To end abortion, we need to narrow the gap between civil and moral law

Matt Malone
America Magazine

The March for Life, the annual gathering of pro-life activists, clergy and civic leaders, will take place in Washington, D.C., on Friday Jan. 19, 2018. In our pro-life commitment, America is allied with the sentiments expressed in the statement by the Society of Jesus of the United States, “Standing for the Unborn,” which was published in America on May 26, 2003. As is our annual custom, we republish excerpts from this text as an expression of our solidarity with the women and men who will march this month in the nation’s capital.

When we, the leadership of the Society of Jesus in the United States, survey the developments unfolding in our culture, we are deeply distressed at the massive injustices. A spirit of callous disregard for life shows itself in direct assaults on human life such as abortion and capital punishment, as well as in senseless violence, escalating militarism, racism, xenophobia and the skewed accumulation of wealth and life-sustaining resources. These realities compel us to speak out against what Pope John Paul II called “the culture of death.”

Jesuits draw upon a long and rich tradition of reflection, professional study, experience and spirituality that brings many resources to the complexities of the abortion issue…

Abortion is a human rights issue. It is also a social issue, and not simply a personal decision made in artificial isolation from wider social reality. Attempts to frame the issue as merely a question of personal preference or private choice ignore important features of abortion as a public policy. Because the state and society as a whole have an intense interest in promoting respect for life, we may not with a clear conscience relegate such life-and-death issues to the private realm, no matter how appealing and convenient such arguments may appear on the surface. Abortion policy contains embedded cultural assumptions, values and attitudes that have wide repercussions for the way we collectively treat all human life. The whole array of potential threats to life and human dignity is interrelated, and the Christian imperative to oppose it calls forth from us a consistent ethic of life.

Some influential voices posit a zero-sum conflict between “women’s reproductive rights” and the right to life of unborn children. Jesuits ought to find their place among those who demonstrate the obvious confluence of women’s rights and respect for life in all its forms. Pope John Paul II summed this partnership up when he wrote: “Therefore, in firmly rejecting ‘pro-choice’ it is necessary to become courageously ‘pro-woman,’ promoting a choice that is truly in favor of women.”…

As Catholics and Jesuits, we would naturally prefer to live in a country where every citizen, voter and court consistently favor legal recognition of and protection for the unborn…. We must acknowledge, however, that phrases such as “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”…are phrases with contested meanings that others understand differently than we do…. The more attractive option seeks neither to flee nor to dominate situations of pluralism. It commits us rather to a process of engaging those who initially disagree with us on some issues, seeking to create an acceptable consensus wherever possible by building upon those truths on which we can reach agreement….

This path of “proposing, rather than imposing,” was described by the great American Jesuit theologian of the past century, John Courtney Murray. While emphasizing the value of tolerance and mutual dialogue, he also advised against any sort of moral relativism….

Another way of describing this stance is to say that Jesuits are committed to narrowing the gap between the current civil law of our nation and the demands of the moral law as we understand it. Our long-term goal remains full legal recognition of and protection for the unborn child—from the moment of conception.

In the near future, we cannot realistically expect complete agreement among all participants in the abortion debate. We must listen respectfully to others’ opinions, just as we expect a fair hearing of our own arguments against abortion. Our confidence in the persuasive power of well articulated defenses of pro-life positions sustains us, even as we acknowledge the long struggle ahead…. In the meantime, our common calling is to stand in solidarity with the unborn, the “least of our brothers and sisters” (Mt 25:40), through prayer and political activism.

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