The Tablet, June 9, 2007
By Clifford Longley
The archbishops who lead the Catholic Church in Edinburgh, Westminster and Cardiff have made what looks like a coordinated attack on Britain's abortion law, and particularly on Catholic politicians who fail to oppose it. Those who collaborate with sin are as guilty as its direct perpetrators, they have pointed out; and such people, if Catholics, are disqualified from receiving Holy Communion.
To put it as neatly as this, however, is to credit the position they are advancing with a coherence and clarity it does not possess. Those Catholics who are disqualified from Communion are those who are consciously and deliberately guilty of serious sin. But no Catholic MP is going to recognise him- or herself in such a description. If he or she fails to oppose legislation that permits abortion, then the MP will have been persuaded that there are perfectly good moral reasons for doing so, such as the wish to reflect the views of their constituents, their judgement of what serves the common good, or their fears of reviving back-street abortions. If they are in good faith, they are entitled to receive Communion.
Anyway, what legislation? There is nothing regarding abortion now in the Parliamentary timetable (other than a 10-minute rule bill on abortion counselling, defeated this week in the Commons). In any case, the only legislation that would satisfy the Church's strict criteria would be the recriminalisation of abortion, with stiff jail sentences for all concerned. No candidate who stood on such a platform would have any chance of success.
So there is an element of jousting at windmills here. And I have to say from my experience of both politics and journalism that a concerted push by the Catholic Church to start a movement in favour of such a radical change in the law would have exactly the opposite effect - doubly so, if bishops were seen to be pressuring Catholic MPs to toe a Catholic party line. I have seen it happen before. It is the reason the limit on lawful abortions, currently 24 weeks, has not by now been reduced to 22 or 20 (or even 12, as was mooted not long ago). Those who regard such a reduction as a sensible adjustment in the light of advancing medical knowledge shy away from any lowering of the time limit precisely because they see the Catholic Church approaching with its sledgehammer as soon as it is mentioned. Indeed it could be argued that the Church's hard line these last 20 years or so may have led to more abortions, not fewer.
To change the law on abortion in a democracy, you have to win the argument first. That means winning over those who find the idea of abortion undesirable but who are not yet persuaded that an unviable human foetus has an absolute right to life, let alone that the same applies from the moment of fertilisation. The argument "because the Catholic Church says so" is not going to persuade anybody. Indeed, non-Catholics cannot be bound by the teaching authority of a Church they do not belong to. This is not to say that such an act of persuasion is impossible, just that there has been no sign from the Church's leadership that they see it as necessary.
It means confronting a difficult question. Many devout people of other faiths start from the same starting point as Catholics do, the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." But faced for instance with an 11-year-old girl recently made pregnant because of incestuous rape, most of them would say it was legitimate to choose the lesser evil. What is the basic difference between the Catholic way of moral reasoning, and their way, that leads to these different conclusions? And how do you demonstrate that the Catholic way of moral reasoning is superior? I have never heard anyone try it.
This is not an attempt to demolish the core Catholic position, which I personally accept, though I do not think the case for invoking the criminal law is as cut and dried as Cardinal O'Brien does. Nevertheless there must be some other explanation for the concerted push on abortion that we have recently witnessed. Some suggest that churchmen are speaking out because this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. But the most likely reason is that the Vatican has called on hierarchies everywhere to declare where they stand on these issues - regardless of the state of the argument in each country.
There is always some satisfaction in being in the right, and it is easier than producing a credible policy that might attract non-Catholic support. Of that, sadly, there is so far no sign.
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