Academic journal article Theological Studies

Moral Methodology and Pastoral Responsiveness: The Case of Abortion and the Care of Children

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Moral Methodology and Pastoral Responsiveness: The Case of Abortion and the Care of Children

Article excerpt

Moral methodology is intimately related to pastoral practice. Though neither element can be reduced to the other, the way one construes a moral problem methodologically shapes one's response to the problem. This article will analyze the moral reasoning in three recent church documents in order to assess the implications of their modes of reasoning for the relationship between abortion and the care of children. The three documents are the "Declaration on Abortion" issued in 1974 by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and two statements by the American Catholic Bishops: "The Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities: A Reaffirmation" (1985), and "Putting Children and Families First: A Challenge for Our Church, Nation, and World (1991).(1)

The insight that there is some connection between the issues of abortion and the care of children is not uncommon. A number of scholars make the initial observation that there is a link between the two.(2) But efforts to understand more fully how they relate have been less than satisfactory. The frustration is evident in Cardinal Bernardin's words: "There must be a connection - logical, legal and social - between our lack of moral vision in protecting unborn children and our lack of social vision in the provision of basic necessities for women and children."(3) These words imply, correctly, that the inability to relate satisfactorily the two issues has led to a failure to respond adequately to either one.

Adequate methodology is a necessary first step to a better constructive understanding of and pastoral response to the issues. All three documents affirm the prohibition against taking the life of the embryo and fetus.(4) But the moral reasoning of each relates this prohibition to the care of children in different ways. The reasoning in the Declaration of the CDF is syllogistic and is standard in Catholic thought on abortion. It treats the care of children as an indirect implication of the prohibition against abortion. The Reaffirmation, following Cardinal Bernardin's "consistent ethic of life," attempts to make the link between the two issues more direct by bringing both under the broad rubric of "life," but the connection is fragile because it continues a methodological split between sexual and social issues found in much of official church teaching. "Putting Children and Families First" overcomes the problem of fragility by subsuming the issue of abortion under that of the care of children. This approach is more illuminating of the wider context of abortion than the syllogistic method, and it is more stable than the consistent ethic. I will suggest that this makes the approach pastorally more responsive not only to the care of children, but to the specific problem of the taking of the life of the embryo and fetus.

The methodologies in these documents are, of course, implicit rather than explicit. The task of the moral theologian is to bring them to light. Taken together, the documents suggest a trajectory of thought - the term "development" would imply a settledness and breadth of reception that has not yet occurred - which reverses the relationship between the two issues. In these three documents, the issue of the care of children in its relation to abortion moves from indirect implication, to directly related issue, to broader interpretive context. In what follows, I will trace this trajectory.


Charles Curran has perspicaciously delineated the methodological divergences between sexual and social ethics in offical Catholic teaching.(5) According to Curran, sexual teaching evidences the worldview of classicism, while social teaching since Gaudium et spes exemplifies historical consciousness. The former describes reality as eternal, immutable, and unchanging. The latter emphasizes the particular, the contingent, the historical, and the individual.(6) These worldviews include different modes of reasoning. …

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