Abortion: Strategies of the American Bishops

BlogJim Bacik

Before the 1960s, the American bishops said very little in opposition to abortion. They concentrated, instead, on social issues that were important to the growing number of Catholic immigrants. For example, in the late nineteenth century they supported the establishment of labor unions and in 1919 they published a “Program of Social Reconstruction,” which called for various social reforms, including laws restricting child labor, equal pay for women and a mandated minimum wage.

In his, The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church, theologian Charles Curran recounts the history of how the American bishops have come to make abortion their major focus, spending “more time, energy and money” on it than any other single issue. Soon after the 1973 Supreme Court Roe decision, the bishops adopted a three-fold plan: to convince the faithful that abortion is wrong; to assist pregnant women; and to pass a constitutional amendment protecting fetal life. Before the 1976 presidential election, the bishops issued a statement declaring they did not want to form a voting bloc or tell Catholics how to vote and urging the faithful to consider the position of candidates on a full range of issues without giving priority to abortion or any other single issue.

In the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin advocated framing opposition to abortion in the context of a “consistent ethic of life,” which opposes war, capital punishment and other threats to life. In the 1990s, the bishops began to speak of abortion as the fundamental human rights issue of our day, because it attacks life itself, the most fundamental of human goods. In the 2015 voter guide, “Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) called abortion a “preeminent threat” to human dignity.

Not all the bishops have supported the growing use of the word “preeminence” to distinguish abortion from other life issues. As a prime example, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, who has doctorates in theology and political science, notes that the word “preeminence” does not appear in the official Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching and insists that it has unavoidable political connotations in the context of U.S. polarized partisanship.  The Cardinal argues that Catholic Social Teaching deals with many social issues, which are united by a shared concern to serve the common good, and that making abortion preeminent reduces the common good to a single issue. He points out that climate change is a more foundational issue than abortion since it threatens to end the whole human race. In an interview, McElroy agreed that abortion is “a preeminent issue for Catholics” and then added “one of several.”  In this regard, it is helpful to recall that official Church documents have taken a broader approach; for example, teaching that both abortion and racism are intrinsic evils.

This line of thought suggests that the case against abortion can be expressed not in terms of its unique depravity but as an integral part of a consistent ethic of life that promotes the common good. McElroy has also argued that calling abortion the preeminent issue is “at least discordant if not inconsistent” with the teachings of Pope Francis, who advises against “obsessing over abortion” and favors a less confrontational and more dialogic approach to public conversations.  In essence, Cardinal McElroy contends that an inclusive approach to the abortion issue is more faithful to modern Catholic Social Teaching and has a better chance of gaining the support of the Catholic community and the public at large.

Which approach seems best to me?

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