The following is an abridged version of a chapter in Fr. Charles Curran's newest book, The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church: A Theological Perspective, which will be published in early January by Georgetown University Press. This text originally was given as a lecture sponsored by the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University in Dallas Oct. 28.
This paper will address the position of the U.S. Catholic bishops on abortion legislation. Four preliminary remarks help situate the discussion. The paper will not address church involvement in the public and political areas from the perspective of the First Amendment. Second, the paper presupposes the position taken by most mainstream Christian churches--that the Gospel and the church have something to say about public life and the good society. Third, some of what will be said here is somewhat applicable to the leaders of all Christian churches, and even to the preacher in addressing the members of a particular church about social issues. Fourth, the analysis and criticism will come from within the Catholic tradition itself. The paper accepts the moral teaching of the hierarchical magisterium of the Catholic church that direct abortion is always wrong. The paper will disagree with the way Catholic bishops have addressed the issue of abortion law, but only from within the parameters of the Catholic tradition itself.
The consideration will develop in three sections. The first part will focus on what the Catholic bishops themselves have said about how as bishops they should address specific issues of American public policy and what are the obligations of Catholics with regard to this teaching. The second part will describe the growth and development of the specific positions they have taken on abortion law, while the third part will analyze and criticize these positions from within the Catholic tradition itself.
How should bishops teach on public policy issues?
As a matter of fact Catholic bishops and leaders of most other church denominations throughout the history of our country have advocated for particular public policies. From within the perspective of the Catholic church itself, the primary issue concerns how certain and authoritative is the teaching proposed by bishops on a specific public policy issue: Are all Catholics called to follow this teaching, or is there room for disagreement within the church in these matters? Some have referred to this issue as involving the rightful freedom of the believer within the church.
The U.S. bishops explicitly addressed this issue in writing their pastoral letters on peace and the economy in the 1980s. In writing their letter on peace, which developed through three different drafts, they explicitly wanted to be more specific than papal teaching had been in this area. At the same time, other national groups of bishops were also addressing the issues of peace, deterrence and war. The Vatican under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger convened a meeting involving representatives of the different bishops' conferences writing such letters and Vatican officials. One of the problems was the fact it seemed that different bishops' conferences would probably take different positions on some of these specific issues, such as no first use of even the smallest nuclear weapon. The memorandum from the meeting called for the bishops in their letters to distinguish clearly between moral principles and their application to concrete realities that involve the assessment of factual circumstances. The authority of the bishops on prudential judgments or the application of principles does not bind all Catholics. There is room for legitimate diversity in the church in the area of prudential judgments.
In keeping with this memorandum, the U.S. bishops' document "The Challenge of Peace" (1983) distinguishes different levels of moral discourse and teaching …