Thursday, December 16, 2010

Curran on Abortion Laws: Full Text of Lecture Makes His Argument Sharper and Stronger

On November 2nd I posted an analysis of Charles Curran's October 28th lecture at Southern Methodist University on the U.S. Bishops' "flawed" approach to outlawing abortion. At the time the complete text of the lecture had not been published; so I relied on coverage by National Catholic Reporter Editor-at-Large Tom Roberts, who attended Curran's scholarly tour de force.

Finally on November 29th NCR was able to post the full text of the lecture, describing it as "an abridged version of a chapter in Fr. Charles Curran's newest book The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church: A Theological Perspective, which will be published in early January by Georgetown University Press."

While the full text shows that Roberts' reporting generally was accurate, I think it also adds nuances and context which sharpen Curran's position and actually make his argument stronger. The complete lecture also recontextualizes some of the concerns that I raised in my posting.

Let me highlight three significant distinctions between the lecture and Roberts' reporting.

The first important distinction comes in the "preliminary remarks" of lecture's opening paragraph, which Roberts did not quote or reference. The first remark out of Curran's mouth is: "The paper will not address church involvement in the public and political areas from the perspective of the First Amendment."

In my November 2nd posting I spelled out why I did not believe it was possible or constructive to avoid that topic in connection with abortion legislation. And implicitly I faulted Curran for not addressing it more explicitly.

I still maintain that such a nexus is impossible to ignore; but, now I understand that Curran bracketed it out as a methodological strategy and not as a topic he would necessarily exclude under other circumstances. He did not want to muddy his critique of the bishops' public policy teaching "from within the Catholic tradition itself" with a topic which, while related enough to abortion law for Curran to mention it, has its own history and its own controversies. So while I can disagree about the wisdom of excluding it from the November 2nd lecture, reading Curran on his own terms makes it clear that he forewarned at the outset he would do so. For all I know he may well address the First Amendment in another chapter in his new book.

A second major contrast between the lecture and Roberts' reporting is the cumulative impact of the entire first half of Curran's lecture, which Roberts summarized in a few short paragraphs. Roberts says that part of the lecture "traced the narrowing of the bishops' approach to abortion since the mid-1970s" and the bishops most recent position is that their teaching on other public policy issues involves "prudential judgments" but their teaching on abortion laws does not.

This is, in fact, part of Curran's analysis. However, Roberts' summary does not articulate a more significant point Curran makes: the bishops' claim that their teaching on abortion laws does not involve "prudential judgments" is not only a narrowing of their previous approach but also a significant departure from guidance the bishops accepted from the Vatican in the 1980s.

At that time a meeting was convened by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to discuss divergent public policy teachings by various bishops' conferences. The meeting resulted in a memorandum which, in Curran's words, "called for the bishops in their letters to distinguish clearly between moral principles and their application to concrete realities that involve the assessment of factual circumstances. The authority of the bishops on prudential judgments or the application of principles does not bind all Catholics. There is room for legitimate diversity in the church in the area of prudential judgments."

Clearly this is Curran's largest point, but Roberts' summary obscures it: the bishops, unable to marshall any reliable theological grounding whatsoever, have arbitrarily exempted their teaching on abortion law from the Vatican's official guidance on public policy teachings. The rest of the lecture highlights several different ways in which prudential judgments remain endemic to the bishops' teaching on abortion laws, with Curran documenting point by point that the bishops have no leg to stand on.

A third important distinction between the lecture and Roberts' reporting is Curran's analysis of a natural-law approach to civil law versus a religious freedom approach. Here the problem was as much my overly hasty reading of Roberts' as his less-than-precise summary of Curran.

My confusion began, I think, when Roberts wrote: "Curran said that in the abortion issue, he prefers the religious freedom approach..." Curran's wording in the lecture was a lot more than expressing a preference: "The pope and the bishops have used the Thomistic approach in dealing with the legality of abortion. In my judgment the religious freedom approach is the correct approach and since the Second Vatican Council should be used by all today in the Catholic tradition."

A la Roberts, I thought Curran was mainly interested in contrasting the two approaches, but also in arguing that a religious freedom approach could accommodate either. So I launched into a counter-analysis that Vatican II's religious freedom approach had actually altered the context in which the natural law approach was now available, thereby placing the natural law approach within much more strictly defined limits. That counter-analysis remains accurate, but now it's clear that I missed another point Curran was making.

Besides contrasting the natural law and religious freedom approaches, Curran was also demonstrating how the religious freedom approach, without necessarily referencing the natural law, could be used legitimately to justify a whole range of specific approaches to abortion law. He noted, for example, that a religious freedom approach could focus primarily on an individual woman's conscience and rely on her to make conscientious decisions about abortion. But, he added, another aspect of the religious freedom approach could focus on just treatment of the fetus as a developing individual with rights appropriate to its status.

This puts Curran much closer to my counter-analysis. But it also brings us back to the discussion of the First Amendment that I started with above. As I see it, because Vatican II's religious freedom approach can lead to multiple outcomes and even incompatible outcomes, it is ultimately the First Amendment that decides for Americans which approaches are allowable and which are not. It seems to me that one approach that is clearly disallowed is for the leaders of one religious group to impose its moral teaching about abortion on those who believe otherwise. Those of us who pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States cannot support that approach.