Garry Wills Is Wrong about the Bishops and Abortion

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Pope Francis in Camerino, Italy, June 16, 2019 (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

As Michael Brendan Dougherty ably noted on the Corner a bit earlier, the New York Times opinion page has published its latest piece attempting to make it appear as if pro-life Catholics don’t understand their own religion.

Prominent historian Garry Wills has been studying the Catholic Church and its history for far longer than I have, so I know he cannot claim ignorance as a defense for having published an op-ed that so grotesquely manipulates the facts in order to defend legal abortion.

Wills begins from the premise that Catholic bishops in the United States are doing something that, in reality, no one is doing: “trying to deny the reception of Holy Communion by the president of the United States for not working to prevent [abortion].”

As Wills surely knows, the complaint of Catholics and their leaders is not that Biden fails to prevent abortion but rather that he actively promotes abortion — legal until birth and funded by taxpayers — while continuing to profess the faith of the Catholic Church, which has for centuries condemned the taking of all innocent human life.

But, it turns out, Wills is not so sure that an unborn child is a human life, after all. He asserts that his own “clipped fingernails or trimmed hairs are human life,” as if the fact that his body generates human cells somehow negates an unborn child’s own fingernails, hair, heartbeat, and indeed entire genetic code, totally distinct from both mother and father.

Meanwhile, later in the piece, he offers a sloppy defense of abortion that would fit better in a freshman dorm room than in the pages of the Times: the claim that “at least half of the fertilized eggs fail to . . . [adhere] to the uterus.” In Wills’s view, this makes God guiltier than the abortionist, if we believe an unborn child has moral worth.

Wills can defend abortion, if he must, but he isn’t entitled to hand-wave away biology with arguments as sophomoric as these.

Elsewhere, he lambastes “the cult of the fetus,” pointing out that some women don’t take pains to bury their unborn child after a miscarriage, and indeed that the Catholic Church itself doesn’t require it. But that doesn’t negate the humanity of the unborn child, much less serve as a defense of deliberate efforts to kill her.

Along the way, Wills botches several key facts, ascribing views to Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas that they did not profess and claiming that the Church has abandoned all efforts to root its defense of human life in Sacred Scripture — an assertion easily disproven by a quick skim of relevant portions of the Catechism.

In closing, Wills bizarrely insists that Pope Francis is “on the side” of women who “have had abortions and still consider themselves Catholics.” The pope surely believes, as all Catholics do, in the love and mercy of God, in the reality of repentance, forgiveness, and redemption, so in one sense Wills is correct. But his claim isn’t true in the way he means it. Though progressives prefer to pretend otherwise, Pope Francis has spoken out consistently and forcefully in defense of unborn human life, and the Catholic bishops have every reason to do the same.