by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 22
June 2021
Idea
11:02

A battle of faiths: Liberals clash with Catholics on abortion

To which moral order does the fertility question belong?
by Mary Harrington
President Biden is caught between two worlds

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and tells his disciples: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This is generally understood to mean that faith and politics are distinct domains. But in practice, disentangling what belongs to Caesar, and what to God, is less straightforward — least of all when a quiet contest is under way over which god we’re even talking about.

The Catholic Church recently recognised the ‘heroic virtues’ of Robert Schumann, one of the founders of the European Union, and granted him the title ‘venerable’ — the first step on the path to sainthood. And it’s true that as Elena Attfield explains, the EU’s founders were deeply shaped by Christian democratic principles.

But the EU’s founders deliberately left the Christian backdrop to their European vision implicit in the EU’s founding principles, in the expectation that its Christian roots would be no less effective for being unstated — an expectation that turned out to be somewhat optimistic. Since those founding days, the EU’s secular liberal values have diverged ever more palpably from their roots in a Christian democratic vision, producing a political entity increasingly hostile to at least some strictures of Roman Catholicism.

Despite the EU explicitly disavowing any competence to regulate member states’ laws on abortion, for example, European values are routinely cited as justification for challenges to abortion restrictions, notably in Catholic-majority EU member states such as Poland and Ireland. Secular liberalism, the child of Christianity, has here assumed political supremacy and turned on its progenitor in that most uneasy and volatile overlap between the moral and political: the creation of new humans.

This battle reaches the European Parliament tomorrow, when MEPs will vote on a controversial resolution that describes abortion as an ‘essential health service’ and ‘human right’, which has triggered protest from EU Catholic bishops. ‘Human rights’, itself a concept with deep roots in Christian tradition, here runs head-on into another strand of that same Christian tradition, the prohibition on ending a pregnancy.

Meanwhile, in the United States the NYT, house journal of bourgeois secular liberalism, reports threats by America’s Catholic bishops to excommunicate President Joe Biden for his support of abortion rights. The article is striking in its careful effort to imply that Pope Francis, by dint of supporting liberal policies on climate change and immigration, must by necessity also share Biden’s view on abortion — despite the Holy Father having made very clear statements to the contrary.

Once again we can see the struggling outlines of two overlapping yet distinct integrated moral and political orders — the secular progressive and the Christian ones — fighting for dominance. And once again, the battlefield is fertility.

“Why is the Catholic Church still a thing?” wondered pundit Julio Ricardo Varela last week, reflecting a common liberal-progressive assumption that the West’s falling-away from Christianity is necessarily terminal. But an institution that’s persisted for some two millennia already should not be written off hastily.

And against a backdrop of free-falling Western secular liberal populations (even as the worldwide population of Catholics is growing faster than the population overall) we can expect the contest between integralisms to be fought ever more frankly on the field of fertility medicine. Providential liberals should not be too quick to assume which moral and political order will win.

Join the discussion


  • The Roman Catholic Church has a clear succession policy, secular liberalism seems to rely on ‘conversion’ – a difficult route that will usually end up in failure. See the debacle in Batley for an example.

  • It’s not only with respect to abortion that the Catholic Church is in tension with liberal progresives. It still does not recognise same sex marriage.

  • Free of charge legal abortion on demand (up to 12 weeks gestation) has been available in the Republic of Ireland since a referendum on the matter was passed by 66% of the electorate in May 2018.

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