In recent months, as demonstrations in support of and in opposition to the existence of abortion clinics have taken place in major cities throughout Canada, the level of debate concerning abortion has deteriorated. The major organs of mass communication have contributed to or have at least been passive agents of an illegitimate attack upon the Catholic Church. News stories in The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, as well as the commentaries of columnists in both newspapers, reported that in opposing abortion the Church is attempting to impose its particular religious beliefs on the rest of society. This charge is false. Not one story, not one column presented accurately the position of the Catholic Church.
Reason, not faith
The fact that the Catholic Church advances a particular argument does not mean that the argument depends upon faith. And the Church’s argument that abortion is the taking of innocent human life is not based on faith. This fact remains unassailable regardless of whether or not one accepts the validity of the particular argument.
To ask when human life begins is to ask a scientific question. To distinguish between the change from non-human to human existence and the changes which occur in a developing human being is a function of the natural sciences. The rational investigation of nature does not require any special religious faith. Ethical conclusions concerning who rightfully belongs to the human community and ought thus to be accorded fundamental protection against injustice in all its forms do not require any special religious faith. The position that abortion is the taking of a human life does not in any way depend upon Christian faith. The position that it is wrong to take the life of an innocent unborn child does not in any way depend upon Christian faith.
All the evidence of the modern biological sciences, especially genetics, indicates that it is conception which marks the beginning of each new human being. If the arguments that lead to the conclusion that the fetus from conception is a member of the human family are false, then let them be shown to be false in the court of reason and science: the court in which the arguments are made in the first instance. The nature of the fetus, and the ethical considerations which flow from that nature, are questions resolvable in those branches of human knowledge which investigate the nature of nature and the nature of man.
Abortion is wrong, is immoral, because it violates the justice of the natural order: because the fetus is human and because it is unjust to take an innocent human life. The principle of religious pluralism is irrelevant to the question, since the claim that abortion is unjust is not a religious claim.
The Catholic Church has spoken out forcefully against abortion – as it has also spoken out forcefully against other social evils. When the Church condemns slavery, sexual exploitation, economic oppression, unjust wars, and the like, the Church does not thereby make such evils evil; rather the Church teaches the faithful that since such actions are unjust they are sinful. When the Church supports the enactment of laws which protect the rights of the oppressed, the Church does so not to have unjust acts designated as sins, but rather to urge society to fulfill its own nature, that is, to be just. Abortion is wrong because it is a violation of natural justice. It is an offence against God because it is an offence against the natural order. That abortion is a sin is a matter of faith; that it is a violation of the natural order is not a matter of faith.
Role of faith
What is the role of faith in the judgment that abortion is wrong? Genesis reveals and the rest of Scripture confirms that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Human life, thus, is especially sacred. The Bible is not a biology textbook; it does not tell us when human life begins. But it does teach, for those who believe, that a human life is more than that which the natural sciences are able to describe. The resurrection of the body, the need for grace, the promise of salvation: all these truths and more about man are strictly the province of revelation. For a Catholic, faith completes one’s understanding of nature; faith neither replaces nor destroys what we know through reason. The truth is one and God is its author.
What reason discovers to be so, faith does not contradict, and what faith affirms to be true, reason cannot disprove: such at least is the position of the Catholic Church. What the Bible reveals about the sacredness of human life completes and perfects what reason knows about the beginning and nature of that life. Catholics are encouraged by what they believe in faith to argue forcefully for what they know through reason to be true, especially when this knowledge concerns fundamental principles of justice. Similarly, when religious leaders call for sanctions against South Africa or participate in civil rights’ marches or speak out against the horrors of nuclear war they may well be motivated by a deeply held faith. But we ought not to confuse a particular motivation based upon faith with the rational recognition of injustice and the call for its eradication.
By saying that abortion is a sin, by condemning it as a violation of God’s law, and by forbidding Catholics, under pain of sin, from procuring or in any way participating in or encouraging abortions, the Church acts authoritatively within the faith which all Catholics share. The Church does not ask politicians, Catholic or non-Catholic, to pass laws condemning abortion as a sin. The Church does ask all politicians to act in the name of truth and justice to outlaw the murder of innocent human beings: this is a call to truth and to justice, not to faith. The Church considers her mandate to make such a claim upon civil authorities to be divine in origin – and a divine mandate only recognized by those who share her faith. However, the claim itself, the demand that the social and political order be one of truth and justice, and, in particular, the claim that abortion is unjust, is made within the order of reason, an order in which everyone, regardless of faith, participates. For the Church to call for a society in which the basic rights of all, including the unborn, are appropriately respected, is not an attempt to impose some religious doctrine peculiar to the Catholic faith. The Catholic Church recognizes that in public discourse, that is in the arena of public morality, it is reason and not faith which serves as the criterion of justice.