On November 28, 2010, the National Catholic Reporter, the banner journal of liberal Catholicism, published a lengthy excerpt from a forthcoming book, The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church, by Father Charles Curran. As the NCR editorial on that date put it, Curran “will forever drag a footnote along with him”, no matter what he writes about. The reason is that in 1986 he was forbidden to teach theology at Catholic University for having expressed views contrary to official church doctrine. He now is University Professor of Human Values (some title!) at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The present text expresses a nuanced criticism of the attitude of American Catholic bishops toward legislation concerning abortion. Curran explicitly accepts the moral teaching that abortion is always wrong, as he also accepts the official differentiation between binding moral principles and their application to specific circumstances, which requires prudential judgments on which people of good will may differ. What he criticizes is the way in which, since Roe v. Wade (1973), the bishops have placed abortion in a unique category of moral concern—as an “intrinsic evil”, not subject to prudential considerations and therefore to be uncompromisingly opposed. The bishops have relentlessly agitated in favor of anti-abortion legislation, and recently some have proposed that Catholic politicians who deviate from that position should be refused communion if they presented themselves at the altar.
Curran argues that “intrinsic evil” is a moral rather than legal category—there are other “intrinsic evils” (for example, adultery and prostitution) which yet may be allowed to be legal. More importantly, he argues that in Catholic tradition there was some uncertainty as to just when an embryo is “animated”—that is, endowed with the soul which constitutes a human person. Thus Thomas Aquinas favored a date for “animation” later than conception (although he opposed earlier abortion anyway). Curran suggests that the bishops should modify their attitude of apodictic certainty in this matter, take an incremental approach to abortion (modifying Roe v. Wade rather than seeking its repeal), and pay equal attention to other pressing evils (such as torture and capital punishment).
Although I share the classical Lutheran aversion to Roman legalism, Curran’s text again evokes my respect for the way in which the Catholic tradition of casuistry makes for nuanced moral distinctions. And, in this and in all matters of public concern, I am heartily in favor of a measure of uncertainty and an incremental approach. One of my favorite political mantras is the sentence by which Oliver Cromwell once reproached Parliament: “My brethren, I beseech you by the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken!” (I understand that the odd reference to bowels was an archaic term for the essence of a person.) I do not here want to develop my own position on the abortion controversy—it cannot easily be subsumed under either the “pro-choice” or the “pro-life” label. Rather, I want to reflect on one argument against abortion that I have heard before, but which I find here endorsed by both Curran and the NCR editors—a particularly interesting endorsement, coming from what is probably the most liberal wing of American Catholicism.
The argument is simple and, if only at first glance, it seems plausible. Here is the argument: Let it be stipulated that Aquinas was right in being uncertain about the date of “animation”. But his position, and that of others holding it, has been made obsolete by the advance of science. We now know that, as of the moment of fertilization, the ovum contains an individual’s unique DNA. Abortion destroys this unique entity, ipso facto an act of homicide.
I want to raise some doubts about this argument. In the language that Aquinas would have used, the argument presupposes that the DNA contains and instills the soul. Put in more contemporary language, the presupposition is that I am my DNA. What is more, since my DNA shapes my body, it is also presupposed that I am my body. It seems to me that, coming from a Catholic source, this is rather a strangely scientistic, indeed materialistic argument. I would question it: Am I my DNA? Am I my body?
A negative answer is most strongly suggested in cases where an individual affirms his dignity in confronting the body’s deformity, disease or decay. What such an individual is insisting on is that his essential self (whatever term one may use for it) is not to be identified with his defective body. In some hard to pin down manner, this self is capable of transcending the genetically programmed limitations of the body: I am not my DNA! I am not my body! What is more, to gainsay this assertion is to assault the basic human dignity of the individual making it.
My thinking on this matter has been influenced by the thought of Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985). His major work, The Levels of the Organic, is, as far as I know, still available only in its original German. But a delightful shorter work, Laughing and Crying
, has been translated into English. Plessner stood in a tradition of so-called philosophical anthropology, which has tried to develop a theory of human nature making use of the findings of modern biological and social sciences. A core proposition of Plessner’s anthropology is the notion of “eccentricity”—the capacity of man to stand outside himself, to be “ek-centric”, and in that stance to look back on himself. The human individual must always try to balance two precariously linked realities of his nature—he indeed is his body, but he also has his body. Man is the only animal capable of laughter and crying, capacities rooted in this balancing act. Laughter and crying signal a breakdown of the balance—the body takes over.
The human person is a mystery which science can adumbrate but never explain fully. People reflecting on any issue that involves the human person are well advised to be aware of the mystery—even geneticists and Catholic bishops.