Carol Sanger Replies to Leslie Griffin: Doctrinal Recalcitrance and Lay Practices

I am grateful to Leslie Griffin for discussing so candidly the Roman Catholic Church in the culture of abortion in the United States. Griffin explains how many Catholic Americans have learned not to talk about abortion, and how Church hierarchy has influenced Catholic politicians to legislate against it.  (It was not for nothing that the constitutional challenge to contraception bans for married couples arose in Connecticut.)  Each presidential cycle, bishops and priests in dioceses around the U.S. announce that Roman Catholic candidates who support legal abortion—Biden, Kaine, Kerry—should be barred from communion, and some have extended the ban to voters who would vote for such candidates.  Such orders from on high show the tremendous power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy over officials, would-be officials, and some parishioners.  (It is not only theology that does this work but non-canonical texts as well: every time I look for a copy of Naomi Wolf’s 1995 New Republic essay Our Bodies, Our Souls (feminists losing their souls through “Chardonnay abortions”), it conveniently pops up on the Priests for Life website.)

Yet, says Griffin, this outsized influence has left much of the laity out in the cold.  She points out that the distinction between the beliefs and practices of rank-and-file believers versus those in religious and economic hierarchies is especially crucial now.  Hobby-Lobby taught us that closely-held companies can have a religion. Faith-based exceptions are now the latest legislative tactic to end run the exercise of protected right of choosing abortion (or getting a marriage license, for that matter.)  And just a few days ago, President Trump expanded that holding through his new executive order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”  This means that what Griffin calls the “almost-unreflective defense of the hierarchy over the laity” has now become federal policy.

I want to respond to three aspects of Griffin’s post that directly concern religion.  The first is to provide three more data points as to the divergence between Catholic abortion doctrine and Catholic abortion practices.  The Guttmacher Institute’s latest figures (2014) show that 24% of aborting women identified themselves as Catholic.  Guttmacher further reports that “by their early 20s, some 79% of never-married women—and 89% of never-married Catholic women—have had sex.”  Finally,  American women of reproductive age (15–44)—“including 99% of all sexually experienced women and 98% of those who identify themselves as Catholic—have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point.”  This suggests that whatever the moral burden they may carry, Catholic women in the U.S. have the same sexual practices and use the same reproductive strategies as the rest of the population.

The doctrinal rigidity (or integrity, depending on your point of view) of Roman Catholic officials has its costs.  Take an example from Germany, where following reunification, all women seeking an abortion in Germany are required to receive counseling from centers of their choice as a condition of consent.  Roman Catholic women often sought counseling at centers run directly by the Catholic Church or by church-related charities.  In 1995, however, Pope John Paul II ordered the Catholic Bishops to withdraw from abortion counseling services on the ground that even counseling against abortion made the Church complicit in the practice; counselors had no veto power and once counseled, women could do whatever they wanted.  Several German bishops protested “in order to be able by goal directed counseling to save many unborn babies from being killed and to support women in difficult living situations with all the means available,” but in the end, they agreed to “bow to Rome.”

Second, I note that the Roman Catholic is no longer the sole religious entity who now vigorously participates in the politics of abortion.  It is now joined by Evangelical Christian leadership.  I have not studied the differences between the doctrines of the two faiths, nor how they work together, nor how they solidified their political roles.  In this regard, I found Robert Wuthnow’s Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible Belt State very powerful but I would love scholars like Leslie Griffin to explore the issues she raises across America’s religions; there were a heck of a lot of religious types standing behind the President when he signed that Executive Order in the Rose Garden, each one pleased they would be able to throw more weight around in the hierarchy/hoi polloi split.

Finally, a word about the alleged optimism I express in About Abortion, for example, reminding us that “both abortion and religious freedom wind up being [near intractable] discussions about morality,” Griffin suggests my call for more talk by women about abortion is a “conversation even more difficult than Sanger imagines.”  She also observes a “very optimistic tone in regard to the decision in Whole Woman’s Health, stating that maybe “in a country that is full of pro-lifers on the Court and off, any Court victory for abortion rights is a big win.”  While this is not Griffin’s main point, she offers the occasion to address it and so I shall, in part because Leslie is not the only one who has noted a perhaps too cheerful disposition. I have taken it on the chin for a phrase in the final paragraph of About Abortion—“as abortion becomes less stigmatized, as it will in time ….”  Says who? asked one audience member. Aren’t you awfully cheerful about the state of abortion law?

I acknowledge that because I want things to be better for women exercising the abortion right.  Thus when Justice Gorsuch is asked about his opinion of Roe v. Wade and he replies that he accepts the case as the “law of the land,” I hope that he will, like the majority in Casey, regard the principle of stare decisis as determinative.  (I say “hope” rather than “would bet the house on” because I know that prior decisions are sometimes overruled;  the dissenters in Casey would have no doctrinal trouble overruling Roe.)  I over-invest in any thin reed that blows toward societal progress on the matter?  After reading her critique, which underscores that practicing Catholics have nothing less than their souls officially at stake, I accept—but do not abandon—the difficulty of my proposal.

To be clear, I am not a Pollyanna by nature; I am, for example, extremely pessimistic about the state of the planet.  But with regard to how abortion is practiced and regulated,  there are signs both of resistance and of progress.  Whole Women’s Health and its requirement of evidence-based proofs that something is good for women’s health is a huge step in righting the terrible path wrought by deference to legislative purpose as stated in the statute itself.  Tennessee and other states have voluntarily withdrawn regulations modeled on Texas’s following the decision in Whole Women’s Health.

The laity now has expanded sources for understanding church doctrine beyond parish priests.  The organization Catholics for Choice now offers on-line lectures called “The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics” with theologians and other scholars explaining official doctrine over time.

My point is not to dispute doctrine as it rigidified under Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but simply to emphasize that it has not always been thus.  Grievous sin has been a mutable category.  Recall that even Pope Paul VI authorized Belgian nuns working in the then Belgian Congo to use birth control pills in the face of rape in the 1960s.  I think the laity might find comfort—perhaps fortitude—in these shifts and exceptions.  Morals, like official Roman Catholic doctrine, are fluid.  People are persuaded by argumentation that something—same-sex relationships, for example—are acceptable even though just one generation ago were the very essence of immorality, or like smoking—once regarded as pleasurable and even sensuous; think of the cinematic lighting of another’s cigarette—is now shameful and its practitioners are left to the freezing sidewalk.

My last example comes from Rome. In 2016 Pope Francis urged priests to absolve parishioners who have committed the sin of abortion on the ground that “there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart….” In response, some pro-choice advocates have said, “Thank you so very much, but absolution requires an acknowledgment of wrong doing, and women who terminate unwanted pregnancies are not doing anything wrong.”  My personal view is that Francis’s position is better for Catholic women who terminate unwanted pregnancies that the prior regime of official condemnation or private withdrawal from a religious community. As Griffin says, progress is going to be hard but it is not impossible.

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