September 2012

The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent.  By George Dennis O’Brien. Rowman & Littlefield. 171 pages. $29.95.

Although his field is philosophy, George Dennis O’Brien’s career has been in administration; he retired as president of the University of Rochester in 1994. In The Church and Abortion he takes up the cudgels against the Magisterium and offers us a new “final and essential arbiter of morality” called “practical wisdom.” In the end, however, his new wisdom turns out to be the same old “wisdom of the world” that God “made foolish” by the cross (1 Cor. 1:20).

O’Brien attacks the Magisterium for having wrapped the pro-life cause in a “religious mantle” consisting of the natural law, Scripture, and papal infallibility. He wants to supplant all this with a “practical wisdom” that can affirm that “sometimes it is permissible and even morally necessary to commit an intrinsic evil.” He wants his fellow Catholics to agree that abortion may even be pro-life: “Paradoxical as it may seem, abortion may be an affirmation of the culture of life.”

In O’Brien’s view, the Catholic opposition to abortion has been a futile campaign driven by popes and bishops who have “often badly misstated” the ethics of the natural law and “strayed into unreality.” The chief sinners, he claims, have been Pope John Paul II and U.S. bishops Ray­mond Burke, Sean O’Malley, Charles Chaput, and Robert Finn. He calls the bishops a “coterie of flamboyant Catholic bishops who have seized the public platform” and have “sinned” by calling abortion a “foundational issue.” These bishops have led Catholics on a “fantasy crusade” and caused “immeasurable” damage in politics by delaying legislation on foreign aid and health care. To undercut Bl. John Paul II’s condemnation of abortion, O’Brien argues that an “infallible papacy” is a “modern” development; and to undercut that of the U.S. bishops, he faults their “rhetoric” for showing a lack of respect for “many thoughtful Catholics” and other “moral and decent people.” He has harsh words, too, for bishops who secretly dissent from the “official” view but fail to speak out when their fellow bishops call the Democrats the “party of death.” By towing the party line, he says, they resemble children in a dysfunctional family who are afraid to tell their father that he’s an alcoholic.

O’Brien defines practical wisdom as “an art derived from practice and experience…difficult to obtain and rare.” It is the product of “deep experience,” which includes a knowledge of poetry, fiction, history, biography, and philosophy. Such knowledge will build up “the sensitivity needed for moral deliberation,” but since such studies take time, the morally wise are usually depicted as being very old. By means of practical wis­dom, O’Brien says, we will arrive at “new values and common ground.” Note well that this new mag­­­is­terium appears to reside in an elite class of elderly academics like himself. Doubtless they will all be admirers of dissenting theologians like Charles Curran, whom O’Brien lauds as a “distinguished Catholic moral theologian.” Why is this not surprising?

After having been “refined” and “enriched” by learning and experience, O’Brien’s wise experts know that the right “moral course” consists of a mixture of “intrinsic goods and evils.” Now, reader, watch for the twists and turns in the following argument. O’Brien starts by saying that he will “accept without qualification the official characterization of abortion as ‘an intrinsic evil.’” He will also accept the Catholic teaching that “an act that is intrinsically evil is everywhere and always wrong.” He sounds remarkably like a faithful Catholic. Ah, but he soon asks, “How serious is an intrinsic evil?” and “How does one balance intrinsic evils and intrinsic goods in determining a moral course of action?” He decides that even if abortion is intrinsically evil, this doesn’t mean that it “ought not to be done.” He ends by saying that while “abortion is an intrinsic evil,” it is an evil “that may be licit or even required, given other serious moral considerations.”

What a difference between this corrupt worldliness and the radiant holiness of the teachings we receive from the authentic Magisterium! In the Catechism (nos. 1755-1756), we are warned not to choose certain acts that are always morally evil, and we are told that we must never “do evil so that good may result from it.” The Church takes us onto the narrow path that leads to eternal life, while O’Brien urges us onto the broad path that leads to perdition.

Another way O’Brien encourages us to embrace worldly wisdom is by giving us a list of acts, besides abortion, that the Church calls intrinsically evil: artificial contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, and stem-cell research (he omits the key qualifier “embryonic”). He asks, “Do these items deserve the intrinsic evil designation?” He answers that many would say no and, therefore, since intrinsic evil is not “obvious evil,” the pro-life movement should back off from its “high rhetoric and stringent legal demands.” He then descends to this laughably low common ground: If abortion is an intrinsic evil, it is so at least in the “minimal sense that it cannot be one of life’s intrinsically desirable goods.” Yes, even Planned Parenthood could agree with this, seeing how it doesn’t (yet?) offer gift cards for abortions.

By making abortion “subject to absolutist moral condemnation,” O’Brien says, the Church obscures the meaning of the Bible. He invites us to see the biblical God not as the “Designer-God” of nature, but as the “Author-God” of personal histories. While the God who designed nature would find abortion a “clear violation of natural process,” his Author-God would be pro-choice and see abortion as part of a woman’s “personal story, in the full individuality of her life and circumstance.”

The Bible itself, he insists, is not a book of moral teachings, but only a story. The God of Israel is “too mixed up in time and history” to be a “transcendent” moral teacher. Far from being “objective” morality, then, the Ten Commandments cannot even be “abstracted from their historic setting.” Notice the strange twist in his argument. First he calls the Bible a “story,” and then he says it’s a story stuffed with made-up facts: “Much biblical ‘history’ is downright false,” he writes, and in it facts are “alleged that did not actually occur because they capture the true meaning and spirit of an event which did occur.” This last sentence could have been written by Spinoza, the first systematic atheist in Europe, whose Tractatus (1670) was the first book ever to attack the Bible as replete with fraudulent facts. O’Brien even says the Resurrection of Jesus Christ might not have occurred: “Whatever the facts of Resurrection, something happened to the disciples that was remembered in that fashion,” and then “recounted as the event of Resurrection.” The Bible, in O'Brien's hands, turns into a piece of fiction. This is not Catholic dissent, it is practical atheism.

The Church and Abortion also suffers a few serious factual errors. For example, O’Brien writes, “Since 90 percent plus of induced abortions occur very early in pregnancy, it is highly unlikely that the majority of the forty million [surgically aborted babies] would have made it to birth.” This is patently wrong. The esteemed Dr. Hanna Klaus, an obstetrician/gynecologist at the Natural Family Planning Center in Washington, D.C., told this reviewer that “there are theories that 60 percent of conceptuses die very early, probably before implantation, but in the absence of evidence it is someone’s idea. Natural miscarriages, where one to three menstrual periods are missed and the miscarriage is obvious, occur on average once in five pregnancies. I don’t know how O’Brien can conclude what he does. He does not distinguish between the putative non-clinical early abortions and those which are induced.”

O’Brien also erroneously asserts that “the human embryo reenacts evolution from primitive life on up,” going through vegetative and animal stages before becoming human. This is frankly contrary to the findings of modern embryology. From this false premise, O’Brien arrives at the equally false conclusion that pro-abortionists have a “biological warrant” for saying that the unborn child is only a “potential” human being. He claims that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas would be pro-choice were they alive today. This is simply not true. These saints always followed the Church in condemning abortion at any stage. O’Brien repeats the same error made by two dissenting Catholics, Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete, and in his bibliography he lists their book, A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion [reviewed by this writer in the Oct. 2004 NOR — Ed.].

It is tragic that a learned man who calls himself a Catholic and who has reached the age of 80 has published a book in defense of the barbaric carnage around us. Fifty-four million unborn babies have been killed by surgical abortion in the U.S. since 1973. Let us pray that he will repent of giving evil counsel so that he will not hear, at his personal judgment, the words the prophet Daniel said to the first of three elders who had condemned Susanna: “You old relic of wicked days, your sins have now come home, which you have committed in the past, pronouncing unjust judgments, condemning the innocent and letting the guilty go free, though the Lord said, ‘Do not put to death an innocent and righteous person’” (Dan. 13:52-53). Who, we may ask, is more innocent than the unborn babe?

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner



Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile (Revised and Updated).  By Joseph Pearce. Ignatius Press. 414 pages. $19.95.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn led one of the most interesting lives of the twentieth century. When he was born, the imperial family, including Nicholas II and his wife and children, had just been executed. When he died, the Soviet Union no longer existed. In between, he was a witness to and a participant in a most tumultuous period of Russian — and world — history. And although he spent 18 years in forced exile, he really never left the land of his birth.

In this third and revised edition of his biography, Joseph Pearce gives readers an inside look at what it must have been like to start out as a committed communist, and become, over time, a fierce defender of Christianity, scourge of both capitalist and communist alike.

Through his remarkable life, Sol­zhenitsyn wrote of his imprisonment as a dissident in the gulag, his battle with cancer, the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and the soul-destroying nature of Stalinist repression. Sometimes in secret, and later openly, Solzhenitsyn confronted the truth about Soviet society. His works, often published in the West before becoming available in his own country, gave a grim and uncompromising view of the realities of life in a totalitarian state. Of course, only so much dissent could be tolerated by officials, and eventually Solzhenitsyn found himself stripped of his citizenship and living in the U.S., outside a small village in Vermont.

His life there was secluded. He appreciated the privacy the New Englanders granted, keeping him free to raise his children and continue his work. But the decadent ways of broader Western society met with the same disapproval that he cast toward Russian society. The speech he delivered to the graduating class of Harvard in 1978 was met with disdain. People came expecting the famous new U.S. resident to lambaste the Soviet Union and sing the praises of his new home. But Sol­zhe­ni­tsyn, never afraid to speak out, focused instead on the rot that affected the affluent West: its hedonism and materialism. In Pearce’s words, “If Bolshevism was a bully, capitalism was a cad.” Had the Russian misunderstood the West as many claimed? Probably not.

Despite being a bestselling author for decades, many of Solzhe­nitsyn’s beliefs are still not well known. Pearce does a wonderful job of helping the reader understand the many aspects of Solzhenitsyn’s thought and how they form a consistent world­view. Repeatedly explored is his profound belief in the need in every society for self-limitation and self-restriction, from the personal level to the national. The constant stream of information, most of it unimportant, to which many of us subject ourselves daily, is destructive to the soul, and Solzhenitsyn appreciated this fact long before the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, and the App Store. Furthermore, he was uncompromising about the need to decentralize most spheres of life from the control of a centralizing state: Small communities and even families need to be stronger, just as small nations need to be free of the oppressive influence of larger, more powerful ones.

One constant among Solzhe­nitsyn’s views was his belief in the truth of Christianity. Faith, he said, is “the foundation and support of one’s life.” Although always passionate about Russia, her language and patrimony, he followed very much the religious philosopher Vladimir So­lovyev who wrote, “You must love all other people as you love your own.”

Solzhenitsyn’s keen observations on the economic life of nations led to conclusions similar to those of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and E.F. Schumacher, which he spelled out in Rebuilding Russia. He claimed no expertise as an economist and did not support specific proposals, but his broad outline of what constitutes a just society favors independent citizens owning modest amounts of personal property. Of course, no one in Russia heeded his warnings, and the corruption, criminality, and environmental destruction that plague Russia today are ample evidence of this neglect.

Pearce, because of the unprecedented access he had to this giant of the last century, also gives us more than a glimpse into his private life. Through extensive quotes from his subject, we get a snapshot of Solz­henitsyn’s humor and humility, traits not always evident in his more famous works. Solzhenitsyn’s early, first marriage did not survive. It fell victim to long separations and what we might call irreconcilable differences about what constitutes a meaningful life. His second marriage, to Natalya Dmitrievana, lasted, and his wife and sons provided Solzhenitsyn with much of the wherewithal to endure his 18-year exile. His children, raised in a fully Russian household while also fully immersed in American village life, are all U.S. citizens. Although he was offered the same privilege, Solz­henitsyn, always firmly Russian, declined. He had his Russian citizenship restored in 1990, prior to his permanent return to his homeland after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

His reception upon returning there was not untroubled. Still, it is astonishing to realize that in 2010 Vladimir Putin pronounced The Gulag Archipelago essential reading. It is now required of all high-school students in Russia.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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