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Roe vs Wade: The Bishops’ dilemma


News leaked earlier this month that the US Supreme Court plans to overturn its most famous decision, that in Roe vs Wade (1973) which protects a pregnant woman's freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. The decision has attracted much criticism both in the past and now on account of its dubious legal reasoning – in particular, its attempt to link the right to abort to a right to privacy which itself was notional and not specified in the US Constitution.

Critics of Roe vs Wade argue that it is undemocratic, removing the majority’s right to reach its own consensus on the moment that life begins and a new human, with his or her own rights, comes into being.

Defenders point to the moral wrongheadedness of denying the individual the right to determine her own answer to that fundamental question about our existence. They also point to the obvious inequalities that flow from allowing some women easier access to abortion than others. The poor will almost certainly suffer disproportionately in states that ban abortion or restrict it significantly (and they may suffer elsewhere, even beyond the US).

Such are the arguments in the secular public sphere. But what about the ecclesiastical one? We all know that the Catholic Church now opposes abortion absolutely. Pius XI set out the current position in his encyclical Casti connubii (1930) and Paul VI affirmed it in Humanae vitae (1968).

Current papal policy has not, of course, always been the Church’s settled position. Medieval theologians, for instance, developed a somewhat more nuanced ethics of abortion which used Aristotle to distinguish between ‘animated’ and ‘unanimated’ foetuses (i.e. those in which the soul was present or not).

Sixtus V was the first pope to define all abortions unequivocally as homicide, but his bull Effraenatam (1588) was overturned by Gregory XIV just a couple of years later. Gregory reasserted the older view that aborting a pre-animate foetus was not true homicide because no foetus should be considered a human being before ensoulment.


'If Roe vs Wade is overturned it will be fascinating to watch how the Church negotiates abortion’s return as a live issue in one of Catholicism’s most important spaces — and one of its frontlines in on-going conflicts between religion and secularism.'


The Church’s view on abortion ethics has thus always been subject to debate and evolution. Indeed, the current moment is in some ways an anomaly facilitated by a curious, but not totally disadvantageous, circumstance which applies to its leadership not only in the US but world over.

Catholic leaders are free to advocate for a morally absolute position without bearing any of the costs of doing so because abortion is now widely permitted by law in most Western countries. Popular majorities support abortion rights and neither the pope nor his bishops have meaningful avenues for campaigning to overturn current legal regimes.

For around the last thirty to fifty years (depending on the place), the Church’s local leaderships have faced a choice: stick to Pius XI and Paul VI’s proscriptive position or enter the live debates which still run in many societies about what limits to abortion rights might be justified (or realistically imposed) and what safeguards can be constructed to protect the rights of both potential parents and potential infants.

Church leaders might have something useful to say about such matters but they have not done so in general. Perhaps they fear that taking a stance one way or the other could alienate that portion of their flocks who disagree with them. Far better to stay clear of the fray.

Of course, that is also a risk with the current absolutist position – but, here, as in other areas of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, the position is so out of kilter with societal norms that it is easy for even faithful Catholics to dismiss it as a sort of quaint ideological anachronism.

On the other hand, Church leaders may also enjoy the self-righteousness that comes from knowing they possess moral clarity. In that case they are akin to the other sorts of activist groups who have proliferated across the Western world but who hide something important from themselves.

The British columnist Matthew Parris wrote a column last December which excoriated such activists who all too often fail to recognise their freedom to fantasise a purer and more just future arises precisely because they know deep down that it will never come true. No government will ever contemplate implementing their vision and that gives them licence to avoid all hard questions.

This position is self-righteous, Parris contends, but it is not moral. Indeed, it is immoral because it outsources the difficult questions with which society has to grapple — and the guilt which follows from making morally compromising choices — to others.

The Catholic Church’s position on abortion can sometimes feel a little like the one Parris describes: it is so irrelevant to public debate that it has become little more than a branding exercise.

But a repeal of Roe vs Wade potentially changes all that. It would lead to actual debate in fifty states, most of which contain large numbers of Catholics and all of which contain different ranges of opinion about abortion ethics. How will Pope Francis and his bishops play that? Where there are realistic prospects of limiting abortion rights, but only partially, what will they do?

It’s easy to suppose the bishops should simply support every restriction and claim it as a win for their moral code — but that approach could end up undermining consensus if moderates become suspicious that their agenda is simply to keep tightening abortion laws via a ratchet effect.

If Roe vs Wade is overturned it will be fascinating to watch how the Church negotiates abortion’s return as a live issue in one of Catholicism’s most important spaces — and one of its frontlines in on-going conflicts between religion and secularism.

Whether there are lessons for Australia remains to be seen, for our politics are very different to those of America. But what happens in America still tends to influence the rest of the Western world. And an organisation like the Catholic Church, which aspires to universal global leadership, cannot afford to ignore such potentially momentous developments.





Dr Miles Pattenden is Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Australian Catholic University. His books include Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2017) and he is and Co-Editor of The Journal of Religious History (2022–).

Main image: Man holds a cross during a prayer outside the U.S. Supreme Court on May 5, 2022 in Washington, DC (Tom Brenner / Stringer).

Topic tags: Miles Pattenden, Pope Benedict, the Church, sexual abuse crisis, accountability



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Existing comments

As long as the Catholic hierarchy are consistent and advocate total and absolute pacifism - no wars, no military, no armaments industry. Unlike abortion and euthanasia (done to relieve suffering), wars are done to inflict suffering. A purist deontological ethics that opposes all abortion must surely oppose all killing by war, including the deaths caused by the money siphoned away from health, education and welfare to spend on weapons.

Peter Schulz | 26 May 2022  

There is no real “Bishops’ dilemma” regarding the infamous (61 million babies killed in the US since Roe), not “famous” decision of Roe v Wade.
The long-held teaching of the Catholic Church, that “Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” (Gaudium et Spes, 51), was last year reiterated by Pope Francis who stated: “Abortion is murder…Those who carry out abortions kill.”
Christ is Truth. But the reaction of many Catholics to the possible overturning of Roe v Wade makes clear their conviction that His truth must be set aside because it “is so out of kilter with societal norms.”
Dorothy Day wrote in her diaries “Of course the Church is corrupt” and “I never expected much from bishops.”
If the bishops had done their job properly over the last 50 years, we might not now have prominent pro-abortion Catholics politicians like Nancy Pelosi, who last year announced she would seek to codify Roe into US law, saying that overturning Roe would be “an abomination”, the complete reverse of the “abominable crime” the Church teaches it to be.

Ross Howard | 27 May 2022  
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“is so out of kilter with societal norms.”

Which, for a baptised Catholic or Christian, is putting the cart before the horse because norms in the created world, by definition, come from norms in the creating world.

It seems to be coming to the point where a pre-qualification for standing for legislative office should be passing Philosophy 101.

roy chen yee | 27 May 2022  

Ross, you are a total and absolute pacifist? If not, why is embryonic, undeveloped human life sacred, but the living, breathing, independently-viable lives slaughtered with much greater suffering in war not as sacred?

Peter Schulz | 27 May 2022  

They are sacred, but no doubt Ukrainians who suffered 7 to 10 million deaths by deliberate starvation under Stalin’s Holodomor, prefer to fight and die rather than live under Putin’s heel.

Ross Howard | 31 May 2022  

One of the main arguments used in favour of abortion on demand is that a woman has absolute rights over her own body. However, modern science has shown us that the foetus is not part of her body like, for example,her appendix. The foetus has a different DNA and so is a foreigner within the mother's body. I believe this foreigner is not the property of its mother and father but, in its own right, is a member of the human family even though, in its early stages, it cannot live outside the mother's body. The power to transmit human life is the greatest power people may have. We must all respect it and use it responsably.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 27 May 2022  

Abortion is an issue which can indeed stand on its own, even though it is part of a wider and more comprehensive Catholic morality. It is interesting the way the Catholic episcopate have handled the matter of pro-abortion Catholic politicians in the USA. Nancy Pelosi has been denied from receiving Communion in certain dioceses, notably the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Both she and a local area newspaper have launched vicious personal attacks on Archbishop Cordileone of SF. The newspaper even called for the Pope to sack the Archbishop. The Catholic bishops all made it clear that this ban was pastoral, not an attempt to interfere in politics. This can be a line that many in politics, the media and certain self-styled 'feminists' are happy to cross. California is one of the most woke states in the USA. I think the Catholic hierarchy need to hold firm quietly and determinedly. If Roe v Wade is overturned by the Justices of the US Supreme Court, those who object to this need to realise the Justices are acting in their capacities as the interpreters of the Constitution and are not marionettes of anyone else.

Edward Fido | 27 May 2022  
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‘Nancy Pelosi has been denied from receiving Communion in certain dioceses, notably the Archdiocese of San Francisco’. It seems unclear whether or not she’s been excommunicated from the Universal Church or from the handful of Churches whose Bishops have instructed their priests to follow the same instruction given by Archbishop Corleone in San Francisco. I’d have thought excommunication is excommunication, regardless of the accuracy of the judgement. Some, but not others, seem keen to excommunicate Speaker Pelosi but not President Biden on similar grounds. Are the American Bishops not totally united in spirit and discernment with each other? Is the entire Magisterium conflicted within itself? Surely not! Miles Pattenden’s question (about the response of the Bishops if Roe vs Wade is overturned) seems predicated on the idea that the Bishops are still able to speak to each other at all. Let’s pray that’s the case.

Joan Seymour | 27 May 2022  

"Don't confuse me with facts, I've made up my mind". That's how so much of the so-called "pro-life" position seems to me. The wonderful recent article by Andrew < https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/why-bother-about-trying-to-communicate > on the importance of listening seems not to have been noticed by Ross. Peter Schultz's position makes a lot more sense to me.

Ginger Meggs | 27 May 2022  
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“Don't do unto others what you don't want done unto you.” Confucius. When you drown someone, you drown with them. Jewish quote. Women who objectify their bodies are delusional... When a women's body is old and unable to have children, nor walk, nor do any of the other things she used to enjoy doing, including saying "this is my body, and I can do what l want with it"... "To abort is my right". She will come to understand: Total conciseness is the attainment of love and respect for oneself and all living creatures and the highest realization of the soul. This is the lesson behind an aborted foetus...The end realization (the total attainment of conciseness) of the soul of the mother who aborted it.

PAX | 03 June 2022  

Odd concept referred to in the first paragraph. The concept suggests that an international scientific consensus of fact should never stand in the way of a demand for consumer choice.

Michael Clanchy | 27 May 2022  
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Zealous Christians like the author of the paper cited by Michael really shouldn't try to enlist 'science' to support their previously adopted positions. Would the author have published if the results of his study had not supported his preconceptions? I doubt it. More importantly, would the author himself have changed his own views? Not in month of Sundays, and there's the rub. If you want to play at science then you need to accept the possibility that you may be wrong.

Ginger Meggs | 28 May 2022  

Is the science really as unequivocally 'settled' as you claim Michael ? Here is another view < https://theconversation.com/when-human-life-begins-is-a-question-of-politics-not-biology-165514 >.

Ginger Meggs | 27 May 2022  
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Anybody can come up with a 'view'.

What makes Sarkar's comments on the first four of Gilbert's stages 'unequivocally settled' to you? (Sarker doesn't comment on the fifth, but 'birth' per se only confirms, not defines, the existence of a human. Shining daylight on a disinterred corpse doesn't make it human; it was human before. The same applies to a foetus coming into open air. It was already human.)

All of his comments on Gilbert's stages can be rebutted.
But, since you introduced this link, you go first.

roy chen yee | 30 May 2022  

You've misunderstood me Roy. I wasn't suggesting that anything is 'unequivocally settled', quite the opposite. Rather, I was suggesting that Michael's citation could be seen as an example of cherry-picking.

Ginger Meggs | 14 June 2022  

I am a retired teacher. In retirement I worked with a stable of secondary schools preparing their senior students for the now defunct Queensland Core Skills' Test an important part of which was the writing of a six-hundred word essay on a given theme. The students were assessed on how they wrote rather than what they wrote. I did this for twenty years.
In that time my clientele covered all types of secondary schools. Mathematicians consulted, assured me that my sample was big enough to make relevant generalisations whose validity could not be questioned on that basis.
After reading and commenting on literally thousands of these essays, I can vouch for the fact that not one of my young Catholic school clients wrote anything that could be interpreted as being remotely in agreement with Catholic moral teaching on abortion, euthanasia or same-sex-marriage. Their climate change responses echoed Laudato Si even before that worthy encyclical saw the light of day.
As my brief was to comment on the literary value of these pieces, their general lack of theological accuracy had no part in my assessments. Many of them I rated fairly highly as pieces of literary persuasion.
However I have since questioned frequently what value Catholics and the Church generally are getting from their continued assumption that its schools are effective means of evangelisation.
My stable was generally about twenty, mostly large, senior high schools.

Grebo | 28 May 2022  

While I personally disagree with abortion, I would pose questions to the church: What have we done to make it unnecessary? Do we hear thunderous sermons from the pulpit asking us to sell all we own and give to the poor (Matt 19:21; Luke 18:22) so that those who think they need to abort a child because they cannot afford to feed the ones they already have are given a third option. Do we consider contraception, when the male partner insists on conjugal rights with no thought, because he does not have to bear the child, and can run away scott free? There are still priests who tell women to forgive their abusive partners, rather than leave them. And what of the rights of minors made pregnant by rape or is that too close to the bone for a church shamed by its own complicity in sexual abuse? What happens to a 14 year old pregnant to her father?
The current argument in the US is argued to be pro-life, but all the protesters stand and ask for the child to be born, but do little to allow that child to have a life. The likelihood of those opposing abortion to turning up to also call for gun reform is low - the correlation between the antiabortion lobby and the gun lobby is high.
Until we all truly work towards solving the problems that make abortion an option to be considered, the problem will continue.

Peter B | 01 June 2022  

Invariably delayed in my comment, because the pace of publication deters ES writers from responding as often as they might, this insightful essay inevitably and disappointingly attracts some energetic if predictable opposition, despite the luminosity of its focus exceeding its partisanship.

Among the more measured of these appear to be Peter Schultz's as well as, so far, Peter B's. As a committed opponent of abortion on demand, it seems that Peter limits his observations to generously err on the side of civility rather than truth.

Thus, it shouldn't also go unnoticed that the spate of Bishops who supported Trump and the Republicans on Roe Vs Wade were also manifestly silent and therefore culpable on the question of excluding Latin American refugees from the long-term political instability and economic poverty to which they are condemned, often as a result of the egregiously unjust policies perpetrated by tin-pot dictators, installed in a previous era by the CIA and as a result of whose mismanagement and brutality asylum sought in the United States appears to be a just solution.

Add to that the questionable personal morality of Trump and its no wonder that +Benardin cautioned about the 'Two Sides of Christ's Seamless Shroud'.

Michael Furtado | 04 June 2022  
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Shroud? You should re-read the Passion. The soldiers weren't casting lots for a shroud.

roy chen yee | 10 June 2022