Reason, the Catholic University, and the Morality of Abortion

“Ex Corde Ecclesiae” makes it clear that the educational philosophy of Catholic institutions of higher learning shouldn’t accept a separation of the intellectual life from the life of faith.

Photo of campus of Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), Catholic University of Louvain [Wikipedia]

Stéphane Mercier, a lecturer in philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven (UCL) in Belgium initially was suspended from teaching, pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings, because there was opposition in a class from a feminist group to his philosophical argument to the effect that abortion is the killing of an innocent unborn human life, which is an “intrinsically evil,” always unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. The response from both the UCL administration and the Belgium Bishops Conference to his philosophical argument, which was put forth in a document entitled “The Philosophy Supporting Life: Against a so-called Right to Choose an Abortion”, has been confusing.

The initial summary statement of the UCL administration against Mercier is: “Whatever the outcome of the inquiry [disciplinary proceedings], the right to abortion is enshrined in Belgium law and the text that was brought to the attention of UCL is at odds with the values upheld by the university. Conveying standpoints that contradict these values in the framework of a teaching course is unacceptable.” Mercier told the Belgian Church information service CathoBel that his case now seems to have concluded with a letter from the university informing him that he was dismissed, but without giving any reason. UCL’s position is puzzling to say the least: a Catholic university insisting that a philosophical argument defending the inviolable dignity of unborn human life is inconsistent with its values? What values are these?

Consider the matter of the nature and aim of arguments that involves giving reasons for our beliefs—clearly defined in Mercier’s lecture. In UCL’s Mission Statement we find the following: “From its Christian view of the world and the human, UCL endeavors to be a place for open discussion of social, philosophical and ethical issues and a critical center of reflection in and for the Catholic community.” If open discussion of ethical issues is possible at UCL from a philosophical view point, given that its aim is to be a “critical center of reflection in and for the Catholic community,” then how can philosophical arguments regarding the practice of abortion be declared out of bounds with the values of UCL?

And how can the moral standpoint regarding the wrongness of the practice of abortion contradict the values of a Catholic university? Do those values not include the convictions that the unborn child belongs to the human family, is fully human, possessing dignity, a right to life, being a rights-bearing individual to whom is due respect, protection, and standing under the law?

The response of the Belgium Bishops Conference has been no less confusing. “Mr. Mercier takes a philosophical point of view. The Church’s point of view, on the contrary, takes a theological and pastoral approach.” In this sharp opposition between faith and reason, theology and philosophical argument, are the bishops suggesting that the conviction regarding the moral truth that innocent human life is absolutely inviolable is itself not a truth of reason, one that is rationally justifiable through philosophical argument, but is rather merely a matter of faith alone?

The bishops’ hope for a peaceful discussion of the morality of abortion in the public forum seems impossible on their own perspective since they don’t appear to hold that the conviction regarding respect for unborn human life is open to philosophical argument. Clearly, contrary to the Belgium bishops, the Church’s teaching affirms that respect for human life and all that this entails as I described it above, is a truth of reason, open to philosophical argument. For example:

I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 57; emphasis added).

Respect for human life is not just a Christian obligation. Human reason is sufficient to demand it on the basis of the analysis of what a human person is and should be. . . . Divine law and natural reason, therefore, exclude all right to the direct killing of an innocent human being (CDF, Declaration on Procured Abortion, nos. 8, 14; emphasis added).

Rather than emphasize the rational conviction regarding respect for human life and hence the wrongness of abortion, particularly in the setting of a university, the bishops emphasize the pastoral approach, meaning thereby that the sin of abortion is under the mercy of the cross. Of course: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). They correctly cite Pope Francis to this effect (see Misericordia et misera, no 12). But why not instead cite Pope Francis from Evangelii gaudium where he gives a vigorous defense of unborn human life as well as insists that human reason alone is sufficient for justifying respect for the inviolable dignity of unborn human life. Francis says:

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life [emphasis added], but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual” [John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici(30 December 1988), 37] (no. 213).

Let’s return briefly to the question of the UCL administration’s inconsistency with its own values, namely, that this university strives “to be a place for open discussion of social, philosophical and ethical issues and a critical center of reflection in and for the Catholic community,” and to do so from a Christian world and life view. Here, too, the bishops, in referring the administration to John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, wrongly operate with a separation between faith and reason, theology and philosophical argument, suggesting that John Paul would have agreed with their interpretation that the Church has nothing to say about the philosophical foundations of the university curriculum. The bishops say, “The academic authorities do not have to decide on a theological or religious question, but on the implementation of a philosophy course. This is perfectly in keeping with the apostolic Constitution of St. John Paul II’s Ex corde ecclesiae, on the functioning and mission of Catholic Universities.” Please notice that this statement suggests that the question of abortion is a “theological or religious question.”

Furthermore, this interpretation of John Paul’s view of both philosophy and of his Apostolic Constitution couldn’t be more wrong. For instance, in Fides et Ratio, he is a proponent of the idea and practice of Christian philosophy. John Paul says “revealed truth offers the fullness of light and will therefore illumine the path of philosophical enquiry” (no. 79). He adds, “In itself, the term [Christian philosophy] is valid, but it should not be misunderstood: it in no way intends to suggest that there is an official philosophy of the Church, since the faith as such is not a philosophy. The term seeks rather to indicate a Christian way of philosophizing, a philosophical speculation conceived in dynamic union with faith” (no. 76). And here’s what John Paul II actually says in the Apostolic Constitution (nos. 14-15):

Since the objective of a Catholic University is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture, every Catholic University, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics:

1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;

2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;

3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;

4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.

In the light of these four characteristics, it is evident that besides the teaching, research and services common to all Universities, a Catholic University, by institutional commitment, brings to its task the inspiration and light of the Christian message. In a Catholic University, therefore, Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities in accordance with the proper nature and autonomy of these activities. In a word, being both a University and Catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative.

A Catholic University, therefore, is a place of research, where scholars scrutinize reality with the methods proper to each academic discipline, and so contribute to the treasury of human knowledge. Each individual discipline is studied in a systematic manner; moreover, the various disciplines are brought into dialogue for their mutual enhancement.

In addition to assisting men and women in their continuing quest for the truth, this research provides an effective witness, especially necessary today, to the Church’s belief in the intrinsic value of knowledge and research.

In a Catholic University, research necessarily includes (a) the search for an integration of knowledge, (b) a dialogue between faith and reason, (c) an ethical concern, and (d) a theological perspective.

One thing is clear from the perspective of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, namely, the educational philosophy of Catholic institutions of higher learning shouldn’t accept a separation of the intellectual life from the life of faith, rigidly dividing faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Adopting such a segregated educational scheme would effectively produce two realms, one associated with academic life, learning and scholarship, and neutral with respect to the other realm, that is faith, theology, and spirituality. But a Catholic institution must reject a wall of separation between faith and learning, particularly since it strives to work out the implications of the Christian faith for the whole range of human inquiry and knowledge.

In this connection, we should understand that Catholic institutions of higher education must develop a Catholic mind “to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith” (Gravissimum Educationis, no. 8). Such institutions, says John Paul, “are called to explore courageously the riches of revelation and of nature so that the united endeavor of intelligence will enable people to come to the full measure of their humanity, created in the image and likeness of God [and which has been] renewed even more marvelously, after sin, in Christ” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, no. 5).

In this light, we can easily understand why Ex Corde Ecclesiae reaffirms the magnificent teaching of the Second Vatican Council that speaks of the great mission of Catholic higher education. It was to be the achievement of a Christian mind, which is a public, persistent, and universal presence of the Gospel in culture and its institutions (see Gravissimum Educationis, nos. 9-10). Catholic institutions of higher education, the constitution adds, “are . . . a lively and promising sign of the fecundity of the Christian mind in the heart of every culture. They give . . . a well-founded hope for a new flowering of Christian culture in the rich and varied context of our challenging times” (no. 2).

To conclude with the magna carta of Catholic higher education, this time from the Vatican II document, Gaudium et spes, no. 58: “For the good news of Christ continually renews the life and culture of fallen man; it combats and removes the error and evil which flows from the ever-present attraction of sin. . . . [I[t causes [man’s life and culture] to blossom, as it were from within; it fortifies, complete and restores them in Christ. Thus by the very fulfillment of her own mission the Church stimulates and advances human and civic culture.” This would have been a message and challenge worth presenting to the UCL administration by the Belgium bishops.

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About Eduardo Echeverria 34 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.

1 Comment

  1. How ironic it would be if Stephane Mercier is in fact related to the great Cardinal Mercier, also of Louvain University, who did so much to promote scholastic philosophy and the teaching of the Church.
    He must be turning in his grave at this turn of events!

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