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Letters & Op-Eds - 2007

abortion review

Abortion: What do Catholics really think?

Jon O'Brien

1 June 2007

Jon O’Brien, President of Catholics for a Free Choice, explains why the notion that all Catholics are opposed to abortion is just plain wrong. 

As an Irish Catholic I know it would make Henry VIII lose his cool, if not his head. After successfully carrying out the Reformation and foiling Guy Fawkes, the British establishment now faces the possibility that Roman Catholicism will become the dominant religion in Britain.

Media reports earlier this year breathlessly told us that a great exodus of immigrants from Eastern Europe means that the number of Catholics in the UK has risen to new and unseen heights. Figures for 2005 show that there were 4.2 million Catholics in England and Wales but anecdotal reports suggest far more as both legal and illegal immigrants seek work and opportunities that their native economies do not offer. At present, both Catholic and Anglican churches report about one million regular churchgoers. With the new arrivals, Catholicism may become the leading religion.

The media relied on reports from priests and Catholic diocese workers so it is difficult to put real figures on any of this. Naturally, the irregular status of some immigrants means they prefer to keep a low profile. However, if it is the case that the Catholic voting population is set to surge, one wonders what will be the impact on public policy issues that relate to sexual and reproductive health. This is a fair question, as the Catholic hierarchy has been such a conservative critic of progressive policy on issues like contraception and abortion.

Official statistics tell us that 300,000 Poles have arrived in the UK since 2004. According to Polish authorities, the real number could be in the region of 600,000. For anybody who has been watching the bizarre actions of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother, Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the idea of such an uber-traditionalist voting bloc is a scary one, especially for those concerned with preserving personal liberties and the separation of church and state. Gay rights, contraception, sex education and abortion are all on the brothers’ rather extensive hit list in their regressive campaign to restore Poland to a more ‘traditional’ era.

However such fears about Catholic views are based on many presumptions, most of which are just plain wrong:

  • Catholics have to do what the pope tells them. It is a popular misconception that whatever the pope says on a serious topic is infallible and must be followed - it is not. Infallible statements are only made in very limited and narrow circumstances. For example on the abortion issue and, contrary to what many believe, the teaching on abortion, is not infallible and no serious theologian claims it is.
  • Catholics do what the pope tells them. Dissent from church teaching is permissible and there is a long tradition of disagreement with official teachings, interpretation of teachings and the way those teachings are expressed. The sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful, is also a valid source of truth in the church, and rightly guides the beliefs and actions of Catholics. So while most such discussions are among theologians, ordinary Catholics the world over show by their actions that they have soundly rejected the church’s ban on contraception, and on the topic of abortion, in some countries and on some questions, only a minority of Catholics agree with church leaders. Catholics have abortions and use contraception - when they have access to it - at much the same rate as those of other religious traditions.
  • Catholics are supposed to tell others what to do. Wrong again. Despite the efforts of the hierarchy to conform public policies to its teachings, Catholic tradition clearly demands that Catholics respect the views of other faith groups and the church accepts the principle of church-state separation. Catholics ‘should recognise the legitimacy of differing points of view about the organisation of worldly affairs and show respect for their fellow citizens’, advises one pastoral letter, and Vatican II clearly recognises that the political community and the church are independent of each other. However it is true that some church officials have sought to use their power to influence public policy against reproductive health services.

What do Catholics actually believe? Noted sociologist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley has released many surveys of Catholic opinion showing how Catholics disagree with many core church teachings. Among Catholics, only 19% in America, 18% in Poland and 17% in Italy believe that premarital sex is always wrong. On abortion, only 37% in the USA, 31% in Poland and 12% in Italy believe it is always wrong. Only 22% of Poles have a great deal of confidence in church leadership, and a 2002 survey showed that 56% of Catholics in Poland said that the church’s involvement in politics was too great.

Even devout Catholics believe ‘the church has no right to try to control their private lives.’ As Greeley concluded in a 2001 report on Ireland, ‘If sex and authority are what Catholicism is about - and many will contend that they are - then the Irish are no longer Catholic. But neither is anyone else.’ (America, 12 March 2001)

Polling in the UK shows a small majority of Catholics support abortion if the fetus has a serious defect and a third do if the family has a low income. It is feasible that an immigrant population used to abortion being a major method of family planning and perhaps more attuned to the harsh realities of a tough economy could increase support for abortion rights among Catholics in the UK.

However, when the Catholic hierarchy and its supporters on the right seeks to legislate its religious beliefs into civil law, it tends to no longer have the power it once did.Witness changes in favour of gay rights and abortion rights in Spain and Portugal in recent times, despite fierce lobbying by the hierarchy. And the hierarchy is all too aware of this relative weakness. Only a handful of hard-line bishops in the USA supported a move to deny the sacrament of communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians in the 2006 elections, leading to the whole issue becoming a complete failure. Regardless of what the bishops say, Catholics are using their consciences when it comes to moral decision-making - just as the hierarchy insists we do.

Indeed, the recent surge in mass attendance in Britain may not sustain itself and may be a temporary search for a sense of community and social services that are available to newly arrived immigrants. In Poland, where 90% are Catholic, fewer than half attend mass at least once a week. There is also the probability that many of the immigrants coming to Britain may be the younger, city dwelling, more educated set, and not the same people who support the current Polish government or its conservative Catholic ways.

If the people over at the Universe, the UK’s conservative Catholic newspaper, think that these new immigrants will lead the charge to a fundamentalist Catholic Britain, they may be in for a big disappointment. However, those who support reproductive rights should not take the liberal society they currently enjoy for granted. There is no doubt that the much deflated anti-choice movement in Britain will be working hard to recruit new members and activists, and will likely be propagandising at a Catholic church near you.

This article originally appeared in the 1 June 2007 edition of the Abortion Review.