Friday, November 16, 2012

Shortcut thinking and the life of Savita Halappanavar (updated)

Yesterday there were a number of really valuable reflections from Catholic writers on the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, the expectant mother from India who died of a raging infection while suffering a miscarriage. Could there be a more patent case for the liberalization of abortion laws in Ireland? Wouldn't her life have been spared if the medical staff in the Irish hospital had not been prevented by law from performing an abortion?

Unfortunately, it is just this pattern of thinking that sealed the young woman's fate. By now it is conventional wisdom that when a pregnant woman has a health crisis, it will be resolved quickly, easily and infallibly by terminating the pregnancy.  Of course, Catholics don't allow that.

This is "shortcut thinking" at its most tragic.

So now it is not the medical personnel who are on trial in the court of public opinion, it is the Catholic Church. Because, as one of the hospital staff is said to have explained, "This is a Catholic country."

But Catholic thought is a lot more nuanced than people assume. That is why Church documents on life issues use specific, almost indecipherably legalistic jargon like "procured abortion" or "direct abortion" when referring to an unspeakable evil that is willed and chosen.  Some 35 years ago, though, I learned (from an unimpeachably orthodox theology professor by the name of John Hardon, SJ) about the principle of double effect. In cases where this principle applies, even something as serious as the death of an unborn child can be tolerated, but never deliberately sought. (Explanations  herehere, and an application here in a specific case of conjoined twins.) Of course, there is a risk that shortcut thinking will enter in and attempt to place in the category of "double effect" circumstances that simply don't fit. But, as seen from the link above, double effect touches more than crises in pregnancy.

I have to admit to areas of short-cut thinking that abound in my own mind and heart. It's convenient, it's pithy, but it's not always adequate. How many people are left bewildered and betrayed, even cut off from the sacraments, not by Church teaching, but by shortcut thinking that is "more Catholic than the Pope"? Pope Benedict himself raised a lot of eyebrows (including my own) when he refused to repeat short-cut thinking about the use of condoms for limiting the spread of AIDS; the Church--despite assertions to the contrary in editorial pages--does not require politicians to vote against the "rape, incest and medical necessity" exceptions in abortion legislation; divorced or gay people are not ipso facto cut off from the life of the Church or unwelcome at Mass. The list could go on.  All examples of short-cut thinking brought up short by Church teaching.

Do you find yourself falling into shortcut thinking? How do you recognize it?

For a great deal of nuance from Catholic writers on this sad story, see:

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