The Lobbying of the Catholic Church Against Reproductive Rights

by Emily Hockett

Discussing the legal history of his native China in Waiting for the Dawn, Huang Zongxi describes a time when order was maintained without a centralized state power. Communities satisfied their needs by establishing systems of agriculture and education without the help of the government (Zongxi 97). Zongxi praises this functional and equitable system, and credits its unprecedented interruption to an attempt on behalf of emperors to further their own power (Ibid.). This account supports Zongxi’s main claim in Waiting for the Dawn: that leaders should favor decentralized government, empowering and educating communities to make decisions for themselves.

This argument contradicts Niccolò Machiavelli’s position throughout The Prince, favoring the centralization of power and authority. When assessing these differences, it is important to consider the contrasting geopolitical climates of these two foundational political scientists. The two famous works were written about 150 years apart from each other (The Prince in 1513 and Waiting for the Dawn in 1663 and). Zongxi is writing in dynastic China, an empire with a huge, heterogeneous population, while Machiavelli is writing in what we now call Italy, which was, at the time, a group of small, homogeneous city-states. But the difference between the two works is not just contextual. It is emblematic of an ideological opposition between the two about the motives of a leader. While Zongxi believes a leader should always act in the best interest of his populous (though he concedes that this is not always the reality), Machiavelli asserts that a leader will always act in his own self-interest. He writes The Prince to advise his leader on how to maximize that interest.

In his discussion of the papacy, Machiavelli praises Alexander VI, a Renaissance pope who admitted to fathering multiple illegitimate children, for showing “how much can be done in that office with money and arms”(Murphy; Macchiavelli, 33). Consistent with his claim that people will always act in their own best interest, Machiavelli asserts that Pope Alexander VI’s intent “was to aggrandize the duke and not the Church” (Ibid.). A successful pope, according to Machiavelli, is one who abuses the power of the church to stay in the good graces of the imperial power du jour.

The Vatican has very different thoughts from Machiavelli about the role of the pope. He is the spiritual leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics of the world, as well as the head of state of Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign nation, with a population of 690. His spiritual responsibilities take precedent over his stately ones, so he is expected to represent the interest of the members of the Catholic Church (Willey). Though history has sometimes indicated otherwise, the following advice will be based on the assumption that the pope acts according to the interest of his Catholic constituency, promoting and asserting God’s will to the members of the church he leads. This piece will argue that the pope should adopt a Zongxian style of leadership as opposed to a Machiavellian one. To this end, the pope should stop the Catholic Church’s lobbying efforts to limit access to abortion in the US. The church’s involvement in public policy is against the institution’s moral and political interest, and it is also contradicts the church’s founding scripture. The policies in Catholic hospitals across the continental United States and all around the world are dangerous for the future of the Catholic Church in the US. They violate US law and Canonical law, and they are physically dangerous to women.

Machiavelli believes that all leaders should take a militant approach to governance. He should control his people by force to maximize his power and authority. According to Zongxi, this approach is not only unethical, but it is also bound to backfire. Rulers who establish laws that diminish the freedom of the populace to increase their own authority will end up doing the opposite. Zongxi argues, “as [the laws] become tighter they become the very source of disorder” (Zongxi 98). Instead, Zongxi proposes a political utopia without a strong centralized government, where “there would be a spirit among men that went beyond the letter of the law” (Zongxi 99). Zongxi is not advocating for complete anarchy. He acknowledges the importance of government, but sees limits to what it can achieve. Zongxi’s vision, one where people act out of faith in the law instead of blindly following its letter, is a fantasy shared by Jesus Christ a century and a half earlier. In his infamous “Sermon on the Mount,” a speech to his disciples transcribed in the Gospel of Matthew of the Christian Bible, Jesus recounts the “thou shalts” of the Hebrew Bible, and takes each one beyond its literal meaning. When discussing the Hebrew Bible’s prohibition of adultery, Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”(New International Version, Matthew 5:27-29). The most central tenant of Jesus’ teachings is a move beyond the literal Word of God, in pursuit of the meaning and motive behind His words. Jesus, like Zongxi, envisions a community that is governed by covenants, not by laws.

The determination of these covenants, Zongxi argues, depends on an educated public. Education allows for a natural system of checks and balances and social mobility, both of which serve to maintain stability and order, especially in an empire as large as China. Zongxi writes:

“Schools were meant to imbue all men, from the highest a court to the humblest in country villages, with the broad and magnanimous spirit of the Classics. What the Son of Heaven thought right was not necessarily right; what he thought was wrong was not necessarily wrong. And thus even the Son of Heaven did not dare decide right and wrong for himself, but shared with the schools the determination of right and wrong” (Zongxi 127).

Again, Zongxi uses the word “spirit,” which has Christian connotations. He advocates for a humble, honest exploration of right and wrong. He opposes the imposition of objective morals, understanding that the internalization of morals and laws can only come from inside the individual. Zongxi believes that the determination of right and wrong is not static. It is not a process that will ever be complete, and schools serve to foster this determination so that each generation can create their collective conception of morality.

Despite its lobbying efforts that may indicate otherwise, the Catholic church has publicly declared its commitment to creating a collective conception of morality. The church called itself “a living body,” in Communio et Progressio, a Vatican Declaration issued in 1971, elaborating: “[the church] needs public opinion to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.” This statement reveals the moral and legal responsibility the Catholic Church has to represent the interest and opinion of its 1.2 billion members worldwide. This legal responsibility is known as the doctrine of the reception, and is explained further by Canon lawyer James Coriden: “the obligatory force of church law is affected by its reception by the community…reception is not a demonstration of popular sovereignty or an outcropping of populist democracy. It is legitimate participation by the people in their own governance” (Coriden).

In recent times, religious participation is at an all-time low in the US, especially among young people. 27% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) say they attend religious services on a weekly basis, compared with 51% of adults in the Silent generation (born 1928-1946) (Wormald). When assessing the political power of religion, Machiavelli writes that, “[ecclesiastical states] are sustained by the ancient principles of religion which are so powerful and of such authority that they keep their princes in power whatever they do, however they live” (Machiavelli 32). The Prince was written in 1513, and while the work is famous for its timeless ideas, this assessment on the power of religion is not one of them.

Pope Francis is well aware of the millennial generation’s absence from the religious institutions of their parents. In an effort to address young people directly, the Pope took to Twitter, writing: “Dear Young Friends, your names are written in heaven in the merciful heart of the Father. Be brave and go against the tide!” on April 23, 2016. The following day, @Pontifex (the pope’s Twitter handle) tweeted, “Dear Young People, with the grace of God you can become authentic and courageous Christians, witnesses to love and peace.” These are short pieces of advice (they have to be—they are limited to 140 characters) that the Catholic Church should consider taking if it wants to appeal to young Americans.

The church is not the only institution that Americans millennials are wary of. A poll conducted by Harvard’s Kennedy School found that more than three-in-five (62%) of 18-29 year old Americans agree with the Machiavellian statement that “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons” (“Trust in Institutions…”). The same study showed recent increases in agreement with the statements “political involvement rarely has any tangible results,” and “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities I have” The unexpected popularity of 2016 presidential candidate and self-declared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders further supports the evidence that millennials are disillusioned with “establishment” politics. Sanders has focused his campaign on exposing and promising to change the American government’s allegiance with large corporations resulting from unregulated campaign contributions.

Some Catholics are applying this anti-establishment rhetoric that has earned Sanders his popularity to a critique of the “Catholic hierarchy.” Catholics for Choice, a pro-choice non-profit that identifies as “part of the great majority of the faithful in the Catholic church who disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on matters related to sexuality, contraception and abortion” (‘The Truth about Catholics… 4). The organization’s position paper continues to assert: “The Catholic hierarchy’s lobbying against contraception and abortion has disastrous effects on women’s lives both in the US and abroad” (Ibid.). These objections to the Vatican’s lobbying are shared by many others, Catholic and non-Catholic. They are a part of an increasingly vocal constituency pointing out that, while the Catholic Church claims to represent the values of their members, they silence and punish those who disagree with their political agenda.

Despite the Zongxian values it claims, the church has acted according to Machiavellian principles throughout its history. Thus, to gain the respect and participation of the next generation of Catholics, the pope should take the advice he gave to young people via Twitter. In the name of the authenticity he preaches, he should bravely “go against the tide” and reform the corrupt political practices of the Vatican. He should start by putting an end to the church’s anti-choice lobbying efforts. By removing itself from public policy, the church is not only distancing itself from the political system that young people are fed up with, but it is also displaying faith in members’ ability to make their own decisions.

The US has a long history of denying women their human rights. Women were not afforded the right to vote in the US until 1920, and Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibits gender-based discrimination, was not passed until 1964 (“Title IX and…”). The Catholic Church also has a long history of prejudice against women. As recently as November of 2015, Pope Francis called pregnancy an “affirmation of the dignity of the woman” in a conversation with anti-choice advocates (Schneible). This implies that women who do not choose motherhood, or women for whom motherhood is not an option, do not have dignity in the eyes of the church.

Vatican officials, all of whom are men, are not in a place to decide what affirms a woman’s dignity, especially not when they are supporting legislation that prohibits abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Telling women that their “dignity” depends on giving birth to their rapist’s child is dehumanizing and demoralizing, especially when this message comes from an institution that they have participated in disproportionately. America\n women have higher levels of religious engagement than men, so the papacy has a responsibility to empower and educate women to make their own decisions, even if those decisions “go against the tide” of the historic position of the Vatican (Jones, Laser & Cox).

It is not only in the Catholic Church’s best political and moral interest to avoid inserting itself into public policy, it is also their responsibility according to canonical law. The Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” explicitly advises Catholics to respect the positions of other faiths. Thus, even in predominantly Catholic countries (of which the US is not—about 20% of the population identifies as Catholic) laws governing access to abortion do not need to adhere to the official Catholic position.

Though many may argue that the lobbying efforts against abortion on behalf of the church are insignificant in the grand scheme of American politics, the consequences of the church’s intervention in US abortion policy are grave. There are 600 Catholic hospitals in the United States, comprising about one-fifth of all hospital beds in the country. About 45 Catholic hospitals in the US are sole providers, meaning they're the only hospital serving a community (Becky). These hospitals are governed by 72 ethical and religious directives written by the US Conference for Catholic Bishops and enforced the local bishop (“An Authentically Catholic…”).

Ann Neumann, editor of the Revealer, a pro-choice Catholic news outlet explains the consequences of these restrictive directives:

"In most Catholic health care facilities, the conscience of the church supersedes the rights of patients and individual doctors by limiting care services according to Catholic doctrine. Men, women, the elderly, the poor and the victimized – effectively, entire communities served by Catholic hospitals – suffer a drastic and often traumatic loss of patients' rights when information or services are denied, particularly when a Catholic hospital is the only game in town" (Neumann).  

Catholic hospitals receive about half of their funding from the Federal government via Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, but they can claim exemption from federal laws through a web of "conscience" clauses (Garrison). The Catholic idea of conscience is the basis for the directives described above. In Catholic doctrine, deep regard is given to the conscience, and Canonical scholarship has concluded that the conscience of the individual supersedes the teachings of the church. The Catechism, a foundational document that summarizes the principles of the Catholic Church, states that, “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (“Compendium: Catechism…”) Richard McBrien, professor of Theology at Notre Dame, explains the importance of the conscience in his essential study Catholicism, explaining that, even in cases of a conflict with the moral teachings of the church, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the church” (McBrien).

An institutional conscience that supersedes the conscience of the individual is a Machiavellian grasp of power on the part of the Vatican. If the Vatican doesn’t stop its anti-choice lobbying efforts, it will lose the respect and support of the Catholics it claims to serve. Catholic hospitals across the country are denying American women access to the rights their government guarantees, and the church is quick to punish those who break their strict guidelines.

Sister Margaret McBride, a member of the ethics board at St. Joseph's hospital in Phoenix, Arizona was excommunicated from the church in November of 2009 after authorizing an abortion that saved the life of a 27-year-old mother of four. When the hospital issued a statement in support of McBride’s decision, the Bishop of Phoenix stripped them of their “Catholic” status (Garrison). Even though the regional bishop made this decision, and these laws are US-specific, these institutions carry far less religious, legal, and moral authority than the Vatican. This is why the pope must lead the way in ending the Catholic churches involvement in public policy, starting with abortion.


Works Cited

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"The Truth about Catholics and Abortion." Catholics for Choice. 2011.

Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Coriden, James. "The Canonical Doctrine of Reception." Jurist, 1990.

Garrison, Becky. "Playing Catholic Politics with US Healthcare | Becky Garrison." The Guardian. 2010. Accessed May 09, 2016.

Huang, Zongxi, and De Bary William Theodore. Waiting for the Dawn: A Plan for the Prince. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Jones, Robert P., Rachel Laser, and Daniel Cox. "Survey | Committed to Availability, Conflicted about Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars." Public Religion Research Institute, June 6, 2011.

Machiavelli, Niccolò, Quentin Skinner, and Russell Price. Machiavelli: The Prince. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

McBrien, Richard P. Catholicism. Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press, 1980.

Murphy, Francis Xavier. "Alexander VI." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed May 10, 2016.

Neumann, Ann. "Does the Vatican Have a Say in Your Health Decisions?" Alternet. November 02, 2009.

"America’s Changing Religious Landscape." Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. 2015.

Schneible, Ann. "Pope

Francis to Pro-life Activists: You Are the World's Good Samaritans." Catholic News Agency. November 9, 2015.

The Bible: New International Version. London: NIV, 2008.

"COMMUNIO ET PROGRESSIO." The Order the Second Vatican Council. 1971.

"An Authentically Catholic Hospital." The Revealer. December 21, 2010.

"Title IX and Sex Discrimination." Title IX and Sex Discrimination. Accessed May 09, 2016.

"The Institute of Politics at Harvard University." Trust in Institutions and the Political

"Pope Francis (@Pontifex) | Twitter." Twitter. Accessed May 9, 2016.

Willey, David. "Who, What, Why: What Does a Pope Do?" BBC News. March 19, 2013. Accessed May 10, 2016.

Wormald, Benjamin. "In Many Ways, Younger Americans Are Less Religious Than Older Americans." Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. October 29, 2015.


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