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Andrew E. Mathis

Andrew E. Mathis
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
August 16
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JANUARY 22, 2013 10:25AM

An Open Letter to My Catholic Cousin

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Written on the day after the November 2012 election.

Dear Cousin,

I'm writing because you posted on Facebook something that piqued my interest, i.e., that you were unhappy about Barack Obama being re-elected because of his positions on abortion and gay rights and because of the birth control mandate in the PPACA (a.k.a. Obamacare).

In particular, this line jumped out at me: "Abortions in this country are down. Why? Because abortion centers are closing due to movements such as '40 Days for Life.'"

I agree that a reduction in the number of abortions is a step in the right direction. What the pro-life movement so often disregards is that the pro-choice movement doesn't want more abortions. It wants fewer abortions, and it wants to accomplish that goal by providing more ready access to birth control and more comprehensive sex education.

Clearly, those are matters about which you and I will not agree. And while you're happy that the number of legal abortions are down, I'm deeply troubled by the likelihood that the number of illegal and unsafe abortions will increase, thereby jeopardizing the lives of viable human beings that have already been born.

Perhaps one thing I fail to understand about Catholicism is its fixation with abortion. Don't get me wrong: I understand that if an unborn person is considered equal in personhood to a viable, already born human being, then clearly the killing of the unborn person must be considered murder. Further, I understand that the presence of a soul in the unborn person dictates not just the necessity of legal protection but also that of spiritual protection for that unborn person. I understand all of that.

Here's what I don't think you understand: The law already recognizes this distinction. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court dictated that abortion should be available on demand for the first trimester of pregnancy and that it should be illegal in the third trimester. The second trimester it left open for matters of medical necessity. Justice Harry Blackmun, in writing for SCOTUS on this issue, was directly addressing the issue of viability; once an unborn child is viable outside the uterus, the argument went, it should be unlawful to take its life.

"That's all well and good," you might say. "The problem with your argument, you might continue, is that it doesn't address the issue of the unborn child's soul."

Except it kind of does.

You might be aware that I was educated by the Order of St. Augustine, one of the oldest and most conservative religious orders in full communion with the Vatican. St. Augustine of Hippo, the order's spiritual founder, is recognized as a Doctor of the Church, i.e., a man whose religious teachings formed the foundation of Catholic doctrine. Augustine's job in the church, in addition to being a bishop in North Africa, was to combat heresy within the ancient church. As such, he is rightly remembered as an enemy of heterodoxy and one of the framers of the church's normative positions on many topics.

Here's the kicker: Augustine didn't believe that abortion was always murder, because he didn't believe that a fetus always has a soul.

In De Origine Animae and elsewhere, Augustine, basing his argument on that of Aristotle, argues that the presence of a soul coincides with the "quickening" of the fetus, i.e., the time at which the mother is aware of the fetus's presence because it moves. (One complicating factor is that while Augustine ballparks this figure at 40 days for male fetuses, he puts the figure at 80 days for female fetuses.)

So while it's true that Augustine always considered abortion to be wrong and a sin, he did not consider it to be murder before the presence of a soul. Neither did St. Thomas Aquinas. Nor did several popes.

My question to you is whether they were wrong. Because if they were wrong, then the Church needs to reconsider their positions vis-à-vis a variety of issues, e.g., an all-male, celibate clergy. But if they were right, then the Church needs to reconsider its position on abortion.

Please note that this doesn't mean that the Church ever has to approve of abortion. But there are a lot of things that the Church disagrees with that it nevertheless accepts as being allowed to other people. Birth control is one of these things — and one of the things that I intend to address here. Perhaps just as religious Jews refuse to eat pork and work on Saturdays, seeing such actions as grave sins, but they nevertheless respect the rights of non-Jews to engage in such practices, Catholics might see abortion before ensoulment similarly.

And lest it be said that abortion, on the one hand, and working on Saturdays and eating pork, on the other, cannot be equated, do not underestimate how grave a sin violation of the Sabbath is considered in Judaism. Indeed, the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for this sin. Bear in mind as well that Jews throughout history have literally died rather than eat pork, seeing the matter as kiddush hashem, i.e., martyrdom by sanctifying the name of God.

Back to the matter at hand: If it is true (and it is) that the Catholic Church did not consider abortion to be murder until the 19th century, then is it possible that the Church was not in error for the preceding 1,900 years? And if it is possible, then is it right to insist that a point of view that the Church has not held for even 10% of its existence, i.e., that abortion should be forbidden in virtually all circumstances, be a matter of law for non-Catholics? Let's be 100% clear on this matter: The Church has never claimed infallibility on this particular issue, unlike, e.g., the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The matter is, to be blunt, debatable.

Thus, I suggest that it is not right to deny first-trimester abortion to non-Catholics. And that's why I brought up the matter of ensoulment and its relationship to Roe v. Wade in the first place. The law as it currently stands either bans or leaves to medical necessity abortions in which the Catholic Church has always believed a soul was at stake. And even the Catholic Church allows for abortion in cases of medical necessity (specifically ectopic pregnancy).

I understand that the remaining first trimester (or a portion of it, anyway, as ensoulment only takes place 40 — or 80 — days into that trimester) is problematic for you, believing as you do that it is still murder. This brings me back to your Facebook post and its stated opposition to the birth control mandate in the PPACA.

Again, I understand your point of view. I really do. You are Catholic and you believe that birth control is morally wrong and, in some case, even tantamount to murder (if it is a method that employs an abortifacent mechanism — although as perhaps I've established, "murder" might be too strong a word). At least the Church does not insist on denying non-Catholics access to condoms and diaphragms. That's a start.

What I find troubling vis-à-vis this issue is that when President Obama offered a compromise on this issue, the Conference of Bishops slapped his hand away, arguing that the compromise would nevertheless require Catholics working in the insurance industry to violate their consciences.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but so what? Again, to draw a comparison to Judaism, the Orthodox Jew cannot claim that his or her job at the bacon factory abridges his/her freedom of conscience if s/he has been working there for a decade. Nor can the Catholic claim the same abridgment if s/he took a job in an industry (i.e., health insurance) that necessary includes some areas in which Catholicism and what the job entails disagree.

And how do I know that such disagreement would occur? Because it has already occurred. Several states already were observing mandates on birth control that applied to Catholic institutional employers, and yet the bishops only spoke out against the policy this year. Such silence beforehand does evoke the question of whether it is the policy with which they disagree or whether they have been hoodwinked by Washington Republicans trying to earn cheap political points. But I digress.

Might I suggest that the President's proposed compromise is one with which both Catholics and non-Catholics might be happy?

Last but not least, you expressed disapproval with gay marriage.

What can I say? If you don't like gay marriage, then don't get gay married.

Let's return for a moment to the issue of the election yesterday. Your candidate and party lost. I can understand your disappointment, as eight and twelve years ago, I found myself in the same boat. So let me offer you some advice on how you might turn up a winner in the future.

Change your political party.

I don't mean change your registration. I mean change the ideology of the Republican Party. Or change it back would perhaps be a more correct way to state this.

Some of what I mean has to do with what I've already stated. For one thing, inflexibility on abortion and birth control is a losing issue. Two-thirds of voters who were exit-polled yesterday in Virginia reported being concerned about keeping abortion legal and safe. Again, I don't suggest that you change your personal position on abortion; I do, however, suggest that you play it down a bit and don't run candidates willing to embrace truly radical positions like forcing a raped teenager to bear her rapist's child. And just to be clear, if that child has a D&C as part of her first aid and medical care in the aftermath of being raped, then according to St. Augustine, no soul will be involved. I'm not being facetious here; I'm trying to suggest that we might actually have common ground.

Further, you might want to have your party moderate its position on illegal immigration. I understand that we're in tough economic times and illegal immigration doesn't make that situation any better, but the fault there lies not with people coming to America looking for a better life; it lies with those employers unscrupulous enough to be hiring illegal aliens in the first place.

More to the point, in immigrants from Latin America, both legal and illegal, we have the fastest-growing segment of two populations: the American population and the Catholic population. Here's a demographic that, because of its nearly uniform Catholic faith, largely eschews birth control and that wouldn't dream of ever having an abortion. And these people voted overwhelmingly for Obama because the sense they get from the Republican Party is that Republicans despise them.

Finally, I suggest that you urge your party to take positions on welfare and on economic issues that the founder of your church might be more likely to recognize as worthy of bearing his name. Love of the death penaltydisdain for the poorcoddling the callously wealthy — all of these things are matters about which Jesus was clear. I'm not telling you anything that you don't know. But in voting for Republicans who embrace such things because you oppose abortion, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. Opposition to abortion on religious grounds can be admirable if done the right way. But when it is done to the exclusion of other truly Christian principles, then I dare say it misses the whole point.

Best wishes,
Cousin Andrew

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Well though out, researched and written. I would be interested to read her response. I would guess there was none.
This is the most intelligent and readable argument on this subject I have seen. I am a recovering Catholic myself and one of the reasons for that is the Church's insistence that Catholics are right and everybody else is sinful. Believe what you will, but afford me the right to do the same -- that's my position.
I'm impressed. Nice share.
very nice. for myself, fetuses are people but killing them is not crime if done within medical strictures. we kill lots of people, and if you are willing to slaughter adults wholesale with explosions, napalm, and poison dust, it is rank hypocrisy to blanch at a single unaware blob of proto-person.
Good letter...or essay, as the case may be. You made some excellent points...and like jlsathre, I doubt you got a response.

I've written on this myself.

If you have the time, I hope you read it. It is slightly shorter than your piece...but there are elements not included here that you may want to use in any further discussion with your cousin.

Putting a link to an essay is always chancy on OS--they seldom print out in their entirety. I will give it a try, but if it does not work--go to my blog and on page 10 you will see the essay.

A lot of angst... and a bit of judgement. Something that you seem to be accusing your cousin of. BUT you have made yourself heard and I hope she hears you!
While I support you position, some of your arguments have holes in them big enough for the USS Enterprise to sail through! If your cousin know how to debate, and disagrees with you, she's going to give you a hard time.....!!


Abortion is big business and a nice moneymaker for Planned Parenthood. About 50 years ago gambling debts were not enforceable at law. If we made this part of the U.S. Code for out of state providers, we'd see those highly ethical and sensitive doctors, bereft of their blood money, seeping back into the woodwork whence they came.
A wonderful and correct explanation of the teachings of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas on abortion. Unfortunately, subsequent popes, long before Orwell, understood that their ability to control the narrative - and to insist upon unquestioning obedience to that narrative - would enable them to centralize power in the Vatican even if it meant they had to abandon fidelity to the truth. Doesn't that sound like a Faustian bargain?
the history of the catholic church - its hatred of jews that led to WWII and the holocaust. the CATHOLIC crusades against the muslim people that ver 500 years killed tens of millions.

the endless hdiden molestation of chidlren of whom the number who committed suicide or led a ruined life - its unknown but large

The hatred of Jews in general that in the middle ages led to the pogroms and the mass murder of about half a million Jews in what some call the early Inquisition


the catholic church is probably the biggest murderer in history. And lets not forget the HOLY inquisition of kangaroo courts, torture and burnings.

AS well as its enslavement of womn .