In a Just World

photo of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Subject: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcripts: Cheryl McShane

Fr. Neuhaus, an ethicist and Catholic priest, is founder/director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and the editor-in-chief of First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life.

You have frequently acknowledged the problem of language in the abortion debate. How would you suggest the communication proceed?
Well, if you ask the question how can you create a common conversation about the issues that define the lines of deepest difference and even polarization, that's a necessary question to ask, but it has to be asked without any illusion that we're going to arrive at some kind of consensus, never mind agreement with respect to these questions. For example, the abortion issue is perhaps the most deeply divisive in our society today as are the issues surrounding it, namely, how do you define a human being, who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility? The issue of dialogue which is very important to a democratic society is that within the bounds of civility, we are able to engage each other, but this engagement is not based on the delusion that the differences are going to go away. Aristotle said many many years ago and I think this about as good of a shorthand definition as we have ever had of politics. He said, politics is free persons deliberating the question "how ought we to order our life together?" And there's a sense in which the abortion question is the most fundamental of political questions, namely who belongs to the we? When we say "we," we human beings, we human community, we as a society, who do we include and who do we exclude? If we exclude some because they are very very young, or very very small, or very very weak, or very very dependent, or very very incapable of taking care of themselves, well if we start establishing these criteria and these measures as to who belongs to the we, we soon discover that by the same criteria, by the same measures, there's lots of other people who could be excluded. The radically handicapped, the mentally ill, the comatose, a lot of people who by these criteria are not part of the we.

How do you interpret the Catholic Churches teachings on family planning and contraception?
One of the key arguments that the church wants to make is that we're not talking about a peculiar sectarian sect of doctrines of a peculiarly distinctively religious nature here. But we're rather asking the question about the human being. Who is the human being? What is the nature of the human being? It is within that context then that the church understands itself to be engaged in a conversation that is universal in character, not limited in any way to Christianity and certainly not just to Catholicism. Within the context of human sexuality is also a very very big and complex set of questions-- the question of reproduction, of procreation, of the relationship between the dimensions of love and the dimensions of procreation in sexual intercourse. One can only understand the teaching with regard to contraception, with regard to abortion, with regard to marriage and divorce, within this context. And within that context, the church suggests, the church teaches that if we think about it, human sexuality clearly is much much more than what simply people do with their erotic passions or desires, or what they define as their needs. And then the church is very very nuanced and very sympathetic with regard to what people; whether young people and their sexual urgencies, or married couples in their difficulties, sexual and otherwise go through. But the church lifts up "here is what we as human beings are intended for." We are created male and female. The proposition that the church puts forth is to say to the world "is it not the case that human beings, created male and female in an ordered and designed way that is directed toward community, and particularly the community of marriage, which is to be, well the church calls it a sacrament, a means of grace. Within this community of marriage there is also the transmission of human life, that we as creatures are necessarily, historically specific, which is to say we're born at a certain time, live, and die at a certain time and that part of our living is to continue the human project, through procreation, to have children.

There are many Catholics who feel that it is morally acceptable for a person to decide for themselves, based on their own conscience, if a choice regarding contraception or even abortion is correct. Do you believe the Catholic Church allows that freeedom?
The question of are there many Catholics who do not understand, or even if they do understand, do not follow, do not accept the churches proposal with regard to contraception, with regard to abortion, with regard to marriage and divorce and the answer is yes. For example on contraception; In nineteen sixty eight, following the second Vatican counsel, Pope Paul the 6th, after the counsel got a commission to advise on what ought to be the best presentation of the churches teaching with regard to artificial contraception. And that time, of course, was a time of enormous sense of change in the world. Some people were very excited and happy by it, and some people were very alarmed and terrified by it. But in any event it was a time of great turmoil and there was a widespread expectation that the Catholic Church is going to quote "going to change its position on contraception." And then Pope Paul the 6th issued his encyclical "Humana Vitae" on human life and we affirmed the position of the church. And there was an enormous outcry and protest not among the laity, but among theologians, and some bishops, but mainly theologians, academic theologians in particular who really had, themselves, been predicting that of course this is going to change now. And I think we have never, in the Catholic community here in the United States and to some extent, worldwide, we've never quite- I think we're recovering from that now, all right? But that sparked and set fire to a raging storm of dissent from the magisterial teaching, the official teaching of the church. And interestingly enough, it did not spread to the question of abortion. While there are many Catholics who have abortions, sad to say, the dissent from the churches teaching on abortion has held fairly solidly. But there is an understanding, even by the most orthodox, down the line, advocates of magisterial teaching, that we have to deal with people who simply, in many cases, can not begin to get their heads around the rationale for the condemnation, for the declaration that contraception is wrong. They can see abortion. Okay, yes, here's a life and it's wrong to take an innocent human life. They can see euthanasia; the great dangers of eliminating those who are weak and vulnerable and they see, yes that is a terrible thing, yes. But they say "come on! Contraception the condom, the pill? What real harm does it do? It doesn't kill." Now there are some forms of artificial contraception that are, in fact, abortificients, that do destroy the life already begun, but some don't. Some are not abortificient. And people say " well isn't that a kind of extremism?" And and yes. If you just isolate that question and say why is it wrong to use the pill or the condom or whatever. Then it does seem like a picky, picky; you know kind of moralistic extremism. Unless, you have understood the proposal about human nature and about sexuality within human nature and the the rationale of sexual intercourse as this expression both of love and of really a Christ like surrender to the other, on the part of both the man and the woman and the dimensions of that which is openness to new life for God is always the God of life.

When do you believe ensoulment occurs and can you provide religious and/or medical substantiation for that answer?
Well, you mention the question of the beginnings of life and ensoulment and it is true that in the Christian and Jewish tradition, going back over the centuries that the reflection, the moral reflection has of course always had to stay in tandem with what we knew medically and scientifically. And in the scholastic period in the high middle ages, there was entrenched, this notion of ensoulment, and various philosophers and theologians gave various answers to it, whether in forty days, or when the child was first experienced by the mother as usually kicking or moving in the womb, that then this was ensoulment. Now we believe that every child and every human being has a soul, okay? Every human being has a soul. The time of ensoulment in terms of what we know in modern science, is a question on which there is quite frankly, very little discussion today. Because that finally can not become the issue morally. It's an interesting issue to speculate about metaphysically, but morally, you have to ask, "is this a human life?" And if it is the case, that at fertilization that the embryo, but we know at the point where those cells have joined, that you have here an utterly distinctive unique combination of living dynamic that is on a continuum with the fullness of life until natural death. That is one life. I mean finally the Christian proposal, the humanistic proposal, the best of western humanism is that every human being is a point of encounter with infinite worth, which is to say every human being no matter how poor, or how handicapped or how perverse or how criminal or how old or how small, every human being- it's simply just another way of saying is made in the image and likeness of God?