A True Balancing Act: Religion, Reproduction and Public Policy

By O'Brien, Jon | Conscience, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

A True Balancing Act: Religion, Reproduction and Public Policy


O'Brien, Jon, Conscience


THE CATHOLIC HIERARCHY HAS a long history of involving itself in debates over public policy. From advocating for the poor to opposing war and the death penalty, there is much good the church has done in this arena. However, in the area for which it is perhaps best known--debates over abortion, contraception and other "life issues"--the hierarchy's advocacy has cost people their lives.

The church hierarchy's opposition to contraception, abortion and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS is well known, as is its opposition to IVF treatments for the infertile and embryonic stem-cell research. However, while even the bishops don't always speak with one voice on these issues, it is clear that they do not represent the views and actions of all Catholics. The world over, Catholics think and act independently, practicing what is best for their families and themselves.

It is interesting to note that as abortion becomes more accepted throughout the world, and significant moves have been made to legalize abortion in regions (such as Latin America) that the Catholic hierarchy once considered to be its own backyard, the bishops are speaking out more and more vehemently. The recent outbreak of Catholic bishops attacking prochoice Catholic politicians is a real sign that the Vatican may recognize that it is fighting a losing battle. After decades of the hierarchy's being able to rely on Catholic politicians to bend the knee when bishops told them how to vote, times are changing. After a bishop in Mexico City threatened to excommunicate politicians who voted in favor of relaxing the city's abortion laws, the pope himself endorsed that pronouncement at a press conference en route to Brazil. The pope's spokesman was forced to backtrack not once but twice before Pope Benedict's remarks on the matter were miraculously expunged from the record entirely. There are real signs of panic emanating from the Vatican which might just, and none too soon, be losing the public war with politicians.

The Catholic church sees it self as a major player in international and national politics and seems to see no contradiction in immersing itself in the workings of the United Nations and the European Union, as well as individual governments around the world. In fact, because of a quirk of history, the Vatican, through an entity called the Holy See, operates as a state at the United Nations, something even the late Pope John Paul II considered somewhat ridiculous. Speaking with Russian premier Vladimir Putin, he said, "Look out the window. What kind of state do I have here? You can see my whole state right from this window."

The perennial question remains: What is the correct role for religion and religious institutions in the formulation of public policy and law? There is no easy or pat answer, but one can take a lead from church teachings.

According to the church's own teachings, even in a predominantly Catholic country, laws need not adhere to official Catholic doctrine. The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom (1966) reinforced the call for Catholics to respect the positions of people of other faiths. This is particularly significant given that the Catholic church's position on reproductive matters, including abortion, is more conservative than those of other major faith groups. In addition, as noted, many Catholics do not support the position of the church on abortion.

It's important to note, however that Vatican II saw the reversal of 17 centuries of church teachings to the contrary. Before the 1966 conference, the Catholic hierarchy believed that civil law must conform to the moral teachings of the church. Forty short years ago, all that changed, and Catholics were faced with statements such as the following:

"In spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. …

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