Action Alert!

intended complications

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 03, 2010

Writing for US Catholic, Patrick McCormick-- a religious-studies professor at Gonzaga University-- reveals a great deal about his attitude toward Church authority as he delivers his opinions on the Phoenix abortion case.

Bishop Olmsted and the Vatican claim that every "direct" abortion is always wrong.

Bishop Olmstead and "the Vatican"-- whoever that means-- might "claim" that chocolate ice cream is superior to vanilla. But when they say that deliberate abortion is always wrong they are not asserting a claim; they are teaching.

They base their assertion on one traditional reading of the moral principle of "double effect," a reading condemning every physically "direct" attack on innocent human life, but permitting "indirect" abortions (like excising a tumor from a pregnant woman with uterine cancer) when it is the only way to save the life of the mother.

Nice. There is "one traditional reading" of Church teaching, stated repeatedly in papal encyclicals and conciliar documents. Then there's another reading, put forward by one Patrick McCormick. Which one should we follow? Hmmm; let me think.

Moreover, that "one traditional reading" is actually a command, given to us with a fairly high degree of authority: Thou Shalt Not Kill. The deliberate taking of innocent human life is never justified.

The "double effect" argument is introduced here by McCormick, as it is frequently introduced by consequentialists, to complicate the argument. It doesn't apply. One can invoke the principle of double effect if an operation has the goal of saving a woman's life, and an unintended consequence is the death of an unborn child. (The removal of an ectopic pregnancy is a prime example.) In the Phoenix case the abortion was unjustifiable because the death of the unborn child was not unintended; it was the goal of the operation. One human life was snuffed out so that another could continue.

Having muddled the argument on the killing of the innocent, McCormick turns his attention to the canonical penalty of excommunication, and asks why that penalty is reserved only for abortions. (It isn't.) Specifically, he asks:

…why then is excommunication not used to stem the scandal of priest pedophilia…

Bet you didn't see that one coming.

...or to oppose Catholics who support unjust wars, government sanctioned torture, or the indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction?

Here McCormick, who found it useful to overcomplicate the argument, now oversimplifies. Has any government leader ever announced that he plans to launch an unjust war, or to use nuclear weapons in an indiscriminate manner? Of course not. The political arguments are always more complex, and so the canonical implications are not so easy to draw out. In the Phoenix case, again, Bishop Olmsted's path was clear because the doctor unambiguously announced their intention to abort the child.

After worrying over the hostilities that Bishop Olmsted's stand has aroused-- and which he has helped to encourage-- McCormick finally wonders:

…is excommunication really an adequate or even serious response?

Yes, it is. Excommunication is a very serious step indeed. It is recognized as such by anyone who recognizes the authority granted by Jesus Christ to the Catholic Church. Does McCormick? For that matter, does US Catholic?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Jun. 08, 2010 10:40 PM ET USA

    Is there such a thing as remedial education for priests? This one should have been held back a year or 4.