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Opinion: Total abortion ban does injustice to Catholic tradition

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s recent choice of Neil Gorsuch as replacement for the U.S. Supreme Court seat formerly held by Antonin Scalia will possibly please the many Catholics who voted for Trump.

Although Gorsuch has never ruled directly on a case involving abortion, he has said, with regard to assisted suicide, that “the intentional taking of human life . . . is always wrong.” Trump’s promise to overturn Roe v. Wade, as well as his support for the thousands who recently participated in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., support this assumption.

For many lay Catholics, as well as many Catholic priests and bishops, other issues are insignificant compared with abortion.

Yet this single-issue focus fails to consider the complexities of women’s lives, the ultimate impact on public health of a total abortion ban, and a refusal to put this issue in a larger context. As a professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago, an institution steeped in Catholic values, I feel this also does an injustice to the rich and complex tradition of Catholicism.


Since at least 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro, a pro-choice Catholic, was the vice presidential candidate, opposition to abortion has been central to the U.S. bishops’ statements on elections.

In their guide for Catholic voters, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, and in many of their public statements, opposition to abortion is listed first among the serious issues that Catholics were to take into consideration.

When the Affordable Care Act was under consideration in Congress in 2010, the bishops pressured Catholic social justice groups to oppose it because it would mandate coverage for contraception, which they claim would lead to allowance for abortion.

Yet defining Catholicism almost exclusively on the basis of its anti-abortion stance reduces the tradition to a slogan. It skews the thinking and acting of the largest Christian denomination in the U.S.

Overturning the 43-year-old Roe v. Wade landmark decision may be a “pro-life” Catholic’s dream, but there is a lot more to both Trump’s agenda and being Catholic in America than being against abortion.

Following a chaotic first few weeks in office, Trump’s campaign promises appear to be coming to fruition. Although the recent travel ban is now on hold, Trump has promised to issue a new one. We can probably expect to see more actions that not only reduce immigration and religious rights and freedoms, but also jeopardize women’s health services, further an anti-environmental set of policies and advance a “law and order” approach to racial justice.

These examples represent issues on which there is ample Catholic teaching to the contrary but which is also often ignored by both bishops and faithful. We need to consider, then, how Catholics will define themselves in a Trump America.

Pope Francis has challenged single-issue definitions of what it means to be Catholic. He has said that love of God and neighbor and, especially, mercy and compassion, are at the heart of what it means to be Christian and devoted an entire year to Mercy.

He has changed the rule that says abortion is such a serious sin that only a bishop could forgive it; now any priest has that power. He has chided church leaders for their focus on sexual issues and urged them to make the church more welcoming.

Perhaps the bishops are beginning to see that opposition to abortion is not the only thing that defines a “good” Catholic. With the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, they have also begun to make statements about the potentially disastrous impact of the loss of health insurance for millions of people.

And in the wake of Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, some Catholic leaders have spoken out strongly on the devastating impact.

Perhaps over the next four years, pro-life Catholics will begin to consider the effects of defunding reproductive health services on poor women not only in the United States, but also across the globe. Or perhaps pro-life Catholics will consider marching for pre- and post-natal health care, maternity leave and child care. Perhaps pro-life Catholics will speak up for women’s voices and moral agency in a church whose leadership is made up of celibate men.

The irony for many faithful Catholics is that Trump’s election may provide the opportunity for a richer and more robust Catholicism. This could mean the faithful and the bishops are united in their efforts to protect the vulnerable of all ages, races, and nationalities as one nation under God, indivisible.

Susan A. Ross is professor of theology and a faculty scholar at Loyola University Chicago, where she previously served as department chair. She is past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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