Despite what many think, the Vatican may not impose teachings on an unwilling faithful. Through the concept of reception, Catholics have a role to play in the establishment of church law.
The popular notion that whatever the pope says on a serious topic is infallible is an exaggeration of the principle of infallibility. While some ultra-conservative groups claim that the teaching on abortion is infallible, it does not, in fact, meet the definition of an infallible teaching. Since the doctrine of papal infallibility was first declared in 1870, only three teachings have been declared infallible: the Immaculate Conception of Mary; the Assumption of Mary; and the declaration on infallibility itself.
Before the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) was published in 1995, there was speculation among theologians and others that Pope John Paul II would assert the infallibility of the teaching on abortion.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer, confirmed that the word infallible had been considered in early drafts but was rejected. Ratzinger explained that while the teaching on abortion is authoritative and deserves obedience, the encyclical stopped short of the “formality of dogmatization.” (National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 1995)
The teaching authority of the church is not based solely on statements of the hierarchy; it also includes the scholarly efforts of theologians and the lived experience of Catholic people. “Since the Church is a living body,” the Vatican declared in the 1971 Communioet Progressio, “she needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.”
There is a diversity of opinion among leading theologians on the Vatican’s teaching on abortion. As long ago as 1973, noted Catholic theologian Charles Curran wrote in the Jurist that “there is a sizable and growing number of Catholic theologians who do disagree with some aspects of the officially proposed Catholic teaching that direct abortion from the time of conception is always wrong.”
The importance of lay Catholics’ experience in the establishment of church law is recognized through the concept of reception. Leading canon lawyer James Coriden shows how the principle of reception, “asserts that for a [church] law or rule to be an effective guide for the believing community it must be accepted by that community.” Coriden shows how church law experts have, through the centuries, reaffirmed an understanding that “the obligatory force of church law is affected by its reception by the community.”
Like the concept of the primacy of conscience, the principle of reception does not mean that Catholic law is to be taken lightly or rejected without thoughtful and prudent consideration. Coriden writes, “reception is not a demonstration of popular sovereignty or an outcropping of populist democracy. It is a legitimate participation by the people in the i r own governance.” ( “ The Canonical Doctrine of Reception,” Jurist, 1990)
Many of the hierarchy’s teachings on reproductive health and rights have not been received by the faithful. Rather, Catholics all over the world have soundly rejected the church’s ban on contraception and in many countries. Only a minority of Catholics agree with church leaders on abortion. Only 14 percent of Catholics in the US agree with the bishops that abortion should be completely illegal, and Catholic women in the US
have abortions at the same rate as women in the population as a whole.
Majorities of Catholics in several countries feel abortion should be permitted under some or all circumstances. In Italy, which is 97 percent Catholic, 74 percent favour the use of RU-486 (a drug used instead of surgical methods in some early abortions). When it comes to the Vatican’s teachings on abortion, Catholics the world over stand well apart from the hierarchy.
Church teachings, tradition and core Catholic tenets— including the primacy of conscience, the role of the faithful in defining legitimate laws and norms, and support for the separation of church and state— leave room for supporting a more liberal position on abortion. The Vatican has acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person and has never declared its position on abortion to be infallible. Catholics can, in good conscience, support access to abortion and affirm that abortion can be a moral choice. Indeed, many of us do.