An Anglican ethicist who believes abortion should be legal up to 18 weeks of pregnancy has been appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) by Pope Francis. Many pro-life activists are very unhappy with the appointment.
Austen Ivereigh has argued that such concerns are fundamentally ideological, rather than moral. The appointment of Rev. Nigel Biggar to the Vatican’s pro-life Academy, says Ivereigh, represents the end of an excessive and harmful “ideological purity” that infected the Academy under Pope Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Biggar’s appointment will allow the Academy to be “in dialogue” with those who share some, but not all, of its values, “in order to build pro-life consensus, wherever possible, across the religious divides.”
While at face value this sounds like an admirable goal, several former members of the PAV disagree.
They believe Biggar’s appointment fundamentally alters, and undermines, the nature and purpose of the Academy as originally envisioned by St. John Paul.
An analogy might be useful to illustrate why pro-lifers are upset.
Let’s say the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences (PASS) granted membership to a non-Catholic scholar and physician who agreed with the Church on questions of immigration, but also argued that slavery is acceptable in certain cases, and has even publicly spoken out suggesting it could be legal in those cases. Should the scholar retain his membership in the academy? If not, why not?
Were the person to retain his membership, we would see outrage from Catholics of all stripes, as well as the mainstream media. And rightly so. Catholics, and the media, rightly expect the highest ethical standard from the Catholic Church.
To honor a pro-slavery advocate with an appointment to a pontifical academy would clearly violate that standard, sowing doubt about the Church’s commitment to opposing slavery, and thereby causing scandal.
The Catholic Church rightly believes that abortion – the intentional killing of an innocent human being – deserves the same absolute prohibition and lack of moral compromise as applies to the issue of slavery.
Pointing out, as some defenders of Biggar’s appointment to the PAV have, that Biggar only approves of abortion up to 18 weeks is hardly comforting. Just as we would never accept such a defense of a thinker who only defends slavery in certain cases, neither should we accept a defense of one who only supports killing unborn babies in certain cases. Such is the gravity of the matter at stake.
Ivereigh quotes from an article which Biggar wrote explaining how his faith inspired him to advocate for further restrictions on abortion than currently exist in UK law. While some of the passages do indicate areas of agreement, and while it is encouraging that Biggar wishes to extend some further protections to unborn babies, we also find two sentences that are particularly revealing:
[A]s an “Augustinian Christian” [Biggar] says he “may have to admit that it is not clear at what point a developing human being becomes a person deserving of the civil right not to be harmed under normal circumstances.”
Far better, he says, ‘that we admit the uncertainty that attends the status of the fetus than that we pretend that it is not an important consideration at all.’
Ivereigh concludes his quoting of Biggar’s article: “With all due respect to some of our Catholic bioethicists, it seems to me that this kind of reasoning from Christian principles has been all too lacking in some of our pro-life witness.”
But Biggar’s reasoning in this case is not in any way from Christian principles. It’s not even reasoning from scientific principles, which the academy exists to discuss, since it amounts to a rejection of the scientific fact presented in every embryology textbook: From the moment of conception/fertilization a new member of the human species is present.
Christian reasoning adds to this scientific fact the truth of the inestimable value of every human person, made in the image of God, who may not be killed for any reason.
Claiming that there is any uncertainty attending the “status” of the fetus is not the “kind of reasoning from Christian principles” that the pro-life movement or the PAV has been lacking. On the contrary, it is precisely the kind of anti-life reasoning that the PAV was created by Pope St. John Paul II to oppose.
Nor are these merely academic differences with little risk of real-world impact. Pro-life scholars and advocates are now familiar with the charge that by uncompromisingly defending the Church’s teachings on life, we are somehow “out of line” with the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Judging by the pope’s past statements condemning abortion, he would be offended by the implication that he thinks abortion is anything but a grave evil.
Yet, a growing perception that the Holy Father is somehow “softening” the Church’s teachings on life and family issues is increasingly used as a cudgel against those Catholics who are deep in enemy territory: For instance, those who oppose the pro-abortion majority at the United Nations.
Whatever the admirable intentions of the leadership of the PAV, the real-world effect of appointing an abortion supporter is the same as if they had appointed a pro-slavery advocate: The appearance in the public eye that the Church does not take its teaching against abortion as seriously as it once did. This has a direct impact upon pro-life advocates on the ground, who stand exposed to the accusation of being “more Catholic” than the Vatican.
If the Pontifical Academy responsible for upholding this teaching is busying itself building a “consensus” that leaves out the unborn at the earliest stages, what is left of the authority of Catholics who are opposing all abortions?
Those defending Biggar’s appointment have observed that he is better known for his work opposing the legalization of euthanasia, and that it is important for the Catholic Church to be in “dialogue” with thinkers with whom it doesn’t completely see eye-to-eye.
It is good, of course, that Biggar opposes killing the vulnerable when it occurs at the end of life. The Church now asks that he extend the same protection to our brothers and sisters at the beginning of their lives.
It is also good that the Vatican is seeking dialogue with a thinker like Biggar, who by all accounts takes his Christian faith seriously, even if his conclusions about abortion are erroneous. No one has said that such engagement should not occur, only that the terms and setting of such engagement matter.
There are several perfectly acceptable ways to dialogue with those who do not share the Catholic Church’s absolute defense of all human life. Honoring them with membership in the Pontifical Academy dedicated to upholding that teaching is not one of them.
Father Shenan J. Boquet is president of Human Life International.