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Letters & Op-Eds - 2008

international humanist news

Catholic hierarchy and the abortion debate

Jon O'Brien

February 2008

The Catholic hierarchy's long and public battle with science and scientists over the centuries is well known and well documented. What's perhaps less well known is the fact that despite these battles, various elements of the Catholic Church have a long and well respected reputation for supporting scientific endeavour.

From the very earliest days of the church, Catholic theologians have been at the forefront of scientific revolutions and support for the sciences. The list of Catholic scientists is a lengthy one, both pre- and post-Reformation. Our museums and textbooks are full of findings either directly discovered or based on experiments carried out by individuals such as Bede the Venerable, Nicholas Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Gregor Mendel and a host of other faithful Catholics, including especially a great number of Jesuits. According to the Pontifical Academy of Science, the Catholic Church has always taught that "no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits. It is clear that, on the surface, the Catholic Church has no fear of science or scientific discovery. That unfortunately is not always reflected in the actions of the hierarchy, perhaps most notably in the Vatican's recent claims that condoms are ineffective in the battle against HIV and AIDS and in various discussions about the personhood of the foetus in the abortion debate.

Sadly, it is true that scientific and public policies that are determined by evidence-based research, democratic structures and the common good, are rarely supported wholeheartedly by the hierarchy. Too often, the hierarchy seeks to put religious dogma at the centre of its public policy pronouncements, rather than sound scientific reasoning. This is regularly made explicit, for example in 2003, when the Vatican issued the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. While ostensibly about public life and not scientific policy, the document seemed to be a throw-back to a pre-Vatican II conception of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the state. The document asserted that, for example, on issues that involve concepts and definitions of the human person, no opinions other than those of the Catholic Church can be seen as relevant to the formulation of public policy. This assertion of an absolute truth, owned by the Roman Catholic magisterium, flies in the face of modern science and Catholic teaching itself.

However, the fact is that both Catholic policy makers and lay people are better educated in their moral and public responsibility than this document suggested. They have rejected demands that they slavishly apply church dogma to public policy, and as has been proven time and time again, individual Catholics have a great respect for freedom of inquiry and individual conscience.

For example, a recent representative poll of UK faith groups showed how far removed the views of Catholic bishops are from those of Catholics in the pews. The poll, by YouGov for Catholics for Choice, showed that significantly more Catholics think that it should "be legal for a woman to have an abortion when she has an unwanted pregnancy," than don't, with 43 percent in support and only 27 percent against. By a similar margin, 42 percent to 27 percent, Catholics felt that " Catholic bishops concentrate too much of their attention on abortion" to the detriment of other issues. The poll was taken in November 2007, when the UK was in the middle of a heated discussion over abortion. Parliament was considering amendments to the 1967 Abortion Act and several Catholic bishops had come out strongly against any attempt to remove the restrictions that can make it difficult for women to access abortion services. It's clear that despite what the Catholic hierarchy would like the public to believe, a plurality of British Catholics ignores their divisive rhetoric, and instead follows their consciences when it comes to implementing public policy.

There is no getting away from the fact that just as there has been a difficult relationship between the church hierarchy and the workings of state, there has been an uneasy relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and science. But however you try to spin it, the fact is that Catholic scientists have been at the forefront of many of the most important discoveries in human history, and Catholics have been there, supporting them all the way. That's unlikely to change anytime soon, and Catholic policy makers, who are often in the front line when it comes to gaining public funds for such research, know that they can rely on Catholic teachings and progressive Catholics to support them.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to another famous Catholic scientist, John Rock, who was the co-inventor of the pill. "You should be afraid to meet your Maker," an angry conservative wrote to him, soon after the pill was approved. "My dear madam," Rock replied, "in my faith, we are taught that the Lord is with us always. When my time comes, there will be no need for introductions." Rock was also a pioneer in in-vitro fertilisation and the freezing of sperm cells, and was the first to extract an intact fertilised egg. Here clearly was a man who did much to promote life and the dignity of the individual. Now that is something that all good Catholics can support.

This article originally appeared in the February 2008 edition of the International Humanist News.