kirsten powers

May 21, 2019

Kirsten Powers, Abortion & Church Teaching

Commentator Kirsten Powers wrote a USA Today column lamenting recent state initiatives to limit abortion, describing herself as both “pro-choice and pro-life.” She recalled her own conversion to Evangelicalism a decade ago and more recent induction into Roman Catholicism. She wrote:

Throughout this period, I was surrounded by people who believe that one could not be a “real Christian” if they weren’t “pro-life.” I wanted to be a real Christian. Though I didn’t see much in what I read in the Bible to justify this litmus test, I was new to the faith and trusted those who seemed more theologically knowledgeable.

Of course the Roman Catholic Church, which Powers has joined, has an emphatic teaching about the humanity of unborn human life and its merits for protection by civil society. Many social and political issues are matters of Christian prudential judgment. But for Roman Catholics, their church’s teaching on abortion is binding.

As a Protestant, I’ve always been perplexed by committed Catholics, especially adult converts, who presumably have carefully pondered their church’s truth claims, and then reject or minimize them. Why join or remain with an institution and faith tradition whose core premises are deeply faulty?

Powers is a journalist and thought leader who presumably was catechized in Catholic teaching during her induction into the church. She knows this church has a very long, deep and rich ethical tradition about human life that cannot be encapsulated by a few Bible verses. Yet in her column she does not engage her church’s teaching at all. Instead she treats the issue as merely another hot button in American culture wars.

Some ardent Catholics might dismiss Powers as a de facto Protestant, asserting sweeping truth claims against Roman Catholic teaching based on individual preference alone. But this caricature, although found among many individual Protestants, is not true of classic Protestantism.

Every major stream of historic Christianity, including Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox, believe in a corporate Body of Christ alive across millennia and all cultures, sustained by the Holy Spirit. No individual Christian in any church is left isolated to craft his or her own corpus of ethical teachings. Instead, wonderfully, every Christian has access to an incredible moral tradition shaped and sustained by saints, martyrs and scholars from every land and era.

Christians, on the great theological and moral imperatives, are not called to be lonely individualists. Instead they are invited to think and reason with the whole Body of Christ, which is a mighty cloud of witnesses whose collective experience and wisdom are immeasurable. Why would any Christian decline this magnificent invitation?

Tragically, many Christians aren’t even really aware of this great moral tradition of which they are heirs. Many American church people argue against historic Christian teaching about marriage, thinking it’s contingent on merely a few Bible verses that can be contextualized or overridden. They almost never address the universal church’s multifaceted teaching about male and female rooted in creation, emblemized in the redemption story, fulfilled in eschatology, and integrated into liturgy, sacrament, hymnody and ecclesiology.

Likewise, many American church people justify their politics based on isolated Bible verses but without reference to historic church teaching about God’s purpose for the state and civil order. All Christian teaching rests ultimately on Scripture. But the church collectively offers reflection, wisdom and insights that autonomous individuals, perusing their Bible alone, will likely not easily discover. Both liberals and conservatives in U.S. Christianity commonly err in their hyper individualism and mutual disregard for or ignorance of wider ecclesial counsel.

Powers’ USA Today column sadly reflects this common penchant for U.S. Christian moral reflection in isolation from the treasures of historic church teaching. This path is well trod but it is also lonely. We may not always like what those treasures offer.

But thoughtful Christians should not make serious theological and ethical claims without any reference to those treasures. Why not at least acknowledge what the Communion of Saints, across time and place, has to say? Whether agreeing or disagreeing with the tradition, the encounter will be enriching.


16 Responses to Kirsten Powers, Abortion & Church Teaching

  1. “Though I didn’t see much in what I read in the Bible to justify this litmus test, I was new to the faith and trusted those who seemed more theologically knowledgeable.”

    Apparently Ms. Powers, famous journalist, has difficulty grasping concepts such as “you shall not murder.”

    • Owen A Jones says:

      See the Didache, the earliest or certainly one of the earliest extant Christian documents, used in catechisis, which prohibits Christians from having abortions. Then move on to all of the Patristic sermons and treatises, that do not make a distinction between “formed” and “unformed.”

  2. Joan Wesley says:

    Excellent article that makes a much needed point: Every generation does not have to reinvent Christianity.

  3. Wayne says:

    “many American church people justify their politics based on isolated Bible verses”. This is the problem throughout ALL dominations. The Bible originally did not have chapters and verses, but were put there in the 13th and 15th centuries. Thus we have become “text” people. For example, you can not understand what John 3:16 means without reading John 3:14-15, which then tells you have to go all the way back eto Numbers to understand John 3:16. In Phillipians 4:13 Paul is talking about money, but you can’t know that without reading the previous “verses”.

    A pretext is a text out of context, which was the result of adding chapters and verses which were not Good inspired.

  4. Roger says:

    Not many Church people do not realize that Jesus taught the Gospel of the Kingdom. (Matt. 9: 35) and Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles; and he was taught by the risen Lord, the Gospel of Grace.(Galations 1: 11 – 12). John 3: 16 is for Jews before the Resurrection. Romans 10: 9 is the companion scripture to it after the Resurrection for Jews & Gentiles.

    • Vance says:

      Roger, you’ve bought into dispensationalism, which came way late in Christian history and was taught by none of the pre- or post-Nicene fathers, saints, theologians, etc., and is rejected by most scholars today. John 3:16 does not say “God so loved the Jews…,” but “God so loved the WORLD….” The gospel (good news) of grace and the gospel (good news) of the kingdom are not two separate gospels for two distinct dispensations. The good news of the kingdom IS good news of God’s grace.

  5. Dr. Todd says:

    I was raised in the American Restoration Movement. We had a great respect for certain well travelled portion of the NT, but remained purposefully ignorant of Church teaching between 100AD and 1800AD. Our purpose was to restore 1st Century Christianity. Imagine my shock when I discovered the Fathers. Why did what we had arrived at look much more like standard 20th Century Protestantism than what I could read about the real early Church? Why were there so many strange thoughts that were entertained by the Fathers and then discarded by other Fathers? I began to understand the working of the Spirit among us a little better. The Church has always been full of vibrant debate about various issues. I certainly feel free to debate those issues with anyone: Will Jesus reign on earth or in heaven after His second coming? What is the proper form for baptism? What should Church music sound like? At the same time, I realized that there were certain questions that simply weren’t asked. It’s not that the issue never came up, it was just that the answer was universally accepted – the stance on marriage, homosexuality and the value of pre-born life being among them.
    I also recognized that a lot of the ideas our society thought were “new” were actually well known to the Fathers – and labelled as heresy by them. That is a good and accurate word that we need to reclaim.

  6. Lee D. Cary says:

    “Powers is a journalist and thought leader who presumably was catechized in Catholic teaching during her induction into the church.”

    Partly right.

    Journalist – for US Today, that free paper we can find outside our hotel room door. (Like CNN at the airports.)

    A Roman Catholic – like Roman Catholics Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Dick Durbin, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, et al, are pro-abortion. (Although Kristen i.d.’s as both pro-life and pro-abortion, a safe position to take. Like someone saying they’re a vegetarian meat-eater.)

    But a thought leader? Really? Like when she dated Anthony Weiner (AKA Carlos Danger)?

    They jettisoned her from FOX because in a serious debate she’d faded fast.

  7. John Smith says:

    Why do we see: “Tragically, many Christians aren’t even really aware of this great moral tradition of which they are heirs.” and “Likewise, many American church people justify their politics based on isolated Bible verses but without reference to historic church teaching…”

    The reason is simple; the people are not taught by those (pastors, elders, deacons, reverends, etc) who should be teaching them. Lets be honest, most churches (and the “mainline” denominations are probably the worst) aren’t even teaching the bible and you want them to delve into Christian doctrine, practice, tradition and heritage? Where do you think the people pick up the practice of a couple verses lifted from the text on which to base an idea or principle, nominally (at best) christian, for the conduct of life. Does this not describe 99% of the sermons preached on Sunday?

    The people cannot be completely absolved of their ignorance. It can be understood, however, especially in those churches where the members have little to no control over their leaders who are appointed by higher ups. Paul complained some only wanted milk and not meat. In many churches milk isn’t offered. If someone wants meat they must either search for it on their own, a dangerous process, or go elsewhere.

    How much of the migration away from traditional denominations like the UMC is the search for accountable leaders, solid teaching and the true community of the church?

  8. Bill Messersmith says:

    when was it that pregnancy became some kind of punishment from the “universe”?

  9. Laura Mullins says:

    Ms. Powers, remember Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

    • Janice Beck says:

      Thank you, Laura Mullins. Your quote describes what is happening today!

    • John Schuh says:

      One absurdity is that a human fetus is not yet a person. For the word person is the same as human being. In law of course, a corporation is also a person. BUT NOT BECAUSE IT IS A HUMAN BEING.

  10. G. Nathan says:

    You articulate excellent reasons as to why religion, like a powerful emetic, should be rarely proscribed and always in small doses.

    • Rebecca says:

      Do you really mean proscribed? I think Christianity, not religion should be taught and learned by all people who call themselves Christian. And, reading the Bible on a regular basis is needed by all.

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