Thursday, September 10, 2009

Abortion and the Duties of Conscience

Opinion: "Theological Considerations Related to the Moral Question of Abortion"
By Michael Petty

In thinking about the question of abortion what is our moral duty as Christians? Our moral duty is not simply to have an opinion but to form the conscience with respect to this issue. The faculty of conscience is now greatly misunderstood. In traditional Christian moral philosophy, the conscience does not refer to "what I happen to think now" or "what I feel to be true" but to a faculty that discerns moral truth and falsity. In this respect, two things need to be taken very seriously. First, it is quite possible for the conscience to be in error. The fact that someone firmly believes an action to be right is no guarantee that it is. Second, the conscience, like all other human faculties, needs to be properly formed and guided so that it can more and more adequately perform its function. Historically, this has been one of the ministries performed by the teaching office of the Church, an office now largely abandoned by many churches.
What I propose to present here is a brief guide to the formation of Christian conscience on the issue of abortion. This means that I will not be concerned with opinion polls, the latest denominational action or with slogans. Rather, I will present six issues that I think all Christian need to consider carefully before coming to a decision.
Why is Abortion So Controversial?
It seems to me that abortion is controversial for at least three reasons, reasons worth some consideration.
(1) Abortion touches on what has become the central American value, autonomy. Any moral position which can be presented as expanding freedom will find ready acceptance in American society and, likewise, any view which is perceived as limiting freedom will be met with fierce resistance. Autonomy is the basic American interpretation of the meaning of freedom.
(2) Opposition to abortion is now so closely associated with the conservative faction of the Republican Party that in the minds of many it has become a political issue and so is not a moral issue. Many oppose any limits on abortion because they see such limitation as part of a "take over" strategy on the part of the "Religious Right".
(3) The question of abortion is inextricably bound up with another controversial issue, that of sex. The moral consensus about sex has collapsed in America (and in some churches). In the minds of many attempts to limit access to abortion are understood to be attempts to limit sexual freedom (which brings us back to the issue of autonomy).
Six Significant Theological Issues
It might be helpful for a moment to put aside the slogans that are shouted around this issue, from the assertion that legislatures should, as the popular bumper sticker says, "keep your laws off my body" to the claims made for the need for "family values" and to think strictly and clearly about the theological issues involved. Here, I consider six; several more could certainly be mentioned.
(1) Creation: As Creator, God is the Lord of all life and this means that there is more to life than biology since it is fundamentally a gift from God. A gift over which God remains sovereign. The increasing tolerance for taking life at the beginning (abortion) and at the end (euthanasia) represents nothing less than the assertion of human power over God's gift. While we are supposed to stewards of life, we are increasingly acting as if we were masters of life. This behavior is essentially a denial of the doctrine of creation.
(2) Human Life: The foundation of all Christian thinking about human life is the principle that human beings are made in the image of God and so possess an inherent dignity. This dignity is not based on the possession of certain abilities or recognition accorded by others. The practice of abortion is based on a very different view of human life, the principle that some people (as defined by those with the power to do so) are expendable. Since there is no inherent dignity, this way of thinking goes, when people become inconvenient or burdensome, they become candidates for elimination.
(3) Freedom: While autonomy has become a central American value, it is not a Christian value. Christian freedom is not a freedom from but a freedom for. Grace sets us free so that we can be free to serve God and to serve our neighbor. While autonomy attempts to limit the scope of moral responsibility, Christianity works to expand the scope of moral responsibility. This understanding of freedom is based on Jesus Christ, the Son of God who used his freedom not to please himself but to serve his Father and to minister to humankind.
(4)Sex: What is the purpose of sex? This is a question we are encouraged not to ask. As a consequence of the sexual revolution of the 1960's, many people no longer think of sex in moral terms because they think of sex as essentially a recreation. The moral, emotional, spiritual and physical complexities involves have all been pushed aside so as to create "freedom". But the resulting freedom has simply wreaked moral, emotion, spiritual and physical havoc on the lives of many people. Traditionally, sex has two fundamental purposes in Christian moral philosophy. It has a unitive purpose, meaning that it is an expression of the spiritual, emotional and physical unity that a man and a women have within the sacrament of marriage. The sexual act is a living out and an expression of this bond. This is why the Church has taught that sex outside of a life-long commitment is contrary to God's purposes. It also has a procreative purpose, meaning that we human beings are allowed to share in God's creative purposes in bringing about new life. This is an awesome responsibility and a sign of God's generosity. The point here is that there is no "right" to sex; sex not aimed at a unitive or procreative purpose constitutes an abuse of God's gift.
(5) Marriage: What is marriage? If marriage is simply a civil right and something left to each person to define, then the genders or numbers of the people involved are up for grabs. Marriage as a sacrament has one purpose: to display the sacrificial and life giving love of Christ for the Church in the love of husband and wife for each other. Abortion constitutes the abolition of marriage as a sacrament for it is contradictory to the vocation of marriage.
(6) Gospel: The Gospel is not a generalized message about all of us being God's children or all of us being forgiven. The Gospel has to do with the proclamation of God's kingship over all human affairs and the conformation of all human affairs to the purposes of God. The Church is called to be the community in which this kingship is visibly demonstrated. We are invited to enter into God's gracious rule and to have our lives radically transformed by his grace by being conformed to the image of his Son. It is difficult to see how the extension of human violence into the very seat of life (the womb) can be seen as entering into God's rule; it surely must be seen as the rejection of this rule.
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, said that the Church must work to replace our current "culture of death" with a "culture of life". Such a replacement, he said, could only be effected through the forming of consciences. The Church is called to work not through legislative votes or pressure campaigns but through helping people to have a properly formed conscience. A Church which neglects this task will have failed in its fundamental purpose.


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