A publication of Sacred Heart University
Conservative Catholic Critics Foment Discord and Youth Exodus
The Crisis of Community among Priests and Laity—A Tale of Two Surveys

The Quality of Mercy is Strained…in the Pews

If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love,

I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal…

(1 Corinthians 13:1)

On Sept. 7 Gov. Jim Abbott of Texas, a professed Roman Catholic, spoke at a press conference about his recent legislative victory, Senate Bill 8, which bans abortions after six weeks (‘fetal heartbeat’) and encourages all Texans to instigate civil lawsuits of liability for anyone who performs, “aids or abets” or intends to aid or abet, an abortion. 

That Abbott engineered such legislation is not surprising, nor is the legislation itself. Yet another comment that the governor made at that same press conference was alarming. When a reporter pressed him about the potential effect of the law particularly on survivors of rape and incest who then become pregnant, the governor replied almost condescendingly that those survivors need not be worried because, “… rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”[1] Another governor, Ron Desantis of Florida, also a professed Roman Catholic, publicly approved most of the Texas legislation in much the same language.

Now, at first glance, that statement might seem to be a simple recognition that there is need for more deliberate efforts at prosecuting rape/incest cases in his home state, and that is a good thing. However, at second glance, his response startles because it is devoid of any acknowledgement of the plight of survivors of rape/ incest, and empty of thought to the suffering the survivors endure(d). The governor (notably, the father of a daughter) said nothing about the actual survivors, or their difficult circumstances, or how the state might assist them (especially minors) in their post-traumatic condition and during the pregnancies; rather, he spoke only about the punitive consequences for the criminals. Such willful insensitivity to and/or a studied disinterest in the women and girls who survive the brutality of sexual assault correlates with an apparent indifference (at best) that seems to have pervaded not only certain participants in the pro-life movement but many other (lay) communities of American Roman Catholics who have lately hobbled their moral and ethical principles with the destructive encumbrance of political enthusiasms.

This is not a pro-abortion commentary: quite the contrary. It is rather an appeal to American Roman Catholics (of whatever political persuasion) to act consistently according to the moral theology of the Church that affirms the human dignity of every person and argues for an ethics of care and a privileging of mercy. This is an appeal—notably to the lay Catholic community and to its leadership—to counter the culture of censure and tribalism that has been filtering through its ranks and to uphold the worth of the girls and women so that the life and humanity of both the child and the mother can be affirmed and dignified.

This is a challenge to a tenaciously patriarchal culture in which leaders often diminish and dismiss the experiences and sentiments of women and girls. The comments of Abbott (and others like him) are indicative of how (male) privilege, regardless of any religious sheen, continues to fail women and girls, especially those in vulnerable conditions. The governor did not allude to care or even empathy for the survivors of rape/incest. His only consideration was juridical, and so his comments seemed oblivious of the fact for survivors, the crime of rape/incest is far more that a procedural matter of arrest and prosecution. Lay Catholic leaders, especially those who lead pro-life organizations, must address with mercy and charity the real trauma of sexual assault, the real fear and confusion of a survivor who then discovers a pregnancy. The governor and other lay Catholic leaders should speak and act with a profession of empathy for the assaulted girls and women, especially as pregnancies proceed. Catholic leaders, especially Catholic politicians and government officials, are able to harness and distribute resources and should be quick to validate the wounded humanity of survivors, and their right to be provided, along with their babies, with natal and post-natal services.

People in the pews must voice their indignation when they witness among their peers not a drop of concern or empathy for the plight of women and girls, especially those who have been brutalized by sexual assault. They must invigorate an ethics of care that responds with benevolence and services, including programs of medical care, housing and shelter, spiritual counseling and loving guidance. The dedication to the sanctity of life should not cease at birth. The most glorious tenet of Catholic moral theology is the sacredness of all (human) life but that teaching imposes on all of us a claim which is neither simple nor uncomplicated. Life, within and outside the womb, demands vigilance and patience and sacrifice and perseverance, and every life must be met with encouragement and acceptance, without which impulsive, even injurious, decisions might be made.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-abortion-law-governor-abbott-rape-victims-six-weeks/ (accessed 9/15/21).

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University. 


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Brian Stiltner

Excellent post, June-Ann. This is the kind of compassionate, holistic reasoning that public life sorely needs--and that Church leaders could do much more to promote.

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