Sense of the faithful
Polls show that four out of five Catholics disagree with the official Church position,
which forbids the use of contraception under all circumstances.
Rosemary Stasek explains why she is one of the dissenters.
I was born and raised a Catholic in eastern Pennsylvania but moved to Los Angeles several years ago. I had always been active in parish life until the day when I was asked to leave the young adult group in Redondo Beach because of my pro-choice beliefs.
Good Catholics just don't up and discard Church teaching in one day. It is a process, a realization that what the Church is saying on an issue is in direct contradiction to something in our own lives. When it dawned on me that the church was not making sense in the areas of women's status, birth control and abortion, I needed to learn more. In the process I found out things you don't learn in Catholic school or hear during the homily in Mass.
The history of the Church's teaching on abortion is far from consistent. If we look at the penances St Augustine established for the 'sin of abortion' we see an interesting picture. He differentiated the sin based on the reasons why a woman had an abortion. Were they economic or sexual reasons? We see a penance given for an abortion to a woman who is married, has several children and may have difficulty affording to raise another. The penance in that situation is much less severe than that given to a woman who had an abortion to conceal sexual sins, namely fornication and adultery. This is a very clear indication of the Church's early attitudes towards sexuality. It is sexuality that is being punished, much more than the sin of abortion. If they were punishing the sin of abortion, there would be no consideration given to the circumstances.
'The bishop's mitre should be a symbol of justice and mercy,
not a rigid rejection of human sexuality',
says this advert from Catholics for a Free Choice.
Later, St Thomas Aquinas' teachings on abortion centre on the question of 'ensoulment': when does a being gain an immortal soul and therefore become eligible for salvation? Aquinas sets some very clear guidelines on when ensoulment occurs: at 40 days for a male foetus and at 80 days for a female. Abortions were allowed up to this point. Even Pope John Paul II refers to the unborn as 'that which is in the process of becoming'. It is a recognition that there truly is a continuum of life in development.
Since Catholics do not hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible, a great deal of our belief derives from the traditions of the Church - as we see there is no unbroken tradition of teaching on abortion.
Tradition also includes the ultimate authority of the Pope, in that Catholics endow him with infallibility. This is a poorly understood concept among most Catholics. Infallibility occurs when the Pope speaks ex cathedra ('from the chair'). He takes upon himself the teaching authority of the Church and speaks. We must obey these infallible doctrines to be called a Catholic. In fact, the Pope has spoken ex cathedra on only two occasions: both were to proclaim feast days to honor Mary, the Mother of Christ. This leads to an awful lot of confusion, but in fact everything else the Pope says is not infallible. Teachings on birth control are not infallible, teachings on divorce are not infallible. Nor are the teachings on abortion.
While abortion is not an infallible teaching, it is an excommunicable offence. Canon 1398 states that anyone who procures an abortion is automatically excommunicated. The exceptions are interesting: the penalty does not apply to women under 17 and to those who act without full 'imputability'. This applies to those who act in sincere good faith.
There are two fundamental teachings which are essential to thoughtful dissenting Catholics. The first is the theology of 'probabilism'. The Latin is ubi dubitum, ibi libertas. It means 'where there is doubt, there is freedom'. The history of the Church's teaching must at the very least generate some doubt.
The second relevant theology is the most traditional Catholic doctrine: the primacy of conscience. Each individual is called to form their conscience through the teachings of the Church, science, reason, the theologians and the 'sense-of-the-faithful'. The sense-of-the-faithful is clear on the matter of birth control - the people have flatly rejected the Church. The sense-of-the-faithful is less clear on abortion, but it doesn't even approach the ranting of our bishops.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is squandering its considerable moral authority with its stance on these issues. Catholics aren't leaving the Church, they are just ignoring their leaders.
To be Catholic and pro-choice is to stand on opposite sides of a police line from Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group, and yet say the rosary with them. To be Catholic and pro-choice is to be called to a 'ministry of dissent'. Episcopal Bishop Sprong from New Jersey said that Catholic women who are pro-choice should leave the Church for the sake of their humanity.
I can't leave the Church. I am a Catholic. I love the Church - and it's stuck with me.
Rosemary Stasek is the co-founder and director of California Catholics for a Free Choice. She works as a webmaster for corporations in Silicon Valley and serves as an elected City Council member in Northern California.
Catholics for a Free Choice, 1436 U St NW, Suite 301, Washington DC 2009, US. Tel: +1 202 986 6093. Fax: +1 202 332 7995. e-mail: [email protected]
This article is from
the July 1998 issue
of New Internationalist.
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