined as direct abortion, if the means used are such as to kill the foetus by the very nature of the act; as in craniotomy, for example.

But it is indirect abortion, if the means used have as their immediate and direct effect the prior purpose of protecting the life of the mother; even if it is clearly foreseen that the act will result in the expulsion of a not yet viable foetus.

Hence the first legal rule: “Indirect abortion is permissible for sufficiently grave reasons.”

Next, taking the example of the induction of premature labour as a case of indirect abortion, my trusty old textbook informs me: “if the means used (eg induction of premature labour) have as their immediate and direct effect the health of the mother, although it is foreseen that this means the expulsion of the foetus”, then, the second, more precise legal formulation reads: “The induction of premature labour and indirect abortion are permissible for sufficiently grave reasons.”

This legal ruling might have been written specifically for the tragic Halappanavar case. Especially since no hard and fast distinction between threats to the health and threats to the life of the mother is entertained.

Now, as Mackey goes on to point out, the case of suicide is a different kettle of fish. But the frenetic stand off between pro life and pro choice lobbyists is obscuring where the line might legitimately be drawn.

Arguably, if the Church had been clearer and more up front about the detail of its own doctrine, the conversation might have been less hysterical, and believers might have felt more empowered to step up to their own ethic responsibilities with regard to the mother.

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  • cynic2

    Come on Mick. Its the Catholic Church. Don’t ask awkward questions, just believe, trust the Clergy and do as you’re told.

  • Mick Fealty

    The CC was always (or mostly) very good to me. I’ve really no complaints. But this does seem to me to an important detail…

  • Ruarai

    “The CC was always (or mostly) very good to me. I’ve really no complaints.”

    Is this the Catholic version of “I’m alight Jack, so up yours?”

    Hell that mentality doesn’t even square with basic Catholic morality.

    I wonder, Mick, how seriously you’d take a Unionist who said, “the old Stormont regime, was always (or mostly) very good to me. I’ve really no complaints.”

    “Alabama during Jim Crow? ….Was always (or mostly) very good to me. I’ve really no complaints.”

    “The emerging Southern State that so offended W.B Yeats?…was always (or mostly) very good to me. I’ve really no complaints.”

  • Mick Fealty

    Read the post. Then read cynic2. Then me again? Better? Or not?

  • Ruarai

    Back to the thread topic, I’ve always felt that a massive gap on Catholic teaching on abortion was the very basis of Catholic Just War theory: a focus on how well and realistically a sound principle could be defended/pursued in practice.

    Since a Thomist tenant of just war theory is the immorality of a war launched in pursuit of a just action if the prospects for success are very low, shouldn’t exactly this reality-based thinking have at least some bearing on abortion thinking? The argument that banning abortions would only send them underground may be insufficient justification for removing all objections to the act but when was the last time the Church gave any thought at all to this massive part of the story?

    If abortion was banned tomorrow along Catholic Church lines, what’s the next step? Prison for women found to have gone to a backstreet butcher? Would such a woman have her case reviewed for extenuating circumstances?

    Proposing laws without putting serious considerations and humane options on the table for at least the foreseeable consequences is not serious moral thinking it’s flamboyant moral preening.

    Next time a chorus of male MLAs stand up to denounce abortion, as they have every right to, they should be required to explain at length exactly what they propose as the punishment for women caught in a backstreet clinic.

  • Ruarai

    No better, sorry. I understand, I think, your general tendency to try to re-balance what you have seen as an avalanche of negative criticism of an institution for which you had a personal experience that was, as you said, very good.

    But the personal experience must have included bearing witness (or living with the knowledge that one choose not to) to all the crimes that we need not recite here, if only to avoid losing the thread’s topic.

    If one choose to face those realities head on, as Catholic moral teaching demands, then one cannot possible say that their experience left them with no complaints.

    Seems to me, complaining in the face of all that’s been revealed is the very least that Catholics should be demanding of themselves.

  • Mick Fealty

    Erm, you think Im morally bound to have written something else? If so, what exactly? The piece is critical of the Church for failing to understand, never mind its own law.

  • Canny See It Sur

    But the personal experience must have included bearing witness (or living with the knowledge that one choose not to) to all the crimes that we need not recite here, if only to avoid losing the thread’s topic.

    Hold on a minute, this is getting spectacularly off topic, but I can’t seem to understand your point.

    I too, like Mick, had absolutely zero negative experiences within the Catholic church. As someone who has done very well out of the catholic education system and that has served as an Altar Boy, I never bore witness to anything bad that was going on and even in hindsight looking back at my youth there is nothing which even remotely stands out as ‘criminal’ or in any way deviant.

    You’re basically saying that we should look back on those good experiences and see them as tainted with the negative experiences of others. That’s not the way the world works.

  • Rory Carr

    My Catholic education taught me that the message of the Christ could be reduced to two, very simple commands:

    ” Love the Lord, thy God with thy whole heart and thy whole mind and all of thy soul and, love thy neighbour as thyself.”

    Simple. Not easy. But simple.

    That being so, if I, believing that abortion was wrong, was approached for help and advice by a woman in distress and intent upon abortion either as a friend or in a position of authority, I believe that my duty would be to use all my power of argument to convince her to desist and not proceed with the abortion.

    But then I would have placed myself in a position whereby I had an obligation, insofar as I was able, to aid that woman materially and spiritually that she might better be able to rear the child in love and reasonable comfort.

    However if I failed and the woman was determined to proceed then, as there was nothing then I could do for the child, my obligation was to see, again insofar as I was able, that the woman had her abortion in conditions that were most conducive to her physical, medical, psychological and spiritual well-being.

    Simple. Not easy. But simple.

  • Newman

    And what did your Catholic education teach you Rory about when life began and how the unborn child also has a life which is worthy of protection.

    Simple not easy But simple

  • Rory Carr

    Perhaps this scene from the film Zorba the Greek illustrates best my feelings on the matter – we do what we can do for those we can. Zorba fights to save the woman’s life but, once she has been killed he can do no more.

    So it is with the woman who goes ahead with the abortion – we can do no more for the unborn child but we then must do the best we can for the woman herself – without judgement.

  • Newman

    I understand the point you seek to make Rory but once you legislated for subjectivity you have abortion on demand. David Steele wanted to do something about the genuine problem and risks of back street abortion..the 1967 Act was predicated on the protection of the mother’s life but pretty soon a coach and four were driven through the criteria to the point where you just had to recite a formula to have the cursory signatures. Pretty soon we conflate the issue to “reproductive rights” and suddenly the unborn child is the foetus and deserving of no protection whatsoever for the first 2 trimesters (and longer if there is a hair palate or other minor perceived defect). These are excruciating issues but the present law in England and Wales has opened the floodgates and abortion now largely an additional means of contraception..that cannot be right even if one wants to be compassionate to the Mother.

  • Rory Carr

    I am not in disagreement with what you say, Newman but I am not a woman and will never have to face the dilemna, nor am I in position to make judgement on any woman. The only thing I am able to exercise really is compassion and that not often enough.

  • Seamuscamp

    Let’s say I believed that the foetus was a human being from the time of conception (unlike St Augustine who taught that the foetus was human from the time of the first perceived movement in the womb). Let’s further imagine that a woman believes that the foetus she is bearing has dreadful future prospects as a result of a genetic inheritance. The woman truly believes that the best thing for all concerned is abortion.

    The woman comes to me and requests an abortion. I conclude that the case is excluded by the law as the foetus is viable and there is no immanent danger to the woman. Should I agree to kill the foetus despite my belief that it would be murder, specifically forbidden by law? And yet the woman is in deep distress!

    I’m glad I’ve never had to face such a burden, because whatever I decide results in something evil. That’s the problem with ethics; they aren’t susceptible to simplicity.

  • Rory Carr

    Do you have the requisite medical and surgical skills to perform an abortion, Séamus ? If not then it becomes very simple,

    “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I cannot help you.”