March of the Idiots (V)


In the encyclical Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict the XVI noted the confusion that often accompanies the contemporary understanding of love. Charity, (love) which once marked the height of the human experience and formed the essential grounding of human relations, shares an indelible link with truth. But more than just a shift in semantics, the modern misunderstanding of love ends up robbing it of its essence:

Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space. (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 3)

Sadly, Christianity has not been immune to this notional shift, too often subsuming the profound nature of love to whatever cultural meanings currently hold sway. The result of this accommodation is that the force of the Christian understanding of love is gutted of any meaning:

A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from the plans and processes of promoting human development of universal range, in dialogue between knowledge and praxis. (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 4)

Love without truth is thus not really love at all, but real just a misapplied sentimentality, substituting emotional gratification for the true good of another. The implications of this in many current cultural issues is not hard to grasp, especially the more contentious the issue becomes. Archimandrite Raphael Karelin likewise examines the distinction between compassion and sentimentality:

Compassion is founded on love for someone: love renders the other party as it were, another “self,” one with you. Sentimentality is grounded in self-love: it makes one sad not as the result of the suffering of the other person, but rather from one’s own ruined mood; instead of striving to put an end to suffering in the world, it strives to put the images of suffering out of one’s field of vision…

Sentimentality is not love, but rather, morbid impressionability, chronic, suppressed hysterics taking the place of love. (Archimandrite Raphael Karelin)

Compassion, in its etymology, simply means to suffer with someone. And while we may do all we can to alleviate suffering, a true compassion is not necessarily about avoiding or remedying another’s suffering, but to be with them through it, and by doing so to suffer along side them.

Sentimentality, on the other hand, begins and ends with emotion, and- since emotions are both amoral and fickle- can really not serve the interests of love or compassion since the sentimentality cannot go beyond itself. It cannot suffer alongside another since its suffering is entirely self-directed and insular; sentimentality, as Karelin noticed, is ultimately more concerned about its internal discomfort than the good of the other, whereas compassion reaches beyond itself and can suffer with another and truly love another because it is interested in the other’s good in accordance with truth.

When the truth is eliminated, as Benedict XVI mentions, all we are left with is a hollowed out version of love and compassion, and- instead of bringing us into solidarity with the other and his suffering- actually makes true relations and relationships impossible.

This initial assessment of the distinction between compassion and sentimentality is crucial for understanding the many moral impasses which conflict many contemporary cultures, especially in the West. Highly contentious issues such as abortion are highly charged with emotion already, and without understanding the nature of compassion can easily lead one astray into a vacuous sentimentality. This is an especial temptation for Christians, since compassion and love can be easily mistaken for something else entirely, which is more marked the more contentious the issue becomes.

Recently The Daily Beast published an article entitled A Christian Case for Abortion Rights? in which this consideration was markedly evident. The by-line is especially germane:

“Wendy Davis’ abortion revelations raise the question: Can abortion be the most compassionate choice? Some religious leaders say yes.”

When news broke that Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis had previously terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons, she received words of compassion from a surprising source. A spokesperson for Texas Right to Life called “the value of life precious” but nevertheless also stated, “Our heart goes out for the decision she had to make.”

Although this article ostensibly doesn’t intend to take sides, one cannot help but notice that the mask has already slipped a little, in the unspoken dichotomy introduced between the Texas Right to Life and an expression of compassion for a woman who has had an abortion. This is evident in that such an expression of compassion is noted as coming from a “surprising source,” as if holding a right-to-life view prescinds one from having compassion for those who choose abortions.

Davis makes it clear this was a pregnancy that was greeted with joy, and that the aftermath caused great sorrow. But she expressed no regrets mainly because of her concerns about how much her fetus suffered before termination.

The logic here is remarkably cloudy, to say that least. It is admitted that there was concern of the fetus suffering before termination, but no regret for causing the fetus even more suffering during termination. Why, it might be asked, is one form of suffering a concern but another (as the article will ask) a compassionate one?

Her candid confession gets at the heart of the debate for many over the issue of abortion, particularly people of faith: Can abortion sometimes be the most compassionate choice?

Since abortion is the ending of a human life, we could replace the euphemism and rephrase this: Can murdering a human being sometimes be the most compassionate choice? The opening quote from Benedict XVI would seem apropos, as ‘compassion’ here ends up being delinked from truth and distorted, made to mean the opposite, which is what enables us to even ask if murder can be a compassionate choice.

More pointedly, can supporting abortion rights be compatible with Christianity?

It would seem that this question really gets to heart of the shift and the distortion, as the only way in which the question can be asked vis-a-vis Christianity is to reframe the question (and the morality of the question) from the act itself to the choice of the act, couched in the language of rights. Hence, the question asked is not “Can supporting abortion be compatible with Christianity.” Rather, the semantic shift to the language of rights provides rationalization for what would be an otherwise nearly identical question.

Since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationally, efforts to criminalize it have been led in large part by high-profile religious leaders, religious groups, and activists whose politics are defined in large part by their religious identity. In the 41 years since Roe, the Religious Right, (sometimes called the Christian Right), has become a major force in national politics, with each Republican president since Ronald Reagan owing his election to its key players, among them Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and others. Their influence in politics and ubiquity in the media created the impression that being religious, particularly identifying as a Christian, means opposing abortion.

The political speculation of this paragraph notwithstanding, the author of this piece badly misses in the final sentence by indulging in a bit of anachronism. The opposition of Christianity to abortion has been ubiquitous since its earliest days, and the reason that there is an impression that identifying as a Christian entails opposition to abortion is that, historically speaking, that has actually been the case. It was not until the past century that one would begin to find disagreement on that, whether politically or religiously.

Framing the relation between Christianity and abortion as a primarily political one- which this paragraph seems to intend- reveals a kind of historical and methodological myopism.

But interviews with various clergy members and religious scholars indicate that there is far from a consensus that “Christian” = “opposed to abortion.”

This statement reveals the historical myopia quite clearly, while also being terribly nebulous. Various clergy and religious scholars indicate a lack of consensus, we are told, but what sort of scope are we talking about for consensus? Right now? The past ten years? The past thousand years?

Rev. Jacqui Lewis, who holds a PhD in psychology and religion, wrote in an email, “I am a practicing Christian and I am pro-choice. Those are compatible.” She elaborated, “I am a Christian, a pastor, a counselor and I know from counseling that when women make this decision, it is a painful one, often a heart breaking one. But personally, I believe it is their right to decide, in conversation with their partner or spouse, their family, their spiritual leader and their God.”

It is important to notice again that question isn’t framed in terms of whether abortion is morally right or not, but rather is couched in the language of rights and choice. Lewis here seems to poorly understand the nature of moral choice. Couching moral decisions in the language of difficulty or pain or of heartbreak descends into the language of sentimentality, which indicates that the moral question is being divorced from the truth.

The reality is that no moral decision is easy, and some of course are very difficult. That is why we do not often do what is right, because it is usually far easier to choose something else. If it were easy or pleasurable or without cost to choose to do right, we would all be effortless saints. But our fallen condition (from the traditional Christian view of human nature) means that moral questions will always be a struggle and will nearly always cost us to choose what is right, if for no other reason than our tendency is to choose the easier path, even if it is morally wrong.

This is why, within the traditional Christian view of human nature, it is both entirely possible- as the Texas Right to Life vignette indicates- to have sympathy and compassion for difficult and heart breaking situations and choices while simultaneously holding that certain decisions and acts are wrong.

Penny Nance, President of Concerned Women for America, one of the most influential conservative women’s groups in the nation, disagreed strongly. Concerned Women for America describes its mission as “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens,” and Nance considers a core part of that work advocating the end of legalized abortion. In an email, Nance wrote: “People who truly believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and have actually read it cannot honestly conclude that abortion is not a sin that damages a woman’s soul and stains her conscience.”

While I do not necessarily disagree with Nance’s perspective here, it strikes me as a potentially self-defeating argument in that the sureness of the conclusion seems couched almost entirely in the interpretation one gives to the Bible and whatever relevant passages are concerned. Indeed, one could believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and yet interpret the passages differently or as having no bearing on the question of abortion for various reasons. When the criterion becomes one’s own interpretation, believing and reading do not assure a similar conclusion.

Despite being a survivor of an assault and attempted rape, Nance has remained steadfast in her belief that abortion is the taking of a life and therefore not compatible with being a devout Christian, even though she did stress she believes in forgiveness and redemption. “It is not enough to make abortion illegal,” she wrote. “We strive to make it unthinkable.”

The author seems to let the mask slip a little bit more, here drawing out a potential contradiction between being a survivor of attempted rape and believing that abortion is the taking of a life. But why, it may be reasonably asked, should this be couched in this manner? Why might not “Because” be used instead of “Despite”? After all, since Nance perceives the taking of a life as not being compatible with being a devout Christian, might she not see her experience of an injustice as something which would compel her not to allow a greater injustice?

This interpretation of the Bible is shared by Dr. Corne J. Bekker, who cited a number of scriptures that he believes make the position of the church on abortion clear. Bekker, chairman of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson, pointed most notably to the commandment against murder.

These final sentence again seem to underline the author’s misunderstanding of the relation between Christianity and abortion vis-a-vis politics, since a rather needless biographical detail (Regent University being founded by Pat Robertson, spoken of a few paragraphs earlier) is inserted here.

He concluded, “It is my opinion that Christians should be united in their opposition of all forms of abortion, with the one exception of an urgent medical condition where both the mother and the unborn baby would die unless a termination of the pregnancy would occur.”

Owing to the difficulty of such a choice, and given the uncertainty of what may or may not occur, such an exception is understandable, if not consistent with the commandment against murder, for even if the pregnancy is terminated for the very best of reasons, one might well ask how that is not still murder, under Bekker’s definitions. Since I am sympathetic to his overall position I do not wish to carry the point too far, but merely to point out that the termination of a pregnancy need not necessarily be an exception to an injunction against murder. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, for example, double-effect (as classically articulated and understood) would allow for the removal of the fallopian tube without being morally equivalent as an abortion, since the purpose would be to treat the malfunctioning organ rather than to terminate the pregnancy.

Yet there are four primary complications for many Christians when it comes to defining their positions on abortion. The first is the unresolved debate within Christianity regarding the extent to which our modern-day actions should be governed by Old Testament law. In addition to the passage from Exodus cited above, there are all sorts of directives about sacrificing bulls and turtledoves that are no longer held to ironclad interpretation and practice by 21st-century Christians and clergy.

I will reinforce her point- sacrificing bulls and doves has not been held to an ironclad interpretation since the Council of Jerusalem by Christians and clergy. In fact, the nature of the debate in this regard is a bit overstated since the earliest Christians and leaders made it abundantly clear that Christians were not required to abide by Jewish ceremonial law. Yet these same leaders held that the commandments were still binding, thus demonstrating that there has always been a distinction in Christian thought between the ceremonial and ritualistic law of the Old Testament and the moral precepts that that Christians were still bound to adhere to.

The next complication is the lack of scientific and religious clarity over how to define when life begins.

The lack of scientific clarity is something that would be more characteristic of earlier centuries, and even then Christians still held to a prohibition of abortion. In the present day, however, there is far less (if any) lack of clarity that a distinct life begins at fertilization; the debate is actually not a scientific one but a philosophical one, namely- is that new life/human being a person accorded the rights of other persons?

As far as religious clarity- I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to mean. It could be that the author has mistaken “metaphysical” for “religious” in the same way that she conflated scientific with philosophical.

The third issue for debate among devout Christians regarding abortion rights, and one of the most important, is determining whether something that one may believe morally to be wrong or even a sin should be legislated.

Since Christians have traditionally understood abortion to be murder, the question would most pertinently be construed as “should murder be something that is legislated against?”

As an aside, I don’t know if the author intended to set up the all-too obvious reductio or not.

But perhaps the greatest complication of all is this: What if an action you would normally interpret as constituting a sin results in an outcome that appears more compassionate for all involved, such as in Wendy Davis’ case?

The key word here, of course, is “appears,” as using ends to justify means generally appears to entail a greater good. From the Christian perspective, St. Paul seems to have answered this question quite a long time ago by means of another reductio: “Let us do evil that good may result.”

In a phone interview Davis said there are texts for some religions that address abortion specifically, such as in ancient Babylonia, but this is not the case in Christianity: “There is no law against abortion in the Bible. There is no law about birth control in the Bible. So when you don’t have a specific guidance on something, you look at what is the most human thing to do in a situation, what is most helpful and sometimes abortion is indicated.”

There may be no ‘thou shalt not’ about abortion specifically, but Mr. Davis misses the fact that the injunction against abortion in historic Christian thought has been directly related to the commandment against murder, which makes this argument non sequitur.

But far deeper is Davis’ confusion on the source of guidance for lack of direction; namely, the most human thing to do. One might well ask what exactly that is supposed to entail, as humans do all sorts of things in all sorts of situations, both saintly and demonic. The ‘human’ thing to do is by no means self-evident, and thus a rather poor source of guidance on difficult moral issues. Such a notion also descends into the sentimentalism we have noticed before, since the question from a truly compassionate point of view is not “what is the most human thing to do” but rather “what is the right thing to do?”

It is also interesting to note that the murder of a human life is here characterized as something which is sometimes “helpful,” which is certainly an interesting euphemism to justify murder.

Blaming sexism for much of the organized opposition to abortion among religious leaders, he said, “There are many reasons why a woman needs an abortion. Sometimes rape, sometimes because she says ‘I can’t be responsible for this child and can’t bring a child into this world I can’t care for.’”

There seems to be a categorical error from Davis here. No one necessarily argues that there aren’t reasons for abortion, be they good or bad. The sticking point from historic Christian thought is that there is no justifying reason for committing an evil act, even if the ends of that act are ostensibly good. The reason for this is that Christian thought has historically understood sin as privation, and thus given the axiom that from nothing, nothing comes, it is impossible for evil human acts to have a good end in and of themselves.

This is especially true when a previous evil or injustice has been committed, since murdering the new life would only compound the already extant evil.

He also said from a compassionate standpoint as a Christian if one knows women could face injury and death while trying to obtain illegal abortions, then standing in the way is willfully contributing to tragedy.

This is simply not compassion, but rather an inane sentimentality couched in even more egregious logic. Simply because one might be harmed by trying to commit an evil act does entail that the prevention of or legislation against that act is a necessarily contributing factor to the harm that results. Rather, the blame or guilt is on the one who intends to carry out an evil act or who actually commits it. The harm that may result from that act is morally not a direct consequence of the prohibition or prevention (although it may certainly be latent), but is a direct consequence from the decision to commit the act.

Compassion- which, as we saw earlier, must be attached to the truth- simply does not come into play here in the way Davis characterizes it. True compassion would actually try to dissuade the person (in any situation) from bringing harm to themselves in a double manner; both by committing an evil act and because of the harm that might be a consequence of it.

Jon O’Brien, a devout Catholic and president of Catholics for Choice, explained that Catholicism values the expertise of the faith’s great scholars, and that among them, Saint Augustine and Saint Aquinas did not consider a fetus in the earliest stages of pregnancy to be a person.

It is true that Catholicism values the expertise of its scholars. And the way that O’Brien phrases Augustine’s & Aquinas’ position is actually technically correct. However, it draws a very incorrect conclusion because of the vast amount of pertinent information it leaves out.

For both Augustine and Aquinas, Aristotelian biology was the scientific monolith of the day. Most Christians and non-Christians accepted it as fairly accurately describing reality, or at least saw no reason to dismiss much of it. Aristotelian biology likened the marital act as akin to sowing seed, which is why the semen was often referred to as “seed,” whereas the female provided the “matter.” For the ancients, the seed had a sort of spirit of its own, which was the power of principle or formation for the new life, which wasn’t vivified until either 40 or 90 days after conception, depending on the sex.

Importantly, the semen’s having this spirit of formation in itself meant that the new life which was only vivified after the requisite days did not have its own active and organizing principle until the semen dissolved and ceased to exist. While moderns tend to give the term “soul” a specifically spiritual meaning, for the ancients it was the life force of anything that was alive.

This being the case, the ancients did not even think that the fetus was something that was alive (or at least something which had a human substance) and which had its own active principle until the 40/90 days. Thus, for the pre-vivification period the ancients (under the false premises of Aristotelian biology) did not even consider the infant to be of the same substance of its parents, since the virtus formativa organized the raw matter progressively from vegetative life to sensitive life to animal life.

Importantly, since Aquinas essentially accepted Boethius’ understanding of a person as an individual substance of a rational nature, at the point of vivification the fetus would have been understood as of the same substance as its parents, and thus possessive of a rational soul; i.e., a person by virtue of being a human being who was alive.

Additionally, while Aquinas did not consider the pre-vivified substance to be alive (or even human for that matter, since the virtus formativa had not yet organized it), he also did not hold that the termination of the pre-vivified substance was licit. In one of his works he counts it a grave evil (notwithstanding the status of vivification) since the act is ultimately a suppression of human life.

St. Augustine, on the other hand, is more explicit in that there was considerable ignorance surrounding the notion of vivification. He likewise holds abortion to be an evil, even in the case of a non-vivified fetus, since it destroys the conceived seed that will lead to offspring, in a sense killing it before it was alive, but certainly killing it before it was born.

As such, whether or not their faulty biological notions led them to assign personhood to a (in their minds) non-vivified fetus is actually quite beside the point, since both held with the established Christian tradition that abortion at any time was an evil to be avoided.

In summary, Augustine and Aquinas’ view on the vivification of the fetus was not a theological or moral view, but rather a (for lack of a better term) scientific one which incorporated the biological knowledge of their day. It is curious that O’Brien commends an immensely faulty understanding of human biology and embryology in defense of abortion; although one might be forgive for suspecting that the argument here is not really serious in respecting the ‘expertise’ of Christianity’s scholars, but rather because it is a rather shallow attempt at a “gotcha.” O’Brien’s problem, of course, is that even in spite of their woefully deficient scientific understanding they still did not advocate that abortion before vivification was licit.

The Catholic faith is rooted in emphasizing the importance of following one’s conscience, he said, and for some women that will mean choosing to terminate a pregnancy because that is what is best as they see it.

O’Brien’s characterization here is likewise incomplete and thus misleading. For the Catholic faith it is not merely a matter of following one’s conscience, but rather following a well-formed conscience, which entails a conscience that has been formed in conformity with the church’s dogmas and moral teachings, including the prohibition against abortion.

Priests who try to bully those who are pro-choice out of taking communion are behaving in a “disgraceful” manner and are using the sacrament as a “political football,” he said.

O’Brien once again mischaracterizes the situation, since performing, procuring or promulgating abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae, due to the nature of the offense itself. And those who are excommunicate cannot licitly receive communion, which means that the characterization of bullying again misses the point.

He also accused the Catholic hierarchy of being “stuck in the pelvic zone.” He concluded, “We do respect them, but it doesn’t mean they are always right. And on issues of sexuality they are profoundly wrong.”

O’Brien again confuses the situation, since many areas of Catholic sexual ethics are dogmatically defined, which makes them not merely the property of the hierarchy but part and parcel of the deposit of faith.

[Gloria] Feldt, who now runs Take the Lead, a group devoted to increasing gender parity in leadership positions, predicted women’s leadership may ultimately play a defining role in where faith and reproductive rights intersect in the future. “If you think about the underlying misogyny in the history of most major religions, it’s not surprising we’ve been dealing with these issues [reproductive rights] in those terms,” she said.

I see that begging the question is always waiting in the wings.

“I do believe that the ascent of more women in the clergy, at least in the mainstream religions at this point, is going to make a huge difference. They simply see the world through a different lens.”

Feldt here seems to presume that women are a monolith for abortion, when the actual state of things is that they are not.


And thus we have the Christian case for abortion.

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