Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Charles Curran: Abortion Law Push Lacks Certitude, Consistency and Constitutionality

Catholic Priest Charles E. Curran has been Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University since 1991.

At age 76, he is certainly no newcomer to Catholic moral theology, with Doctor of Sacred Theology degrees in 1961 from two Catholic institutions in Rome: the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Academia Alfonsiana.

In fact, prior to joining SMU he was a peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council, and shortly after the council he was appointed associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he was granted tenure and served almost continuously until 1986. (I was privileged to be a student in a couple of his classes in the 1971-1972 academic year.)

"Almost continuously" is said very much tongue in cheek. Curran was briefly fired in 1967 for his views on birth control--but quickly reinstated after a five-day faculty-led strike. He also became persona non grata with the Vatican after he joined some 600 theologians in questioning the methodology and conclusions of Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical forbidding 'artificial' birth control.

But despite his dissent and his relentless assertion that theologians and lay Catholics had every right to dissent from particular papal teachings, Curran held on to his job until after the election of Pope John Paul II--who had Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly known as the Inquisition), declare that Curran was no longer eligible to teach in Catholic schools. Curran argued in a civil suit that the Catholic University had violated its own due process procedures in terminating his employment, but the court disagreed.

SMU had the academic foresight and ecumenical largess to hire him five years later, which has allowed him to continue functioning as a moral theologian regarded by his peers as the best American in his field.

I think both as a courtesy to SMU and as a means to avoid exacerbating his Roman Catholic situation Curran has laid relatively low on specifically Catholic issues in recent years. He has not been silent and he has not stopped asserting his deeply held convictions. But he has generally avoided broadsides that would raise the ire of Catholic authorities.

So I was curious when Curran told a gathering of moral theologians meeting in Trent, Italy, last July that "we cannot put our heads in the sand" in the face of current crises in the church. He was referring to people leaving Catholicism in unprecedented numbers as a result of the clergy sex abuse crisis and the bishops' attempts to cover it up, conflicting approaches to moral theology taken by theologians and the hierarchy, and the return to authoritarianism and overcentralization that has characterized the Vatican in the decades since Vatican II. I was curious above all if Curran had some more specific personal response in mind. Last week, it became clear that he did.

In a public lecture at SMU on October 28th, Curran made a newer theological issue his own: the U.S. bishops efforts to impose Catholic-based abortion laws on the citizens of the United States. As summarized by National Catholic Reporter Editor at Large Tom Roberts, Curran called the bishops' approach to such laws "flawed," for at least four reasons:

  • “The speculative doubt about when human life begins;
  • “the fact that possibility and feasibility are necessary aspects involved in discussions about abortion law;
  • “the understanding and role of civil law;
  • “and the weakness of the intrinsic evil argument.”

So far no one who has found a complete transcript of Curran's lecture online. As reported by Roberts, however, Curran is arguing under these multiple headings that the bishops' position lacks the certitude, consistency and constitutional standing to justify enacting it into law.

On the question of certitude, Curran points out that Catholic tradition, from Thomas Aquinas to the present day "recognizes speculative doubt about when the soul is infused or when the human person comes into existence." Curran acknowledges that the CDF's 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion and John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae both call Catholics to err on the side of caution: since "the presence of the soul is probable" at any given point in a pregnancy, "one cannot take the risk of killing a human person."

However, sufficient uncertainty remains that the church cannot legitimately force this belief on non-Catholics. Thus, says Curran, "The most accurate way to state the Catholic moral teaching is that direct abortion even of a fertilized ovum is always wrong, but you cannot say it is murder. There is doubt about the reality of the early embryo."

In a pluralistic and politically divided society like the United States, there is also uncertainty about the possibility and feasibility of enacting an across-the-board prohibition of abortion. Absent certitude on those issues, it is a matter of prudential judgment whether Catholics should work for such a law or support other measures that they believe would be more effective. (Curran doesn't seem to say so, but how such a law could be enforced equitably and effectively is also fraught with uncertainty.) Obviously this has a direct impact on the right of bishops to excommunicate or even discipline Catholic lay people and politicians who decline to tow the bishops' official line.

Curran also sees uncertainty on whether the role of civil law should be viewed through a natural law perspective, which would seek to protect basic human rights including the right to life, versus a religious-freedom approach, under which "one could give the benefit of the doubt to the freedom of the woman." However, because I see this more as a church-state separation issue, I think it is probably the weakest of Curran's arguments. I will say why under the discussion of constitutionality, below.

Curran sees lack of consistency in the bishops' assertion that all abortions must be outlawed because abortion is an intrinsic moral evil. Curran argues that using the term as a rationale for giving abortion preeminence over all other political issues is a faulty argument. Citing prostitution and adultery, Curran notes the Catholic tradition has not insisted that either be outlawed, even though Catholic theology calls both intrinsically evil. If abortion is to be treated inconsistently, the bishops need to explain why. So far they have failed to do so.

This also echos Curran's insistence earlier in the lecture that official church teaching on the morality of abortion is "not as certain" as the teachings on murder, torture or adultery" and that what the bishops want legislated about abortion "entails prudential judgment so that they cannot logically distinguish it from most of the other issues such as the death penalty, health care, nuclear deterrence, [and] housing."

By raising the question of religious freedom, Curran's reflections on "the understanding and role of civil law" touch on the constitutionality of outlawing abortion. However, his direct concern is the conflict in Catholic theology between a natural law approach to civil law and an approach which makes freedom of religion the dominant principle.

One possibility is to say, as Curran does, that the conflict means there is lack of certitude in Catholic theology on this issue, so that either approach can be pursued with equal validity, albeit also with requisite humility and respect for opponents' experience, motivation and rationale.

Another approach, which I favor, is to say that Vatican II's teaching on religious freedom has become the new context in which the natural law tradition is available. From a process philosophy perspective, the teaching on religious freedom has relativized the conclusions of the natural law analysis and redefined the limits under which natural law conclusions are valid and applicable. To assert natural law beyond those limits is to proclaim a falsehood.

What Vatican II's teaching on religious freedom did was to move the church's official position much closer to the separation of church and state enshrined (per Thomas Jefferson and an unbroken string of court rulings) in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Which is why I have argued since 1968, and several times here, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" means that the bishops may not insist that the Catholic moral teaching on abortion be imposed on everyone else as a public law--because "everyone else" includes non-Catholics, non-Christians, nonbelievers, and even Catholics who conscientiously disagree with it. On the issue of abortion in the United States, at least, the Constitution requires that freedom of religion predominate over a natural law approach to civil law.

With that one amendment, I find Curran's arguments accurate and compelling. It may indicate that I am not alone that so many Catholic conservatives have already responded to Curran's critique not with reasoned argument but with ad hominem attacks, most focusing on the claim that he was "fired" by Catholic University in 1967--which, as Curran says about the bishops' position on the personhood of the fetus, "is accurate but not totally forthcoming." Officially he was fired for a few days, but he was quickly reinstated and held his post continuously for another 20 years. And even when the Vatican revoked his authority to teach in Catholic schools, it did not instruct him to stop functioning as a Catholic theologian.

But the conservative response may also portend that some church official somewhere is probably ready to pounce on what they will perceive as Curran's departure from orthodoxy. And that could cause the Vatican to escalate from "Thou shall not teach in Catholic schools" to "Thou shall not publicly proclaim Catholic theology anywhere," or even "Thou art no longer in communion with the Catholic Church."

I imagine that Curran preferred to avoid those risks for several years, but became convinced that given his age and the dire condition of the church, they are risks he could avoid no longer. As he said in July, "We cannot put our heads in the sand." And if moral theologians have to put their heads on the chopping block of censure or excommunication to bring the official church to its senses, who more credible to lead them than Charlie Curran?

Let me end this with the prayer from Ephesians that concludes the final chapter of my doctoral dissertation: "Glory be to him whose power, working within us, can do infintely more that we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen."

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