Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Moral Development, Abortion, and Tim Kaine

When I was a senior in high school, I was in a theology class where we were discussing morality and one fellow senior declared “You’re not guilty until you’re caught.” That prompted a discussion during which a majority of the speakers agreed with that statement, and the young nun teaching the class could not offer a cogent response. (Confession: I had the sense the speaker was wrong, but I could not articulate why, so remained quiet.)

While that statement was made by a high school senior, the view of morality that student voiced is common among adults as well. Morality for many individuals is determined not by any higher level understanding of what’s right and wrong – Harvard’s Lawrence Kohlberg’s fifth and sixth stages of moral development (social contract and ethical principles) – but by the lower levels Kohlberg described, including a fear of being caught and punished, concern for “what’s in it for me,” desiring a good boy/good girl images, and conformity to what everyone else seems to be doing. In my experience, and according to studies, most people function at those lower levels – few advance enough in their thinking to reach or function according to those highest levels.

Which brings us to the issue of abortion, and Senator and Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine. Even though he is a stanch supporter of abortion, he is being described by the Democratic Party and the secular media as a “good” Catholic.

I’ve been involved in a social media discussion with a couple of friends, one of who argued that the approach of Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin’s declaration that based on his views on abortion and same sex marriage he is supporting things that are contrary to Catholic teaching. “Senator Kaine has said, ‘My faith is central to everything I do,’” the bishop noted, “But apparently, and unfortunately, his faith isn’t central to his public, political life.”

Responding to a posting about the Bishop, one friend brought up the argument that fear and threats do not work and won’t work in the long run. He contends we need to change people’s hearts and minds when it comes to abortion.

I totally agree – but most people are not ready to listen, to understand, or to undertake the higher level moral thinking needed. In many cases, they simply have not been challenged to do so or supported when they undertake the effort. They are stuck in the level of acting based on what seems to be the easiest thing to do or what everyone else seems to be doing.

Plus, we are fighting a culture that promotes a different message – just look at the Democratic Party’s total embracing of abortion in its platform and rhetoric. Just look at the way the media portrays abortion – adopting the language and euphemism of “choice,” fostering a negative image of prolifers and ignoring the many pro-life programs and efforts to help women and children and to promote support for them long after the child is born. You see (or don’t see) that in movies, television, news coverage, fiction, and so on.

Frankly, many people need laws to help shape/control their behavior. And yes, sometimes fear of punishment or of social stigma are the only things some people will understand. We don’t want to look bad or stand out.

Fear is not the approach that I like best – I’d prefer that people would be convinced and converted because of higher morality. But that’s not realistic. Even Gandhi’s approach, while it involved appealing to others’ higher natures, also readily made use of attention through the media to shame others into changing their behaviors. The British did not give in just because they were converted, and if Gandhi had waited for that conversion India might have remained under British control for many more years.

Moreover, laws can in fact be a way of helping to change people’s hearts and minds because it leads them to thinking about the “whys” of moral beliefs. This needs to be done in conjunction with teaching about those “whys” (Kohlberg’s system notes that you grow when you have contact with higher levels.) So we need both kinds of statements issued by Bishop Tobin and the more catechetical one of Richmond Bishop Francis DiLorenzo – Kaine’s own bishop - who reiterated church teachings about abortion, and who declared “It is the duty of all Catholics, no matter their profession, to decide through an upright and informed conscience as to their worthiness to receive the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.” These two approaches work together. Pro-lifers also need to promote the good work being done to help and support women, and to do whatever we can to overcome the bias in the media and government policies.

Kaine is not an idiot. He “knows” what the Church teaches, even without Bishop DiLorenzo restating them. But Kaine has been allowed to slide. He is aware of what’s popular or at least accepted among the Democratic electorate. So it’s been easy for him to go against those teachings, and to twist the wording of those teachings to justify his actions. Having his own bishop remind him of the teachings is fine – though it’s the same sort of wording he’s been allowed to slip around for years. So Bishop Tobin’s stronger statement might give him pause. And if not Kaine, it certainly might get the people who have been watching him for years say he’s a good Catholic and go Communion to begin thinking what he is doing is wrong and his position is not right. Indeed, one of my responding friends first said there had been no “peep” from DiLorenzo, and then when it was pointed out he did say something, zeroing on the wording exploited for years to try to wiggle around the teachings.

To say that we need to focus more on the hearts and minds ignores human nature and current reality. We are fighting a coopted culture. And if this is our only response, then nothing is going to happen.  

I’m not foolish enough to believe that all people will achieve those higher levels of moral thinking. That’s why we will always need the laws. That’s why we do need “fear” as a factor. Nor do I believe that we will end abortion; it’s been there throughout human history. But we can reduce it, save lives, and create a climate that will encourage more support for the women and their children – not only through the birth of the child, but as long as necessary.

Pax et bonum

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