Here is part of a report on a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey about beliefs regarding abortion:
Another apparent contradiction comes from the high percentage of people across all age groups who say both the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" describe them somewhat or very well. Among all of the 3,000 adults sampled for the survey, 70 percent said the term "pro-choice" describes them well or somewhat, and 66 percent identify with the word "pro-life." Seventy-five percent of millennials identify at least somewhat as "pro-choice," and 65 percent said the word "pro-life" describes them.
Among Catholics, 77 percent said "pro-life" describes them well or very well, and 70 percent said "pro-choice" describes them.
At a June 9 forum hosted by the Brookings Institution where the survey was released, Robert Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, explained that in focus groups, people reiterated that they consider themselves fitting under both labels.
What we have, in other words, are a large number of Catholics saying, "Personally, I'm pro-life. But I won't force my beliefs on anyone else." Many will also add: "And I really can't judge someone's decision to have an abortion." It is essentially the same argument (in)famously presented (albeit in more sophisticated form) by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo back on September 13, 1984, to the University of Notre Dame's Department of Theology. But to be fair to Cuomo, Cardinal Cushing of Boston said the same thing in the early 1960s; in a 1963 radio interview he reportedly stated, "I have no right to impose my thinking, which is rooted in religious thought, on those who do not think as I do", in regards to efforts to life the ban then in place on contraceptives (the legislation to lift the ban, by the way, was introduced by a certain Michael Dukakis).
This faulty and badly misleading approach had become so commonplace in the West by the 1990s that it was addressed at length by Blessed John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. He wrote that "in the democratic culture of our time it is commonly held that the legal system of any society should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the convictions of the majority. It should therefore be based solely upon what the majority itself considers moral and actually practises." He then stated:
Furthermore, if it is believed that an objective truth shared by all is de facto unattainable, then respect for the freedom of the citizens—who in a democratic system are considered the true rulers—would require that on the legislative level the autonomy of individual consciences be acknowledged. Consequently, when establishing those norms which are absolutely necessary for social coexistence, the only determining factor should be the will of the majority, whatever this may be. Hence every politician, in his or her activity, should clearly separate the realm of private conscience from that of public conduct.
As a result we have what appear to be two diametrically opposed tendencies. On the one hand, individuals claim for themselves in the moral sphere the most complete freedom of choice and demand that the State should not adopt or impose any ethical position but limit itself to guaranteeing maximum space for the freedom of each individual, with the sole limitation of not infringing on the freedom and rights of any other citizen. On the other hand, it is held that, in the exercise of public and professional duties, respect for other people's freedom of choice requires that each one should set aside his or her own convictions in order to satisfy every demand of the citizens which is recognized and guaranteed by law; in carrying out one's duties the only moral criterion should be what is laid down by the law itself. Individual responsibility is thus turned over to the civil law, with a renouncing of personal conscience, at least in the public sphere. (par. 69)
You'll not find a better explanation of the roots of the reason why many Catholics, with nary a raising of the brow or a twitching of the eye can describe themselves as both "pro-choice" and "pro-life". The late Holy Father, however, went even deeper, noting that a pervasive and rotten relativism is the source of this cognitive and moral dissonance:
At the basis of all these tendencies lies the ethical relativism which characterizes much of present-day culture. There are those who consider such relativism an essential condition of democracy, inasmuch as it alone is held to guarantee tolerance, mutual respect between people and acceptance of the decisions of the majority, whereas moral norms considered to be objective and binding are held to lead to authoritarianism and intolerance.
But it is precisely the issue of respect for life which shows what misunderstandings and contradictions, accompanied by terrible practical consequences, are concealed in this position. (pars. 69-70).
And then, drawing upon his experience with the horrors of Communism and Naziism, John Paul II asked these challenging questions:
It is true that history has known cases where crimes have been committed in the name of "truth". But equally grave crimes and radical denials of freedom have also been committed and are still being committed in the name of "ethical relativism". When a parliamentary or social majority decrees that it is legal, at least under certain conditions, to kill unborn human life, is it not really making a "tyrannical" decision with regard to the weakest and most defenceless of human beings? Everyone's conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus? (par. 70).
The past four or five decades have shown, in case after case, that when people and institutions doff the mantle of being "privately opposed" to abortion, "but...", their public witness disappears or is severely distorted, and any semblance of coherent moral vision turns to dust. Confusion abounds, to the point that this country's most famous Catholic university praised itself in 2009 for handing the most pro-abortion President in history an honorary doctor of laws degree and then, in recent weeks, appointing a financial supporter of a well-known abortion lobby to its board of trustees. In the wake of the appointee's resignation and the school's awkward handling of the situation, George Weigel noted, "Those watching from a distance could only conclude that Ms. Martino, Mr. Notebaert, and perhaps Father Jenkins simply did not understand what the fuss was about, and yielded only under unbearable pressure."
Likewise, it seems to me that many (though certainly not all) Catholics who say they are "pro-choice", in fact, don't know what the fuss is about. They have been told repeatedly that individual beliefs and "right of privacy" and "choice" trump truth, reality, and life, and they don't see the contradiction in their position and so, tragically, fail to see how it is, as John Paul II explained, always "accompanied by terrible practical consequences".
Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:
• Abortion and Ideology | Raymond Dennehy
• The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond Dennehy
• Privacy, the Courts, and the Culture of Death | An Interview with Dr. Janet E. Smith
• What Is "Legal"? On Abortion, Democracy, and Catholic Politicians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker
• Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci
• The Truth About Conscience | John F. Kippley
• The Case Against Abortion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith
• What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
• Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
• Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci
• Personally Opposed--To What? | Dr. James Hitchcock