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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s

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The Roman Catholic Church and Reproductive Choice

Frances Kissling

1990

Not all Catholics respect the present teaching of the Vatican on sexuality and contraception. Here, Frances Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice, Washington, sums up the views of the opposition within the church.

Contrary to popular opinion, nothing in the Roman Catholic church is ever simple. In no area of human values is this more true than in attempts to understand the position of the church on responsible sexuality and human reproduction.

On the surface, it seems clear: sexuality is a faculty governed by natural law. It is given to us by the Creator for the primary purpose of procreation. In the 1930s, the church recognized a secondary purpose – the growth and development of love in the marriage. However, this secondary purpose was not viewed as sufficient in itself to justify sexual activity.

Even within this expanded view, every sexual act must take place within a monogamous committed marriage whose bonds cannot be dissolved. In each act the couple must be open to accept a pregnancy should one occur. No ‘artificial’ measures can be taken to prevent conception, direct abortion is never permitted, even to save the life of the woman, and elective, voluntary sterilization is also forbidden.

In good faith – and well within their rights as Catholic - many couples as well as single men and women throughout the world have rejected some or all of the teachings mentioned above. (Substantial numbers of Catholic priests themselves dissent from these views. Surveys in the United States show only 29 percent of them agree with the church ban on artificial contraception).

While many assume that monolithic rigidity on moral matters is the Catholic way, a fuller knowledge of the Catholic tradition exposes the substantial freedom of conscience that Catholics enjoy in moral and ethical decision making. Conscience, according to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, is inviolable and must be followed even when it disagrees with church teaching. Conscience must be followed even when it is wrong. This freedom is especially clear when the teachings in question are not infallible, that is, have not been solemnly declared by the pope as free from error throughout all time. While there is currently great pressure by conservative church leaders for the pope to define the teachings on birth control and abortion as infallible, this has not been done.

Clearly, the question of abortion constitutes the area of greatest controversy and confusion about Catholic teaching. Current statements by the pope and many bishops imply that church objections to abortion are based on clear and constant teachings that the fetus is a person, thus abortion is viewed as murder. In fact, the church has no official teaching on when the fetus becomes a person. In the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion issued by the Vatican, church leaders acknowledged the historic diversity of opinion on when personhood occurs during pregnancy and recognized the inability of science to resolve this question.

Many Catholic women believe that the church’s true objection to abortion is based on the sexual teachings mentioned above and on the church’s historic hostility to women as equal partners in both church and society. While conflicts between the pronouncements of church leaders on these issues and the behaviour of Catholic men and women are likely to rage for some time, the growing educational and social level of Catholics speaks to their increasing independence in ethical decision making.

This article appeared in People, vol. 17, no. 3, 1990.