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A Catholic professor wants the pope to "rethink" abortion. Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, responds.

 This week marks the 41st anniversary of "Roe v Wade," and so one of the contibutors to the New York Times wrote a piece titled, "Should Pope Francis Rethink Abortion?" Would you be aghast and amazed if you learned that the author believes that, yes, the pope should change his mind—and the teaching of the Church—about abortion? No?

Would it surprise you at all to know that the author of the piece in question is a Catholic and a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame? Hmmm.

The author, Dr. Gary Gutting, is indeed a professor at Notre Dame, and he explained in a piece last March in the Times that the two sources which define his life are the Enlightenment and the Catholic Church:

These are the sources nurturing the values that define an individual’s life.  For me, there are two such sources.  One is the Enlightenment, where I’m particularly inspired by Voltaire, Hume and the founders of the American republic.  The other is the Catholic Church, in which I was baptized as an infant, raised by Catholic parents, and educated for 8 years of elementary school by Ursuline nuns and for 12 more years by Jesuits.  For me to deny either of these sources would be to deny something central to my moral being.

Since Gutting won't deny the Catholic Church as a source nurturing the values that define his life, he apparently deems it necessary to change her. And there's the rub, as he ruefully admits in his new column calling for the Church to abandon her beliefs about conception, life, and the murder of the unborn:

Pope Francis has raised expectations of a turn away from the dogmatic intransigence that has long cast a pall over the religious life of many Roman Catholics. His question “Who am I to judge?” suggested a new attitude toward homosexuality, and he is apparently willing to consider allowing the use of contraceptives to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. But his position on what has come to be the hierarchy’s signature issue — abortion — seems unyielding. “Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life,” he declared in his recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” adding: “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the church cannot be expected to change her position on this question.”

So, what to do? Gutting's approach is to appeal to reason:

I want to explore the possibility, however, that the pope might be open to significant revision of the absolute ban on abortion by asking what happens if we take seriously his claim that “reason alone is sufficient” to adjudicate this issue. What actually follows regarding abortion once we accept the “inviolable value of each single human life”? This appeal to rational reflection has been a central feature of the tradition of Catholic moral teaching. I put forward the following reflections in the spirit of this tradition.

What follows is, in a word, tortured. Read it for yourself.

Since Gutting is a Catholic professor who was trained for many years by Jesuits, I thought it would be interesting to see what Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, might think of Gutting's arguments. Not one to mince words, Fr. Fessio sent the following remarks about Gutting's column:

He is a very confused philosopher, which makes Notre Dame an especially appropriate place for him.

Major error # 1: his claim and premise that the fetus is only “potentially human”.

a. This raises the question he doesn’t (because he can’t) answer consistently: When does the potentially human being become an actual human being?

b. His arguments against aborting “potentially human” would apply to human sperm and ova which are clearly (only) potentially human.

c. A valid conclusion cannot be drawn from a false premise.

Ergo: His conclusion has not been demonstrated.

Major red herring # 1: comparing a woman who has been raped to the—risibly hypothetical—case of someone who has been kidnapped, whose kidneys have been connected to another person who will die if the connection isn’t maintained for 9 months.

a. We are not obliged to prevent all fatal diseases at the cost of our own life

b. Pregnancy is not a disease

c. The kidnapped person is not the only possible solution to the other person’s kidney problem; perhaps the author has never heard of dialysis.

d. The kidnapped person’s relation to the other person is entirely extrinsic and accidental (in the philosophical sense)

Ergo: non sequitur.

Major red herring # 2: Catholics show they don’t regard the embryo to be as morally relevant as a small child because they don’t support major research into spontaneous abortion of embryos.

a. Who says Catholics would not support such research?

b. We are obliged absolutely not to kill an innocent human being; we are not obliged absolutely to prevent all deaths of innocent human beings.

Ergo: non sequitur.

One final point: Gutting concludes his piece by stating, "There are morally difficult issues about abortion that should be decided by conscience, not legislation. The result would be a church acting according to the pope’s own stated standard: preaching not 'certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options' but rather the gospel of love." Setting aside Gutting's crude misuse of Francis' words in Evangelii Gaudium (see par. 39), we should note that conscience, as any good Catholic really should know, is informed and guided by truth, which is appropriate through both reason and divine revelation:

Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them. Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law. (CCC, 1786-87)

And: "From its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a 'criminal' practice (GS 27 § 3), gravely contrary to the moral law." (CCC, 2322). 

 
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Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.
 
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