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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 feels in duty bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice."

Q: So the Church does regard abortion as a matter of social justice?

Father Williams: Absolutely. The guiding principle for the entire field of Catholic social thought is the virtue of social justice, with its articulating principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good.

The common good requires a social organization that provides for and defends human rights, the first and most basic of which is the right to life.

Or let's take the Church's preferential option for the poor, which enjoins Christians to pay special attention to those most in need.

Just as a mother or father dedicate a disproportionate amount of time and energy to a child who is sick, without for that reason loving the other children any less, Christians are called to focus their efforts preferentially toward the most needy and defenseless among us.

Applying this principle to contemporary society, the social injustice that most cries out to Christian conscience is the deliberate and massive attack on the most vulnerable members of society, the unborn.

Q: But is abortion objectively any graver than other social injustices, to which the Church also pays attention? Doesn't a consistent ethic of life go beyond abortion?

Father Williams: The Church's defense of social justice embraces any number of key life issues, and attention to one does not lessen the importance of the others. Abortion, however, stands out among them as a unique case meriting singular attention.

To quickly enumerate the reasons for this singularity, we must look first at the simple magnitude of the problem: some 46 million legal abortions performed every year in the world, which in and of itself makes abortion a social problem of staggering proportions.

Second, it involves the killing of the most innocent and vulnerable members of society.

Third, it perpetrates this evil systemically and legally, thus giving abortion a veneer of moral legitimacy. Since the law informs people's consciences, the legality of abortion perpetuates an anti-life mentality and separates it from other crimes against life such as terrorism, serial killing, human trafficking, and so forth.

Fourth, abortion repeats the historical error of taking an entire class of human beings and devaluing them to a second-class status, deprived of basic human dignity and the rights that flow from it.

Q: What does Catholic social thought offer to the debate on abortion that bioethics doesn't? What is its specific contribution?

Father Williams: Since Catholic social teaching contributes so much to this discussion, it is impossible for me to do this question justice here. In its analysis of the socio-cultural, political, familial and economic dimensions of human action, the Church's social teaching offers invaluable points of reference for a public discussion of abortion.

As I mentioned earlier, the Church's teaching on the content and requirements of the "common good" sheds important light on respect and reverence for human life as a pillar of the just society.

Moreover, the principle of equality, based on the equal dignity of all human beings, not only grounds our democratic system but also demands that we deprive no one of this essential dignity.

Historically the greatest social evils perpetrated on humanity -- genocide, racism, abortion, slavery -- have always violated the principle of equality, relegating an entire sector of the human family to an inferior status, with a dignity lower than the rest. Since human rights flow from human dignity, once the latter is called into question, rights fall at the same time.

As a legal "right," abortion brings forth countless social issues requiring a reasoned response: questions of conscientious objection, the rule of law in a democracy, the pedagogical function of law, and the role of moral truth in a democratic system, to name but a few.

And as regards politics, abortion again raises numerous moral questions: the correctness of single-issue politics versus a "seamless garment" approach, the possibility of being personally opposed while publicly supporting abortion legislation, the reception of the sacraments for publicly pro-abortion Catholic politicians, cooperation in evil by voters and politicians alike, support for "imperfect" laws regarding life, etc.

Q: Where do we go from here? How can abortion occupy its rightful place in Catholic social thought?

Father Williams: The first and simplest step to take is to treat Pope John Paul's great encyclical on life issues, "The Gospel of Life," as a social encyclical and to include it in courses and symposiums on Catholic social thought.

John Paul practically invited us to do this by comparing abortion to the worker question of "Rerum Novarum." This single measure would be an enormous step in the right direction.


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Abortion, Life, Williams, Social, Teaching, Family

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