I think it is terrific that the New York Times, after weeks and weeks of op-eds by pro-life Catholics, made space this weekend for Garry Wills to give the other side of the story. Wills’s piece on the abortion-communion controversy is also refreshing since he’s not wasting time disputing the church’s ability to act on the basis of its teachings; he thinks that the teaching against abortion is wrong and should be changed, and he explains his reasons for thinking that way.
While I believe that politicians who vote to expose young human beings to violence should not receive communion, for reasons that I’ve provided here and elsewhere, I have had one worry about the campaign to deny them communion: that it overstates the specifically Catholic dimension of opposition to abortion. Wills very cleverly exploits this weakness, noting correctly that the bishops have no special expertise in embryology.
But his argument is awfully weak at key places. “If natural law teaching were clear on the matter, a consensus would have been formed by those with natural reason.” Here Wills seems to be suggesting that the existence of disagreement about the morality of abortion invalidates the claim that reason can arrive at the pro-life position. If that’s what he’s saying, it’s a non sequitur. Sloppy expositions of natural-law theory have sometimes suggested that all people at some level understand what is right and wrong in all particulars; but that’s bad natural-law theory, which should be rejected by those with natural reason.
Wills argues that the commandment not to kill “does not cover all human life”: “My hair and fingernails, while growing, are alive with my own human life. Semen and ova have human life even before their juncture.” Surely Wills can do better than this. His skin cells are alive and human; but they are not human lives. Wills wants to use his point about skin cells to establish the existence of a category of human organisms who are not persons and can thus licitly be destroyed. But the analogy can’t do the work he wants it to do.
At the end of the day, Wills has not refuted the two key claims that those of us who think that politicians who vote for legal abortion should not receive communion have to make: that natural reason can establish the injustice of allowing the unborn to be killed with impunity, and that the bishops have a special responsibility to keep the flock from promoting injustice.