Why not indeed?

Katolik Shinja asks why the Church doesn’t just go ahead and excommunicate all Pro-Abortionists from its ranks like it did with Segregationists.

Here’s my thinking:

  1. My suspicion is that the population of the North American and European Church — or pretty much the Church in any developed country — would diminish to a small portion of its current size. I suspect that’s why this would never happen. Of course, that, and the fact that Segregationism was a social practice, thus more easily detected and repudiated; abortion, as a medical procedure, is performed in isolation, and is not so easily detectable. This is why the focus thus far has been on abortionists and not on the large numbers of Catholics who have few or no problems with abortion. strategically, it doesn’t make sense since this excommunication cannot be enforced by any means… and because those Catholics who disagree with this part of Church doctrine are unlikely to take excommunication seriously, either. It’s kind of like excommunicating all gays — you’re more likely to annoy all gays, or provoke their mockery, since (a) most of them have already left of their own accord, and (b) the few who remain likely won’t be convinced no matter what’s said or done, and certainly won’t be if they’re offended and “cast out”.
  2. I suspect that to too many people whose lives are dedicated to the following and furthering of Jesus’ teachings, this smacks too much of playing God in a kind of hurried-up Final Judgment. After all, isn’t excommunication something that got used mostly during the time when the Church was defending its socio-political domination of Europe? What does the Church have to gain by exercising this kind of power over people at a given state in their lives — say, a week from next Thursday — and thereby closing its doors on them? As any good Catholic ought to know, people can change their minds, their ways of living. Since this change of heart — “repentance” — remains possible, it stands to reason that excommunication on the grounds of a mere opinion is wrongful and overkill… and will look silly to much of the outside world, as well, which won’t help.
  3. Following after #2, doesn’t it make sense, even as a remote possibility, that the Vatican would exercise caution in its decrees of excommunication because not to do so would be arrogant? I mean, follow the slippery slope: if it becomes possible to excommunicate people for differing on the grounds of this or that doctrine, then it becomes possible to excommunicate people on grounds of other doctrines. This opens the door to the dismantling of the Church by those who are elected as agents of the Church. This would even be more dangerous that a priest who who showed sympathy to pro-abortion views, because it would open the very dangerous door to abuse of Church powers — something that in fact has happened in the past, as anyone who knows Church/European history is aware. Caution is a very good self-control safeguard against this kind of slippery slope.

There you are. I think those are three (or two-and-a-half, at least) very straightforward reasons why the Church wouldn’t excommunicate pro-abortionists.

By the way, I’m still thinking vaguely about writing an SF novel centering on a low-ranking cleric going through something like this on a some kind of Catholic generation-ship crossing the galaxy, and about what kind of doctrinal change would have happened by the time he is born on this ship — and what kind of doctrinal change would have happened in the relativistically-diverged Church back on Earth. Pro-choice, according to this article at The Revealer, is the official stance of lots of Christian churches. Is it so unimaginable that one branch of The Catholic Church might come to accept some version of contraception, someday far in the future? Such shifts haven’t been unheard-of in the past.

7 thoughts on “Why not indeed?

  1. As an extension of 1) I recall reading somewhere that a large number of those anti abortion protesters who hang around outside clinics actually go for abortions themselves on a regular basis, often travelling large distances to go to another clinic or trying to sneak in the back door. Of course their abortion is “different and ok” compared to those other people in the clinic. So yeah, it would be a very empty church indeed.

  2. Hello Gord,

    I must admit that my original post was ambiguous. After all, it was nothing more than a question and a link. [My blog’s primary purpose is to link.] I think you hit the nail on the head with #3.

    The segregationists that were excommunicated in the ’60s were Catholics school principals who refused to integrate their Catholic schools. They were in positions of authority and openly dissented from Church teaching.

    A member of the laity with segregationist views would not have been excommunicated. Holding such views would never be grounds for excommunication, although it could be considered sinful.

    Similarly, privately holding pro-abortion views could never be grounds for excommunication, not should it be.

    However, when it comes to groups like Catholics for Free Choice, for example, who use the Catholic name but oppose Church teaching, that’s a different story. Pro-abortion Catholic politicians pose a similar problem. These were the folks I was thinking of. Rome, however, has not seen it fit to excommunicate any of these these folks. Rome had spoken, or, in this case, Rome has not spoken.

    [It must be remembered, the Church is not a democracy in the common sense of the term, not could it ever be. It is much more than that, as Chesterton noted, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.” It’s all too easy to be blinded by our age.]

    Whatever the case, excommunication is always the last resort, and one can always return to the fold. Only 26 people were excommunicated during the reign of Pope John Paul the Great; that’s about one a year. What other organization of a billion people would kick out only one a year?

    [About abortion, let me just say that I know from whence I speak; I, like the Servant of God Dorothy Day, am much closer to the issue than I wish to be.]

    About you SF novel premise, truth is even stranger than fiction. If we look to what the Catholic Church taught 2,000 years ago, when the Mediterranean was a Roman lake and Britain was still Celtic it is absolutely the same as what she teaches today. Having an Anglican cleric on your ship would make more sense. Or, you might take a New England Puritan and turn him into a Transcendentalist in less than 200 years, but that’s already been done.

    About Contraception, which you mentioned, the Anglicans said it was okay in 1930 and the rest of Protestantism followed. The Orthodox have no made clear statement as a body. The Catholics are essentially alone in this countercultural teaching.

    I can say it no better than Saint Flannery O’Connor: “The Church’s stand on birth control is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands and with all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes unease.”

    I realize my response is a bit disjointed. Please understand; it’s late, I’ve been working a split shift, taking care of two lovely kids, one of them with “special needs,” and enjoying a nice bottle or Argentinian wine after 40 days of Lenten teetotalism.

    Oh yeah, I’ve memed you: Synaxis Meme. Please don’t be put off by the Catholic stuff at the beginning. Read on, I’ve opened it up a bit. Feel free to be creative,


  3. I don’t think that Church teaching is as stable as you suggest, and definitely popular teaching and practice has changed, to fit with cultural changes. I don’t think anyone can find an appeal to Paul for justifying slave trading flies anymore. It’s pretty hard to buy indulgences, the choice of Gospels is pretty limited compared to 2000 years ago (as well as many positions on many issues — just think of Galileo), the type of ritual surrounding Communion has been completely altered through institutionalization, and so on. A LOT has changed. Hell, I cannot imagine the local parish priest anywhere in the developed world now visiting a Catholic woman and telling her she would risk hell if she didn’t go ahead and have more kids, after her 13th child… against doctor’s orders. This is what happened to my grandma in Quebec only two generations ago.

    A LOT has changed. But of course, traditions are mostly invented and made to seem longstanding in a short space of time, to lend authority to an institution. (cf. The Invention of Tradition by Hobsbawm.) Yes, the Church has been around for 2000 years, but the final result emerged from a huge amount of chaos and diversity, and even as recently as 800 years ago powerful alternative “Christianities” were affecting European power enough to make the Church react with military force — they had the Northern French slaughter the Cathars, by all accounts I’ve read. I personally wonder what a Cathar Western Europe would have ended up like, if the Church hadn’t resorted to bloodshed. Maybe a union of the Churches might even have occurred, a fusion or maybe a takeover of narrative centrality (the right to self-labeling as “The Church”) by Cathars? Maybe that’s fantasy, but it interests me nonetheless.

    This is the other thing: religions branch off. Maybe in the generation ship they’d branch off, too, changing dogmas in the face of survival necessity, and they’d end up believing themselves still the true Catholics, whilst back on Earth various other branches would consider themselves the true Church (as Protestant groups thought early on, and sometimes still think).

  4. No one suggests that surface-level changes have not occured. I’m speaking of core doctrines on faith and morals.

    Paul never justified slave trading, he just didn’t justify slave insurrection. And it must be remembered the slavery of his day was not the chattel slavery of the American South.

    It was mediaeval Europe that eliminated slavery. [And, it must be admitted, Portuguese slave-traders who brought it back after a thousand-year absence.]

    Indulgences are still in use. I’ve taken advantage of them myself. They buying and selling of indulgences was an aberration of the XVIth Century.

    And can’t speak of what happened to your grandmother. The local parish priest might not visit a woman and tell her not to have an abortion.

    But having, performing, or paying for an abortion carries an automatic excommunication (but only if the individual knows of the punishment.)

  5. I’m sorry, but I don’t find those changes to be surface-level or removed from core doctrines.

    This substitution ought to bring out what I think is wrong with your logic: “Paul never justified rape, he just didn’t justify resisting rape.” I’m sorry, if you’re not justifying resisting something, you’re certainly far from condemning it. Anyway, Paul was living in a world where slavery was normal ; it would have been amazing for him to actually have the foresight to speak out against it… as a normal human man.

    You think slavery did not exist in the Middle Ages? You’ve got to be kidding me. Feudalism with the aid of theocracy was, effectively, one of the most effective and widespread forms of slavery the world has ever seen. Most of Europe’s population wasn’t even allowed to leave the land they’d grown up on. Most of Europe slaved on farms for the eventual benefit of local leiges. “Slavery” was eliminated only because with Feudalism, one didn’t have to feed or free one’s slaves. They essentially had to fend for themselves except when war broke out, in which case suddenly they had to fend for the leige.

    Neither the slavery of the ancient world, nor the renamed slavery of the Middle Ages, is the same as the slavery in the South, yes. The slavery in the Middle Ages lasted longer but wasn’t along racial lines. The slavery in the Ancient world could end in freedom… could. If one survived long enough. So… then I guess the slavery of the Jews in Egypt wasn’t so bad, either? Ahem.

    Yes, Indulgences are still in use, but the “aberration” you talk of is not a “surface thing”: it links to a whole set of issues about Church power in Europe at the time. So did the problem of priests’ offspring being able to vault into positions of power through heredity or, the preferential treatment of rich/powerful men’s sons when they were ordained… which is why priests must not marry now.

    And what happened to my grandmother was not an isolated incident. It was pretty much how things were run in Quebec, when the Church ran the province, and you can see the result in the numbers — most people had huge families, even if they couldn’t afford them. It also explains why much of the youth have abandoned the Church in Quebec; once the society secularized, the lives of women improved dramatically. The moment at which a religious group (a) becomes nationalist and the executor of political power, and (b) takes control of womens’ reproductive lives, that moment is a very bad moment for women in that society.

    I wonder what kind of punishments the Church will think up inthe future for women who, say, take a morning after pill when they may, but also may not, be pregnant. Or for women who take the pill for medical reasons (I’ve known meny who do it to regulate and minimize the deleterious effects of thir period) but for whom it also happens to act as a contraceptive; or women who, in the future, when women are given conscious control of their release of eggs, choose not to secrete eggs until they are ready to properly provide an environment for the child that may result. Or, hey, what about deciding to have one’s fetus’s genetic defect repaired, in utero, by a retroviral treatment so that the child is born healthy; is that “playing God” — and if so, how does it different from other forms of medical treatment on adults? Or what about some revolutionary new ability that gives women the right to pause a pregnancy for a few months, or years, either in utero or via temporary transference to an in vitro environment? Or even just the ability to seal off via a muscular sphincter the cervix so that sperm cannot enter unless pregnancy is wanted?

    I suspect I shall have to make this post private soon. I may even do it now. After all, the Church is my employer, and I find Koreans less than interested in all the nasty historical stuff the Church was involved in. They see Buddhism in that light instead.

  6. Two last points:

    (1) The Venrable John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great English conservative liberal Catholic convert and absoulte master (with John Ruskin) of Victorian prose, had the final word on doctrinal development in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I read my way into the Catholic Church with this, and other books. Newman wrote his way into the Church with this book, realizing that the Church’s claims were true midway through.

    (2) While I don’t expect you to agree with me that Mediæval Europe was the absoulte pinnacle of human civilization (see The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries), you might be interested to learn that its common people were better off than in classical times (see An old theology for modern times: A review of Rodney Stark’s Victory of Reason).

    Other points you mentioned are addressed by these articles: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization and The Galileo Affair.

    [I link, therefore I am.]

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