Downplaying Abortion? Some Church Leaders Deemphasize Issue After Dobbs

In the wake of the June 24 ruling, a number of Catholic figures and institutions have spoken about abortion as merely one issue among many; critics are calling this a misapplication of the Church’s consistent ethic of life.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council of Life, speaks to reporters during a press conference, at the Vatican in 2015. Archbishop Paglia used the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision as a pretext to talk about the need to end the death penalty and make access to guns 'as complicated and rare as possible.'
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council of Life, speaks to reporters during a press conference, at the Vatican in 2015. Archbishop Paglia used the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision as a pretext to talk about the need to end the death penalty and make access to guns 'as complicated and rare as possible.' (photo: Andrew Medichini / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last month dealt a significant blow to legalized abortion, a social evil that the U.S. bishops have reaffirmed as recently as 2020 is a “preeminent threat to human life and dignity” in American society.

But the response by some Catholic entities, including some Vatican officials, has been relatively muted. They have used the opportunity to highlight gun violence, the death penalty and other social ills rather than stressing the evil of abortion.

For instance, the Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican-sponsored entity founded by St. John Paul II to apply the Church’s teaching to complex bioethical and moral questions, issued a statement in response to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, highlighting how “the issue of abortion continues to arouse heated debate” and emphasizing the importance of discussing “the place that the protection of life has in a civil society.” The statement then concludes by calling on communities to support life in all stages.

However, in an interview just days later, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the academy’s head, used the Dobbs decision as a pretext to talk about the need to end the death penalty and make access to guns “as complicated and rare as possible.” 

While highlighting the Church’s consistent ethic of life, the Pontifical Academy for Life’s response failed to recognize that the same ethic emphasizes that some social evils are graver than others and should be addressed accordingly, explained Charles Camosy, a Catholic moral theologian who teaches at both Creighton University’s School of Medicine and St. Joseph Seminary in New York.

“I was disturbed by the academy’s reaction to Dobbs,” Camosy told the Register. “By any authentic measure, [Dobbs] was an incredible victory for prenatal justice. It should have been unambiguously celebrated as a profound and necessary step toward protecting the most vulnerable population with equal protection of the laws.”

Archbishop Paglia wasn’t the only Vatican official to use the occasion of Roe’s fall to promote a broader array of social responses. In a post-Roe editorial for Vatican News, Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, emphasized how “being for life, always,” includes not only helping pregnant women choose life through material and health-care assistance, but also “defending [life] against the threat of firearms.”

Similar patterns emerged in the statements of prominent Catholic universities.

For instance, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, talked about the evils of racism and abortion far differently in respective statements regarding these issues. 

His June 20 statement on the federal holiday of Juneteenth, for instance, calls for members of the Notre Dame community to “oppos[e] the sin of racism wherever and whenever we encounter it,” acknowledged those who have been negatively impacted by racist practices, and described ways in which Notre Dame can eradicate racism from its campus.

In contrast, Father Jenkins’ statement on Dobbs v. Jackson, issued four days later, acknowledges that “there are divisions among people of good will on the question of abortion” and calls for “sober deliberation and respectful dialogue” amongst disagreeing parties, so that we might “strive to establish laws, policies and programs that ensure equality for women and support for mothers and their children.” He offered no plan of action nor call to support pro-life efforts.

When the Notre Dame Office of the President was asked about any perceived disparity between the two statements, Dennis Brown, the university spokesman, responded, “Father Jenkins’ statements speak for themselves, and we have nothing further to add.”

Other Catholic universities remained silent on the matter or, as in the case of Georgetown University, spoke of abortion legislation as an occasion to balance conflicting interests rather than to protect the unborn. Georgetown President John DeGioia’s statement on June 27 emphasized “the priority we must give to our respect for one another” and committed the university to “host events and convenings to explore the issues raised by the Court’s [Dobbs] decision.” The absence of any sort of affirmation of abortion’s attack on human dignity contrasts with DeGioia’s previously issued statements on issues like the need for a living wage, the objective evil of racism, and the need to combat climate change

 

Getting the Consistent Life Ethic Right

Holy Cross Father Bill Miscamble, a Notre Dame professor of history and the former rector of Moreau Seminary on the Notre Dame campus, described the tendency of Catholic leaders to talk about abortion in muted tones or only in connection with a host of other social evils as “either pandering to or placating various progressive constituencies.”

“As the battle over abortion moves to a new stage in the political domain, one must pray that the leaders of Catholic institutions, and especially Catholic colleges and universities, will overcome their reticence going forward,” the Holy Cross priest told the Register.

Others told the Register that responses to Dobbs that reduce the significance of abortion indicate a flawed understanding of the “consistent life ethic,” a paradigm for understanding the interconnectedness between various social and moral issues. 

Camosy, who recently wrote a piece on the consistent life ethic for Church Life Journal and described the articulation and promotion of it as “a central part of my vocation as a Catholic moral theologian,” explained how the approach involves “read[ing] the signs of the times and put[ting] issues in a hierarchy of importance.” For instance, he told the Register, combatting climate change would be more important today than something like researching how to cure leprosy.

In his article for Church Life Journal, Camosy directly repudiates claims that the consistent life ethic treats all life issues — e.g., abortion, gun violence and the death penalty — as equal. Combatting abortion should be prioritized, in part, because it is responsible for exponentially more unjust violence and killing than the other two issues and has generated “an unimaginably evil social structure of sin in which these marginalized populations are directly and/or indirectly coerced into having abortions they know are the killings of their own children.”

“Having a consistent life ethic, far from taking focus away from the most important issues, actually reinforces how important they are,” Camosy explained to the Register. “[Cardinal] Joseph Bernardin” — who first articulated the consistent life ethic — “was very concerned, for instance, about nuclear holocaust, but this took none of his focus off abortion. Indeed, with many constituencies it made his abortion witness that much more credible and powerful.”

Mary Hallan FioRito of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, who previously worked directly under Cardinal Bernardin as the director of pro-life activities for the Archdiocese of Chicago, explained, “Consistent life ethic” means that “not all issues are equal, and they all have a different moral analysis.” FioRito said, “You don’t analyze the moral issue of a working wage for an employee in the same way that you do the direct killing of an unborn human being.”

Cardinal Bernardin himself, as cited by FioRito in a 2019 article in Chicago Studies, noted “some people on the left, if I may use that label, have taken the consistent ethic to give them the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues. ... That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.” 

The cardinal continued, “I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the individual. The consequence of that would be an absence of legal protection of the unborn.” 

FioRito said that a truly consistent pro-life stance must view abortion as the preeminent concern because, as she stated, “None of your other rights mean a whole lot if you’re not alive to enjoy them. Life is the fundamental right, and it is always a gravely immoral act to kill an innocent person. So you have to start there, and that’s exactly where Cardinal Bernardin started.”

A firm commitment to end abortion, FioRito said, naturally leads to the other parts of the life ethic: “There are ways that the government and the state and federal social safety nets can work to make it easy for moms to choose life. When you take abortion off the table, there are all sorts of creative things people can come up with that directly or indirectly support new mothers and families with new babies.” 

W. Joseph DeReuil is a junior at the University of Notre Dame, where he is also the editor-in-chief of The Irish Rover newspaper. He hails from West St. Paul, Minnesota.

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