Thursday, June 3, 2010

Intended Complications

The latest column from our friend Phil Lawler at

Writing for US Catholic, Patrick McCormick-- a religious-studies professor at Gonzaga University-- reveals a great deal about his attitude toward Church authority as he delivers his opinions on the Phoenix abortion case.

Bishop Olmsted and the Vatican claim that every "direct" abortion is always wrong.

Bishop Olmstead and "the Vatican"-- whoever that means-- might "claim" that chocolate ice cream is superior to vanilla. But when they say that deliberate abortion is always wrong they are not asserting a claim; they are teaching.

They base their assertion on one traditional reading of the moral principle of "double effect," a reading condemning every physically "direct" attack on innocent human life, but permitting "indirect" abortions (like excising a tumor from a pregnant woman with uterine cancer) when it is the only way to save the life of the mother.

Nice. There is "one traditional reading" of Church teaching, stated repeatedly in papal encyclicals and conciliar documents. Then there's another reading, put forward by one Patrick McCormick. Which one should be follow? Hmmm; let me think.

Moreover, that "one traditional reading" is actually a command, given to us with a fairly high degree of authority: Thou Shalt Not Kill. The deliberate taking of innocent human life is never justified.

The "double effect" argument is introduced here by McCormick, as it is frequently introduced by consequentialists, to complicate the argument. It doesn't apply. One can invoke the principle of double effect if an operation has the goal of saving a woman's life, and an unintended consequence is the death of an unborn child. (The removal of an ectopic pregnancy is a prime example.) In the Phoenix case the abortion was unjustifiable because the death of the unborn child was not unintended; it was the goal of the operation. One human life was snuffed out so that another could continue.

Having muddled the argument on the killing of the innocent, McCormick turns his attention to the canonical penalty of excommunication, and asks why that penalty is reserved only for abortions. (It isn't.) Specifically, he asks:

…why then is excommunication not used to stem the scandal of priest pedophilia…

Bet you didn't see that one coming.

.. or to oppose Catholics who support unjust wars, government sanctioned torture, or the indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction?

Here McCormick, who found it useful to overcomplicate the argument, now oversimplifies. Has any government leader ever announced that he plans to launch an unjust war, or to use nuclear weapons in an indiscriminate manner? Of course not. The political arguments are always more complex, and so the canonical implications are not so easy to draw out. In the Phoenix case, again, Bishop Olmsted's path was clear because the doctor unambiguously announced their intention to abort the child.

After worrying over the hostilities that Bishop Olmsted's stand has aroused-- and which he has helped to encourage-- McCormick finally wonders:

…is excommunication really an adequate or even serious response?

Yes, it is. Excommunication is a very serious step indeed. It is recognized as such by anyone who recognizes the authority granted by Jesus Christ to the Catholic Church. Does McCormick? For that matter, does US Catholic?


  1. Good analysis. I'd be helped, though, by a more thorough understanding of when excommunication is appropriate. I think I remember that Richard Burton was excommunicated for marrying Elizabeth Taylor while still validly married elsewhere, partly because of the scandal that accompanied it.

    Is it not the case that sex with a minor by a man in Holy Orders is a similar cause of public scandal resulting from mortal sin? Why is excommunication not a remedy when someone is unrepentant?

  2. You can't be naive enough to think that goverments don't purposely promote unjust wars.Why do you think john paul so vehemently opposed the Iraqi invasion.The invasions were planned and coveted years before.The promoters of these invasions have close financial ties to the companies that will continue to profit for years to come.I know you don't care about the bishops,the popes,and church teaching in general.You just continue to oppose the catholic church,and point out the flaws in others.Obedience to the church should be 100 percent.And then the world will change.John paul knew a lot more about the true motives of this "war" then he ever let on.You should honour him in a more charitable way...rob

  3. Rob,

    As much as JPII opposed war in general, and the Iraq war in particular, Catholicism teaches that sometimes war is legitimate. To my knowledge, JPII never made opposition to war or to capital punishment an absolute requirement of Catholicism (as in the case of abortion and euthanasia). Are you in 100% agreement with that or are you opposed to the Church's teaching? I am curious.

    As for judging, you presume to know too much. You think you can channel JPII's secret thoughts and reasoning, you think you know the entire "conspiracy" that led to the Iraq war, you think you know Al's twisted motives, you probably have the same opinion of most of Al's audience, etc. What ever happened to "thou shalt not judge"? What ever happened to the "beam in your own eye"? Isn't that somewhere in the Catholic handbook?

    I know you think highly of yourself, friend, but that is not how you come across. You are like nails on a chalkboard... and yes I am being charitable.