This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the second in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica.
In my previous blog post, I invited members of our Wisdom community to begin to engage a conversation on the emotion-charged issue of abortion rights as a means to promote respectful dialogue to think beyond this singular issue. It is with no little “fear and trembling” that I launch a foray into this quintessentially Catholic moral ground. But to the extent that abortion has become the tail wagging the dog, chaining much of the Catholic political conscience to the decidedly un-Christian agendas of the religious right – and to the extent that this “elephant in the room” continues to go unmentioned in the otherwise compelling moral analysis recently emerging from Vatican – I feel some obligation as an American citizen and a wisdom teacher to at least try to get the ball rolling.
Forgive me: this is long for a blog. But take it in small doses, and take your time.
Some preliminary remarks
If my memory serves me correctly, in one of his earliest encyclicals the Pope already laid out some firm groundwork here when he warned against a myopic, single-pointed focus that inevitably twists moral issues out of context. That’s surely what the abortion issue has become in the US, an instantaneous flashpoint. But minus specific guidance as to how to back the Church down off this ledge, I don’t see a practical way to take the first step toward defusing the tension. Is anybody seriously going to be damned fool enough to say, “Hey, we’ve decided that human life doesn’t begin at conception,” or “The rights of the unborn don’t matter”? There seems to be “no way to get from he-ah to they-ah,” as we like to say in Maine, so the issue keeps running in circles.
Some preliminary reflections
Well-nigh universally, the liminal zones bordering life and death – i.e., what happens before birth or after death – have been regarded as a Mystery entrusted to the great spiritual traditions. The traditions offer different perspectives and instructions, but always with a common baseline of 1) respect for the sacredness of these passages; and 2) the need to prepare for these passages, and to live one’s life in conscious relationship with them. The plethora of spiritual practices offered by all sacred traditions are aimed, among other things, at developing a capacity to navigate this territory using more subtle and refined faculties of perception (in Christian tradition this has traditionally been referred to as “faith”).
Across the board, the experience of most committed practitioners is that they eventually “live into” an intimate mystical familiarity with these liminal zones, acquiring the capacity to personally validate spiritual truths inaccessible by the rational intellect alone. Apart from this special training, the rational intellect remains dominant and is the basis of our common social contract. And this, I would say, is a good thing, for the attempt to impose theological dogma concerning the liminal when the inner faculties have not been yet developed to personally validate it leads to the devolution of faith into “blind faith” and opens the doors to theocratic totalitarianism and manifold forms of spiritual abuse to which our culture has become increasingly sensitized.
In former eras, when the population of any given nation was overwhelmingly of the same spiritual tradition, it was fairly simple to conflate these two tracks. The word “catholic ” (as in “Catholic church”) literally means “universal” and, back in the era when the foundations of moral theology were being laid down, the known world was indeed just that. There were Catholics, “heathens”, and missionaries: not much in between.
Nowadays, that is no longer even remotely true. Even in our tiniest nations – and certainly in a nation as vast and sprawling as the United States – there is no longer a single presumed overarching spiritual tradition. There are many – and increasingly none. The fragile glue maintaining civility across increasingly diverse populations is the social contract itself. “Co-exist” is indeed the watchword of our times. Any attempt by one group to reassert its claim that its vision is truly “catholic” – i.e., universally binding – inflicts inevitable misery and violence on the rest.
For this reason, I would propose to offer here what amounts to an essentially two-tier solution governing our deliberations on the abortion issue. The first tier (which one might argue is actually the more “catholic” in the original sense of the term) is consistent with our evolving understanding of human rights and our growing awareness, in a converging world, of the need for our common human family to set universal baselines for sustainable “best practices” with regard to environmental protection, resource allocation, disease control, and population control. The second tier, encapsulating the wisdom carried in the sacred traditions, bears witness to the sacred potential of human life to come to its full spiritual fruition.
I will argue here that this “second tier” wisdom, regardless of the tradition from which it emanates, is binding within that tradition, not beyond it. But within it, lived with fidelity and depth, it has the capacity – indeed, inevitably WILL – serve to redeem and purify the rather clumsier practice lived at the common level.
So here is my six-point proposal. This is clearly – to my mind at least – simply an opening gambit that perhaps opens up a new way of framing the impasse. I eagerly invite your comments and refinements. For the moment I am thinking of this solely in terms of the USA, but hopefully it might have some eventual broader applications as well.
The first tier (the basic social contract)
- We agree that it will be the government’s sacred responsibility to provide for the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of each of its citizens.
This is the classic social contract built into the foundations of our nation, and for 241 years it has served us well.
- We agree that included among the fundamental rights implicit within these freedoms is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.
I know that this one will feel like a punch in the gut to those whose sense of moral duty has been firmly pinned in championing the rights of the unborn. But it is the logical and necessary consequence of Point 1, which is in turn the necessary starting point for a social contract founded on a clear separation of church and state. While the government will do its best to provide for the rights of ALL its citizens – including those in utero – nevertheless, in those difficult circumstances when the two are in direct conflict, we agree that the rights of the present and quantifiable members of its citizenry take precedence over the rights of those still under the custody of the liminal sphere.
But we have not thereby disposed of all concern for the unborn! For those feeling punched in the gut, please continue on to Point 4.
- We agree that in a world so deeply threatened by poverty, disease, and overpopulation, the government should exercise responsible stewardship by providing access to birth control and family planning.
These are envisioned not as moral concessions but as fundamental health rights.
This, then, would comprise my version of a sustainable social contract, with strong legal and moral precedent in the American notion of individual freedom.
The second tier
- We agree that the spiritual traditions are individually at liberty to invite or impose a higher standard of conduct upon their adherents in accordance with that tradition’s understanding of moral and ethical obligation.
While this may at first sound like a double-standard, I believe it is one where there is already strong precedent in the spiritual traditions. Already in Catholicism, for example (in fact, in all sacred traditions featuring a monastic expression), marriage is seen as the general baseline while celibacy is seen as a “higher way”. The decision to walk the celibate path is not universally imposed, but on those who choose it, it becomes morally binding.
Traditionally the inducements offered to invite this higher level of commitment were pitched around personal fulfillment or excellence: a higher spiritual attainment, admission to heaven, etc. But as the Wisdom tradition has consistently maintained (and, as modern physics, specifically the concept of quantum entanglement, confirms), the real efficacy of this higher level of practice lies in its leavening effect upon the whole, raising the bar of spiritual energy and available grace for everyone. A spiritual path practiced with high integrity and commitment emits a transforming energy of its own, which goes much further in actually securing a higher level of spiritual understanding than individuals conscripted into a level of moral behavior they neither understand nor personally assent to.
My intuition is that a significant portion of Catholics voluntarily taking on the Church’s traditional moral teachings on family planning and abortion would do more to better the lot of the unborn than a entire nation forced into compliance with laws experienced as coercive and personally injurious. If the active practice of an authentic sacred tradition produces as its fruits “peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, as Christian tradition (and all traditions) have staunchly maintained, then it is to be expected that these qualities, once actually attained, would percolate through the entire body of our country’s citizenry, if nothing else elevating the climate and respectfulness of the civic discourse. It has always been said that Christians taught first by example – by the fragrance of a life lived with compassionate integrity. It is still our best bet going into the future, particularly where the changes we’re looking to see involve those liminal realms – birth and death – where the spiritual integrity of the gesture is far more impactful than the immediate victory wrested by means which belie their ends.
The last two points are more general, extending beyond the specific abortion issue in order to attempt to establish a climate in which a pluralistic nation, in rapid social transition and spanning at least a three-level gap in levels of consciousness as measured by contemporary evolutionary maps (from amber to green, tribal- to world-centric) might still continue to engage in civil discourse and a healthy give-and-take:
- We agree that government will not intervene with the internal standards of conduct imposed by a spiritual tradition upon its adherents, so long as these standards do not directly threaten the public health or safety. Neither will it establish and promote these standards as binding upon all its citizens.
I would expect this to be a continuing grey area – and rightly so – in that ongoing dance between religious freedom and public safety. There will still be regular legal challenges – as to, for example, whether Christian Scientists should be compelled to seek medical attention for their children or Old Order Mennonites forbidden to use corporal punishment on theirs; whether homophobic town clerks should be required to issue marriage licenses to gay couples or homophobic merchants be required to bake them wedding cakes. In a less polarized society than ours has now become, this would all remain within the realm of healthy give-and-take by which the collective social conscience is slowly nudged ahead.
In order to back down the polarization, however, which by now has escalated to unmanageable levels, I would add in a corollary here which, while it personally breaks my liberal heart, is I believe the only realistic concession that will represent a significant stance of “bargaining in good faith” to ease the present stand-off:
5a. The government agrees not to use its juridical power to impose secular affirmative action standards upon dissenting spiritual groups operating within their own sectarian networks.
In this matter, I am much guided by the model set by my own Episcopal Church in its landmark decisions to embrace women’s ordination and gay marriage. While these decisions, once passed by the General Convention, became the law of the Church, there was a long timeline for total compliance, and wide latitude was given for dissenting clergy and congregations to slowly acclimatize to the new state of affairs through continued conversation and study, with the right to personally opt out of participation in actions that felt to them morally offensive (bishops opposed to women’s ordination, for example, would be able to place their women postulants under the care of a neighboring bishop, nor would a church adamantly uncomfortable with women priests have one foisted upon them). Time was allowed for healing and assimilation, with responses erring on the side of forbearance rather than a self-righteous pressing of the issue.
- Spiritual groups will refrain from seeking to impose their specific moral values or agenda as the law of the land, to the extent that these values either exceed or undercut baseline freedoms already guaranteed above.
A work in progress…
The proposal set forth here is admittedly a compromise. But beyond perhaps easing the polarization, I believe it actually restores a generically rightful balance. In arguing that sacred teachings are binding within a specific spiritual tradition but not beyond it, I believe I am not only acknowledging one of the realities of our pluralistic world, but actually calling on an inherent capacity of these two complimentary streams to counterbalance and bootstrap each other. At its best, the secular state can rescue the sacred traditions from their tendency toward monological thinking and extremism. And at their best, the sacred traditions remind us that the meaning of life is derived from exactly those liminal edges, in the renewed and deeper stabilization of the capacity to live as human beings according to those higher faculties of perception which have never been fully actualized – and by my estimation never will – within purely secular models. Severally and collectively, the spiritual traditions are the evolutionary omega, calling us on to what we have forgotten, or what we may still become.
I realize that many of my Catholic friends will be saying, “yes, but what about all those unborn babies?” As you recall, this proposal began with two assertions, both emerging from my perspective as Wisdom teacher. The first is that pre-birth and post-death belong to those great liminal Mysteries of life, and are best left in the custody of the sacred traditions; the second is that the spiritual practices carefully curated by each of these traditions afford access to these Mysteries in ways that the rational mind cannot comprehend. In the absence of this specific spiritual training (in Christianity, its lineage flows through contemplative prayer), perception will default to the rational mind, where abortion indeed looks like “baby killing”, and emotions instantly bridle at this presumed assault on the innocent. From the more rounded, three-dimensional perspective that opens up from “mind in the heart”, the situation takes on an entirely different coloration. It is this Wisdom perspective that I will exploring in my final blog post.