There He Goes Again

There was a famous moment in the 1980 presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter when Carter made a misleading remark about Reagan, who replied, “There you go again.” Thus effectively exposing Carter’s misleading remark for what it was. I was reminded of this when I learned of a recent talk by the Rev. Charles Curran, a dissenter forced out of the Catholic University of America, now at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Curran made a career out of disagreeing with the Church’s stands on moral and sexual issues, which eventually resulted in his change of venue from the nation’s capital  to Texas.

Vivid in our memories are the events of November 2 – many pro-life members elected to Congress, to state assemblies, and as governors and as state attorneys-general. But it is worth remembering that November was “election month” not only in the United States, but in many other nations, including South America’s largest, Brazil, where the issue of abortion was at the center of the race for president. 

The Holy Father himself weighed-in there. Speaking to Brazilian bishops in Rome, he made it absolutely clear that “any defense of political, economic, and social human rights that does not include the energetic defense of the right to life from conception to natural death is totally false and illusory.” He emphasized that “when political projects contemplate…the decriminalization of abortion…the democratic ideal – which is only truly such when it recognizes and safeguards the dignity of every human person – is betrayed at its foundation.” In other words, true democracy rests upon the dedicated defense of the defenseless unborn.  

Meanwhile,  the Rev Curran took the stage, three days before the U.S elections, and enunciated a different point of view. Curran said the American bishops were wrong to make abortion the preeminent issue of public policy, acting as if it were unlike other issues where prudence is at issue and “reasonable Catholics may differ.” Given what the pope said to the Brazilian bishops above, however, the stance of our bishops seems spot on – abortion must be banned from any society if that society is to achieve justice. Thus, bishops should exhort Catholic citizens to treat a candidate’s position on this matter as essential when deciding for whom to vote.

Charles Curran. catholic. priest . . .

Father Curran claims, however, that Catholics might licitly decide to accept existing abortion laws and not seek to change them. He bases this claim upon what he says is one of the two ways in which Catholicism approaches the role of civil law, that is, the “religious freedom” approach developed in the documents of Vatican II (the other is the “natural law” approach). This is a puzzling idea, but perhaps he alludes to “freedom of conscience.” But Vatican II does not give an untethered right of “conscience.” Rather, along with the whole Catholic tradition, it says that one has a moral obligation to inform one’s conscience of the truth, including the teaching of the Magisterium (see, Gaudium et spes 16, and Dignitatis Humanae 14). That teaching, as the pope noted above, does condemn abortion as an “intrinsic evil,” which no just society can tolerate.

Curran, however, claims:

Even those who hold that abortion involves the killing of a human being could argue that there is no consensus on the issue in our society today. As a result one could give the benefit of the doubt to the freedom of the woman. The prudential recognition that it is impossible to change the present law today makes the argument for accepting the present law on the basis of the religious freedom approach even more cogent.

As far as I can make sense of this, Curran is claiming that “religious freedom” combined with “lack of consensus” and the “impossibility” of changing permissive abortion law permits one to “give the benefit of the doubt to the woman” and permit abortion. It is hard to imagine a position more at variance with the clear teaching of the Church. In reality the “lack” of consensus calls upon us to get busy and build a pro-life consensus. The “impossibility” of changing the law calls upon us to devise clever, long-term thinking on how to ban abortion. Neither counsels us to resignation to the legalization of intrinsic evil (“abortion rights”). Yet that is what Curran counsels. Or, rather, as he would put it, he simply notes that such a position is morally acceptable. One wonders how acceptable he would find it if he lived in a society that allowed slavery. Would he be talking about lack of consensus and passive acquiescence?

There he goes again. Not just Curran but all those Catholic teachers who mislead the faithful as to their moral obligations. In a society – ours – in which abortion is permitted at any time for any reason, where over 1 million unborn children are killed yearly by abortion, and where their mothers are maimed spiritually, physically, and psychologically, it is sad to hear this. As Benedict noted to the Brazilian bishops, “in defending life we should not fear opposition and unpopularity.” We should “refus[e] any compromise and ambiguity that conforms us to the mentality of this world.” 

November 2 swept many pro-life candidates into office. Let’s hope they are courageous and clear-sighted enough to follow Benedict’s bold lead.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.