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ABORTION-TEACHING Jun-8-2004 (850 words) Backgrounder. xxxn

Church opposes abortion, death penalty -- but experts see difference

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Abortion and capital punishment are hot political potatoes which divide more than unite U.S. voters, but opposition to both is clear in Catholic teaching.

A major difference between the two issues is that accepting the abortion teaching is more important for adherence to one's Catholic faith than following the teaching on capital punishment, said several theologians and experts in Catholic social thought interviewed by Catholic News Service.

Another difference, outlined in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," is that abortion is always wrong, while there may be circumstances -- although "very rare" in modern times -- when state-approved capital punishment is possible.

"A Catholic who thinks that there is no moral problem with abortion fails to grasp the thrust of the church's teaching," said Jesuit Father John Langan, professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University's Institute of Ethics in Washington.

Regarding capital punishment, "a Catholic can say that in certain circumstances prohibiting it doesn't apply," he said.

In theological terms, the abortion teaching requires "assent of faith" while the teaching on capital punishment requires "religious respect of mind and will," said Father Russell Smith, official theologian for the Diocese of Richmond, Va., and past president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston.

Canon law also calls for the excommunication of "a person who procures a completed abortion" while there is no legal penalty for people involved in state-sanctioned capital punishment.

Interest in church teachings about abortion and capital punishment has risen recently because of the wide debate as to whether bishops should deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion or hold public policy positions that conflict with fundamental moral teachings of the church.

In U.S. politics in general, abortion and capital punishment are often litmus tests. Some people may tend to oppose legal abortion while others may tend to oppose capital punishment -- and sometimes there's little crossover.

Catholic teaching sees a common theological base for opposing both.

The catechism discusses abortion and capital punishment as part of the church's adherence to the Fifth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."

Regarding abortion, the catechism says that "human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception" and that "this teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable."

Regarding capital punishment, it says that in today's world "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'" The quote within the quote is from Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, "The Gospel of Life."

Both teachings originated early in church history, with opposition to capital punishment growing stronger in the 1990s under the current pope, said Dominican Father Kevin O'Rourke, bioethics professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

"Pope John Paul II has developed it more firmly to where it is almost never justified," he said.

Father Smith said the historical issue has been, where does one draw the line in terms of when capital punishment is permitted?

"The line moves and the latitude can widen, but the Holy Father doesn't see it widening in these days," he said.

Father Smith said that opposition to capital punishment is also tied to the church's concept of mercy.

St. Augustine, a bishop and theologian born in the fourth century, said that a bishop's duty was to plead for mercy for people sentenced to death, said Father Smith.

"There is always a strong rudder in the church steering toward mercy," he added.

The church's evolution toward restricting capital punishment also has sociological roots in the tremendous human carnage Europe has seen starting with the 18th-century French Revolution, Father Smith said.

He cited the Russian Revolution, World War I, Nazi Germany and World War II.

"This cheapening of human life helped in moving the church toward the abolition of capital punishment to restore respect for human life and dignity," Father Smith said.

Father Langan added that part of the evolution includes strong papal pressure for Catholics to be consistent and defend life on both abortion and capital punishment issues.

"The pope's position is that if you are defending life in one area, you should defend it in all," he said.

Father O'Rourke said that, although abortion has always been morally condemned, there has been evolution -- based on advances in scientific knowledge -- regarding at what moment a human being is formed.

Advances in genetics starting in the 19th century make it clear now that a human being is established with the fusion of the egg and sperm because the entire human genetic material is present at that moment, Father O'Rourke said.

Before, based on their knowledge of biology, many theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, thought that a human being was not formed until several weeks after impregnation, said Father O'Rourke.

Father Smith added, though, that since the early writings of the church there always has been a moral rejection of deliberate expulsion from the womb even if it took place before the moment when theologians thought a human being had been formed.


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