On "Criteria Catholicism" and abortion

“As in the wake of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama, the message (George) Weigel and the like-minded are sending is clear: one’s position on abortion is the defining feature for faithful membership in the Roman Catholic Church.

To link so imperiously authentic Catholicism with one’s attitude toward abortion, however, confines the fullness of discipleship. It encourages people to think, ‘I am against abortion; thus, I am a good Catholic.’ The position incites people to exalt viewpoints alone, and to license an illusory holiness without setting one foot forward on behalf of the poor, without visiting the imprisoned, or without feeding the hungry or ministering to the sick; without sustaining a renunciation or commitment reflecting the complete change of heart and the heroic agape love to which Our Lord calls us.”

— New Patheos columnist Matt Emerson

Read his new column “After Manresa for more.

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16 responses to “On "Criteria Catholicism" and abortion”

  1. I have to seriously disagree with his statement that “The position incites people to exalt viewpoints alone, and to license an illusory holiness without setting one foot forward on behalf of the poor, without visiting the imprisoned, or without feeding the hungry or ministering to the sick…”

    No! I don’t believe that I have met a Catholic who believes that maintaining a pro-life stance absolves them from the rest of their Catholic duties. However, I have met PLENTY of self-described good Catholics who argue that because they do things on behalf of the poor, do prison ministry, etc that they can maintain or tolerate a position against the sanctity of life.

    I know that this is an old argument but it is still the best illustration: how many of these individuals or groups who complaint about too much attention to the abortion issue would stick to their argument if the word “abortion” were to be replaced by “slavery”? Would it be somewhat acceptable to say that “I am personally against slavery but it is the law of the land”? Or, “Despite his pro-slavery position, I am voting for Candidate X because of his work on behalf of union workers and the poor”.

    He seems to be turning the issue in the opposite direction and instead of the premise that “some issues are too big to be ignored” he is saying that “some issues are too big that I can ignore the rest”. That is false and an insult to pro life people.

  2. Mr Flapatap:

    “No! I don’t believe that I have met a Catholic who believes that maintaining a pro-life stance absolves them from the rest of their Catholic duties.”

    Really? I certainly have. The last time I preached a homily where I covered abortion as a sub-topic was when I preached about the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s “Seamless Robe of Life Theory.” After that message, I got a bunch of ugly stares and defiant looks from some of our strongest pro-life folks in the pews. None of them talked to me afterwards about my homily and none wrote any angry letters to the diocese. I do think, however, I hit a sensitive nerve.

    Many of the pro-life folk I know were — are — and will continue to be — “single issue Catholics.”

  3. If we can end the mind-set that the murder of inocent life is OK, then we are well on our way to ending poverty and our other social ills. Getting EVERYONE to agree on the dignity of humanity – the dignity that God has instilled into every one of us will take care of all evil.

    Peace to all

  4. Clearly, opposition to abortion is necessary, but not sufficient to make one a good Catholic. And Mr. Flapatap may well be right that there are more who think that charitable work matters, but abortion doesn’t, than there are who think that abortion matters but works of charity don’t.

    But I think the tendency to enlarge a disagreement from the individual to others is an unfortunate tendency. When a trustee of Notre Dame has made contributions to organizations that support abortion, that does not show that Notre Dame is not Catholic. This “guilt by association” is unjust, and I’m sorry to see George Weigel engage in it.

    We are having another example in the Church of Boston at the moment. A pastor was forced to cancel a “Pride” Mass, but he continues to proclaim that “all are welcome.” Because he has apparently not specifically recited the teachings of the Church on homos**uality, some people are calling him a heretic, and some go so far as to say that by leaving this pastor in his post Cardinal Seán O’Malley is “leading the diocese into heresy” and that he “must go.”

  5. Deacon Norb,

    Many pro-life people get frustrated when Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” had been used ad-nauseum by the likes who want to ignore the evil of abortion and there might have been a knee-jerk reaction to the mention.

    To be honest, I can’t comprehend how a true Catholic could pick and choose with issues that revolve around the life and dignity of human beings who have been created in God’s own image and likeness. If a person is valuable enough to have his right to life respected, that person is valuable enough for us to care whether they are hungry, or sick, etc. Sometimes the circumstances are such that we may have to focus on a particular area because of the criticality of that issue (e.g., the destruction of innocent life). This is something that we can do because our Church is like the body with many parts and, while someone is dedicating their efforts to save innocent lives, we know that other members are dedicating theirs to help other needs. The problem arises when those who work with the other needs also work to destroy innocent life. That is where pro-life people ask themselves: “How can I empower a person to care for the poor if that person is going use that power to kill the innocent?”

    I will agree that many active pro-lifers may neglect other areas of Christian charity because of their focus in the right to life. However, the key word here is “neglect” and I would not even apply it because they know others are working. Also, they will not actively work to make people poor and oppress those in in need the way so many in charitable work (or office) will actively work to promote, even impose, the destruction of life.

  6. –African American experts on this topic insist (don’t know how they know — but that’s alright) that 50-60% of all abortions are to African-American victims. That compares to an approximately 20% figure when looking at the density of African-Americans in the total US population. Those abortions are then two-and-a-half to three times those of any other sub-culture.

    –The number of abortions here in the US steadily declined from 1973 — the year of Roe-versus-Wade — to 2009. The data from 2009 to the present is rather unclear. One theory is that when the economy dives, the number of abortions goes up. That would reverse the cause and effect that “Oldestof9” suggests in posting #3. An increase in bad economic conditions supported by continued increases in inequalities in social justice causes more abortions — not the other way around.

    –What really annoys me is that the RC right-to-life movement here in the US is so focused on legally prohibiting abortion that they forget an absolutely attainable goal is cutting the number to one-third or less of what it is. That would, however, (HORROR OF HORRORS) also cause the “Pro-Life” folks to cooperate with some “Pro-Choice” folks who have similar goals of attacking the root causes of abortions in the first place.

    Finally, it really does not matter what person is in the White House when it comes to the issue of abortion. President Bush was nominally “Pro-Life” but he wasn’t able to do anything about it; President Obama is nominally “Pro-Choice” but he won’t be able to do anything about it either. The Six Roman Catholics on the US Supreme Court MIGHT be able to do something about it, but they cannot take the initiative themselves. Some person has to take the case through the court system all the way to the US Supreme Court. I am fascinated that — in spite of all the “yelling and screaming” on the topic — no one has the courage to file the case to revoke “Roe-versus-Wade.”

  7. All of the mental gymnastics in this piece (including the tired old rhetorical device of creating a straw man that somehow Catholics who oppose abortion think that makes them good Catholics – where’s the evidence for that?) strike me as an attempt to avoid the OTHER side of the argument. Mr. Emerson, and apparently Deacon Norb, seem reluctant to make the simple, declarative statement that you can’t be a good Catholic if you suppot abortion. Just because one believes that, it does not follow logically that Catholics who oppose abortion think that one belief makes them good Catholics. But it seems irrefutable that supporting abortion openly is problematic for anyone calling himself or herself Catholic regardless of how much other good works the person does. Ask any bishop. So why all the efforts to sugar-coat it?

  8. I would go farther than Patrick and say that you also can’t be a civilized human being and favor legalized abortion, openly or surreptitiously. In the pre civil war era there may have been some who thought they were good human beings solely because they opposed slavery, but I doubt they were more than a handful. Mr. Emerson is erecting a true straw man the purposes of which I can’t fathom when we have had 50,000,000 poor, innocent human beings killed in the womb.

  9. Fiergenholt, you are wrong to state that President Bush was not able to do anything about abortion. He restricted federal funds for it and prohibited abortions from being performed on U.S. military bases, among other things. Since you seem to be interested in measures to reduce the number of abortions — even if those measures fall short of banning it entirely — I would think you would know about that and be supportive of such efforts. President Obama, on the other hand, removed all those restrictions.

  10. Matt Emerson is does not give any quotes from George Weigel indicating that opposition to abortion is the sole criterion of Catholic holiness. Why? Because there are no such quotes. However, we can rest assured that although man seeth those things that appear, Matt Emerson beholdeth the heart. For the column of Matt Emerson is living and effectual and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow: and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

    Good luck finding people to believe that. Maybe some of those disappointed that they weren’t raptured away in May are looking for a new false prophet.

  11. “To be honest, I can’t comprehend how a true Catholic could pick and choose with issues that revolve around the life and dignity of human beings who have been created in God’s own image and likeness.”

    Just because George Weigel picked and chose the life issues that he is willing to agree with the Church on and he is a cafeteria Catholic does not change the fact that he is still a True Catholic.

  12. I find it amazing that wherever you look, you can find the issue of the Nazi’s killing 6 million Jews. Those murders were with the approval of the judiciary in Germany and according to existing German law under Hitler legal in his country and those under his control. It is a story that should be upfront and center to all civilized societies. Never again..

    Yet, we have since Roe seen the brutal murder of over 50 million innocent babies in the womb that our state, but the edict of unelected lifetime appointed judges have made legal. In many ways, this decision is in essence down to a single judge or two. Many today condemn the leaders in the Catholic Church for not doing more during the Hitler era even to this day, 60 years later. Fair or unfair, it is out there. And yet some seem to think that the Church is doing its part to end abortion. Last time I looked, over 50 percent of Catholic voters supported Obama for president and he is the most pro abortion candidate in history. We had a clear choice with McCain saying he would appoint judges like Scalia, Roberts, and Alito and Obama vowing to do everything possible to wipe out any restictions on Planned Parenthood and their abortion mills, vowing to end the Bush pro life policies to export abortion and to allow the killing of more life with the use of embryo’s for research…kind of like Mengele in the camps experimenting on Jews.

    Some will say this is harsh language, but when you have a holocaust which is going on for 4 times as long as Hitlers and you have almost 9 times as many killed, what language should be used. In view of this slaughter, talking about the seamless garment is kind of like saying sure Hitler killed Jews, but he had full employment and there was little prosperity coming out of the economic turnmoil left after WWI in Germany. When you are killing millions each year, everything else takes a back seat or should.

    And as to Notre Dame, it is not just Obama getting a speaking engagement and honors, it is a very long history of support for those in major dissent in the Church. They should have vetted this person to see if she was indeed not doing things in violation of Church teaching and if the Newman society can find this out, shame on ND for not doing so. But of course we know they knew and could care less. I suspect that many in leadership positions supported Obama and other Democrats despite their murdering 4,000 babies a day. If the Catholic Church and those who claim to be Catholic said in one loud voice to the democratic party that they will not get Catholic vote until they agree to reject the killing of all life and to grant equal rights to the unborn child as to any other human life, abortion would end in a short time frame. So in the future, many will hopefully look back and ask why the Catholic Church did not do more to end this holocaust and our answer will be far worse than the Catholic of the Nazi era. ND just does not truly care about the child in the womb.

  13. Howard,

    I’m not sure I understand why you switch into such archaic language and hyperbole, but I would offer the following quotation from Weigel (from his NRO piece) as part of the basis for my column:

    “[A]n unambiguous, indeed happily robust, pro-life position, embodied in action and not just in abstract declarations of adhesion to Catholic teaching, is now THE cultural marker of seriousness about Catholic identity in the American public square.” (emphasis in original)

    That’s pretty direct. One’s position on abortion is the most important aspect of one’s seriousness about Catholic identity. And how do you think this gets translated for his audience? In my experience, this mentality goes beyond the public square and into all areas of Catholic life, such that people consider one’s position on abortion to be the main marker for seriousness in the private sphere too. I’ve seen this first-hand.

  14. Mr. Emerson,

    First, saying that a pro-life position is a cultural marker does not support your statements that people believe that just being anti-abortion makes them good Catholics.

    Second, do you agree or not that openly supporting abortion is contrary to fundamental church teaching, making one, consequently, a “bad” Catholic?

    What I and apparently many other commenters here are tired of is people who consistently try to marginalize Catholics who simply believe in the sanctity of life, calling them “one-issue” Catholics, and other such labels. We should not have to soft-pedal these beliefs.

    And in my experience, the pro-life Catholics I know also live out the Catholic faith in most other aspects of their lives as well. So stop trying to denigrate us. We have the teachings of the Church on our side. Do you?

  15. Patrick,

    Thanks for the invitation to clarify.

    There is more nuance in my position than I believe you’re giving me credit for.

    First, Weigel doesn’t say it’s “a” cultural marker, but “the” cultural marker for seriousness about Catholic identity. In fact, his column says that twice. Think about the implications of that. Think of all that Jesus teaches and talks about . . . the picking up of one’s cross, the radical change of heart and mind revealed by the Beatitudes, the need to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, the call to forgive those who’ve wronged us, the call to seek out the lowest of our brothers (cf Mt 25). What kind of effect does Weigel’s statement have on all that?

    In my experience, statements like Weigel’s, and similar opinions from other well respected prominent Catholics, can encourage — I never said it always and everywhere causes — people to so prioritize positions on abortion (or sometimes gay marriage and contraception) that Catholicism is collapsed into those positions. This may not be what people believe in their heads or in theory, but in practice I’ve seen it happen. I’ve done it myself.

    You say that’s not true. I’d say that it may not be true for you, but our experiences diverge. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve spent most of my life working or studying in a Catholic institution. I’ve been around really impressive people, both academically and personally; people who model Christ in ways that leave me inspired and humbled. Most of these people are extremely charitable and well-meaning.

    However, I do know from years and years of personal encounters and class discussions (in Catholic philosophy departments, theology departments, and an outstanding Catholic law school) that there is an inclination to so prioritize the question of abortion that the big picture, the fullness and the “layeredness” of discipleship, which our Holy Father brings to light in his exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, is obscured. In turn, people can really begin to believe that holiness consists in those positions alone. That’s why I made the comment I did about viewpoints.

    In pointing that out I fail to see how I’ve denigrated the pro-life movement, a movement of which I am a part. Moreover, I never referred to “all” Catholics or “all” people who are pro-life. I didn’t make those blanket judgments, and I ask you to keep those distinctions in mind as you offer your critiques.

    Finally, you ask: “Do you agree or not that openly supporting abortion is contrary to fundamental church teaching, making one, consequently, a ‘bad’ Catholic?”

    My column makes that answer self-evident. My column calls abortion an “evil” and the “chief disgrace” in American constitutional law. If someone, as you frame it, “openly supports abortion,” he or she would be openly supporting the killing of unborn babies. This would not only make them a bad Catholic, this would make them a bad human being.

    However, I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone, certainly not any Catholic, who “openly supports abortion.” I have met people who oppose abortion and declare it to be evil but who believe that, in some very rare instances (generally worst-case scenarios involving the life of the mother, or in rape or incest) the law should be silent as to the decision to give birth. I don’t believe these people, by this fact alone, can be labeled bad Catholics. Do you?

  16. Mr. Emerson,

    Your statement about never meeting anyone who openly supports abortion is simply impossible to take seriously. Walk into any Planned Parenthood clinic and you’ll find lots of them. Do you think those people are only interested in abortions in “worst-case scenarios involving the life of the mother”? And what about people like Andrew Cuomo and Nancy Peolosi — and the list could go on and on. You may not have met them, but you know who they are and what they believe and how they do NOTHING to limit abortion to the narrow circumstances you describe.

    A Gallup poll in 2009 reported that 40% of Catholics found abortion “morally acceptable. (link to the poll is below). I submit that part of the reason is that too many Catholics — including some priests, deacons and perhaps even yourself — are so quick to nuance the issue.


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