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Abortion and Catholic Social Teaching

Interview With Father Thomas D. Williams

ROME, SEPT. 17, 2006 (Zenit) - Abortion should occupy a key place in the social doctrine of the Church, even though it is explicitly mentioned few times in the "social encyclicals," says a theologian.

That is the view of Father Thomas D. Williams, dean of the theology school at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university.

Father Williams was invited to present a paper on the relationship between the abortion issue and Catholic social doctrine at an academic conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, together with the International Association for Catholic Social Teaching.

The two-day conference, entitled "The Defense of Life: A Mission for Catholic Social Teaching," opens today. We interviewed Father Williams on the subject.

Q: Why is this conference necessary?

Father Williams: In his invitation letter, Cardinal Renato Martino noted with great frankness that "the social doctrine of the Church, to date, has not placed due emphasis on the defense of life from conception to its natural end."

One of the most frequent questions I get, when people find out I teach Catholic social doctrine in Rome, is whether or not I include the question of abortion and specifically the encyclical "The Gospel of Life" in my course.

People want to know what Catholic social doctrine has to say about life issues, and especially about abortion.

Q: Does the abortion issue properly belong to the area of Catholic social teaching? Isn't it a question for bioethics?

Father Williams: Traditionally abortion has not been included in the sphere of Catholic social doctrine.

Remember that this area of study -- Catholic social ethics -- takes as its fundamental point of reference a body of magisterial texts often called the "social encyclicals," formally beginning with Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical "Rerum Novarum," and extending, for the moment, to Pope John Paul's 1991 encyclical "Centesimus Annus."

In the informal canon of "social encyclicals," the word abortion appears a mere four times, and the topic is never addressed in any depth. For this reason, it is usually excluded from courses of social doctrine, and considered a topic for other disciplines.

Q: But being such an important social issue, why has abortion been neglected in the social encyclicals?

Father Williams: Historically, the social encyclicals, and Catholic social doctrine itself up to a point, grew out of a single encyclical letter: Leo's "Rerum Novarum."

The other social encyclicals have sought explicitly to maintain a close link with "Rerum Novarum" and were often written to commemorate important anniversaries of Leo's text.

Both Pope Pius XI and Pope John XXIII called "Rerum Novarum" the "Magna Charta" of the Church's social thought, and Pope John Paul II said that it "created a lasting paradigm for the Church."

Because of the importance of "Rerum Novarum," later social encyclicals have updated the ethical analysis of the social question in the light of new realities, but generally following the categories set out by "Rerum Novarum." Therefore the initial focus on the economic question has never relinquished center stage in Catholic social thought.

Whereas "Rerum Novarum" ably addressed the worker problem, analyzing the Socialist solution and reaffirming the Catholic belief in a natural right to private property, it did not deal with a host of other essential questions of social justice.

Leo had no intention of penning a comprehensive treatise on Christian social ethics. "Rerum Novarum" was a thoughtful response to a pressing pastoral concern, but to expect to find in it the pattern for Church teaching on every social issue is to ask more from the document than it can possibly give.

Q: Have efforts been made to fill in this gap?

Father Williams: First of all I must hasten to mention that the papal magisterium has been anything but silent or neglectful of the abortion problem.

On numerous occasions Pope John Paul II spoke out forcefully on the question and his 1995 encyclical "The Gospel of Life" addresses the matter of abortion in great length.

In that very same encyclical Pope John Paul explicitly tied the abortion question to Catholic social thought. He draws a comparison between abortion as a matter of social injustice and the worker question, addressed by Leo in 1891.

These are John Paul's words, in No. 5 of the encyclical: "Just as a century ago it was the working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the Church very courageously came to their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of the worker as a person, so now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church ...

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