Is Abortion Ever In Accord With Catholic Teaching?

Bishop Paul Swain, the shepherd of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, has written a letter regarding the recent anti-abortion petition drive in South Dakota. In the first paragraph of his letter he points out that the proposed law would prohibit abortion, “except in the cases of rape, incest and certain dangers to the health of the mother.”

I was hoping that the rest of his letter would detail why he could not, as a Catholic bishop, support the measure. My hopes were dashed.

Deep into the first page of the bishop’s letter we learn why he is writing it. He refers to the USCCB statement Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, quoting, “Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and ‘the art of the possible.’ At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually. For example, Pope John Paul II taught that when a government official who fully opposes abortion cannot succeed in completely overturning a pro-abortion law, he or she may work to improve protection for unborn human life, ‘limiting the harm done by such a law,’ and lessening its negative impact as much as possible. (Evangelium Vitae, no. 73)  Such incremental improvements in the law are acceptable as steps toward the full restoration of justice. However, Catholics must never abandon the moral requirement to seek full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death.”

So here we are, 13 years after the issuance of Evangelium Vitae, and even bishops are using Section 73.3 to justify laws that permit child killing in certain cases. I have never been able to understand this interpretation of what the Holy Father wrote and I never will. But as is the case with so many Biblical quotes and statements from past Vicars of Christ on earth, man can take a simple statement and use it in ways that are full of error. Such is, in my view, the case here. Though the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement suggests that Pope John Paul II was actually writing about laws containing exceptions and the acceptability of such laws, I can find nothing in his writings or speeches that permits Catholics to support abortion in some cases.

As a matter of fact, there is no magisterial teaching throughout the history of the Catholic Church that suggests that an act of abortion is ever acceptable. There have never been any exceptions to this teaching. And as Pope John Paul II taught just two paragraphs prior to the one Bishop Swain’s letter cites:

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that ‘we must obey God rather than men.’

There are many more such quotes throughout Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, and not once does he write that an elected official or anyone else, for that matter, must or should support exceptions to abortion. And nobody can argue that the Holy Father probably did not know that such exceptions exist in some laws, for he made many statements such as:

The unconditional commitment to every unborn life, to which the Church feels bound from the very beginning, permits no ambiguity or compromise.”  (Pope John Paul II to German Bishops, 6/3/99)

Further, in Evangelium Vitae, #57, he wrote:

Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

It is undeniably true that no Catholic teaching can be found that legitimizes the acceptance of abortion in certain cases, whether in political life, legislation or in daily life. Perhaps this is why, in Bishop Swain’s statement, we find the following comment near the end:

A Catholic may also, after prayer and sufficiently informing his or her conscience, abstain from or oppose this referendum because it does not reflect the fullness of the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life.

If I had one wish for the Catholics of South Dakota, it would be that Bishop Swain would rethink his letter regarding the petition drive and make a single sentence statement that reflects precisely what he did say above: The proposed law does not reflect the fullness of the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life.