Linked to my parish newsletter this week was a pastoral message from my bishop — Bishop John Roth of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — spelling out the church’s position on the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court, “as we strive, as God’s church, to be witnesses to [God’s] grace, particularly in turbulent times fraught with political and social discord.”

The way I’m describing it here makes it sound distant and bureaucratic, but I’m deeply conflicted on the abortion issue and the way the court handled it in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. A pastoral letter helped sort things out. (I guess, come to think of it, that’s what they’re supposed to do.) So I owe a debt of gratitude to the Central/Southern Illinois Synod, an ecclesiastical body that isn’t usually on my radar.

Citing ELCA’s “carefully nuanced” teaching document on the issue, the Social Statement on Abortion adopted in 1991 at the national churchwide assembly in Orlando, Bishop Roth clarifies the dilemma facing people of faith who fall between the extremes on the issue. On the one hand, he says:

The social statement asserts, “The strong Christian presumption is to preserve and protect life.” Consequently, the weight of Lutheran theology and conviction falls on the side of carrying a pregnancy to term and avoiding induced abortion. 

Exactly. But on the other hand, Roth continues:

Still, the social statement recognizes that sometimes pregnancies occur in difficult, complex situations. Accordingly, the social statement grants that the circumstances of a given pregnancy could be such that aborting that pregnancy may be morally justifiable. As church, as the gathered people of God, we are “called to be a compassionate community, praying and standing with those who struggle with decisions” as they arise from unintended pregnancy, involuntary pregnancy, or health risk pregnancy. The Social Statement advocates that pregnant women, in deep conversation with their physicians, their families, and their pastors, have agency (ability, authority, and opportunity) to discern whether and when aborting their pregnancy may be morally justifiable. 

That’s just about exactly where I come down, although Bishop Roth is more nuanced and articulate. I consider myself pro-life, but I get nervous when the coercive power of the state is used to mandate that belief — or any other — on others whose faith traditions do not subscribe to that particular theology. I think in the end, it comes down to moral agency, defined (as defined by Wikipedia, which comes very close to being my personal summa theologica) as “an individual’s ability to make moral choices based on some notion of right and wrong and to be held accountable for these actions.”

I would only add that I don’t need a letter from my precinct committeeman to discern my moral and ethical obligations to my neighbor. Nor do I — or should I, even as a relatively loyal Democrat — look to the Democratic Party platform for the moral underpinnings of my faith. (I’m resisting the temptation to mention the legal and ethical challenges of former Illinois State Party Chairman Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, in this context.) And it goes without saying I’m not about to look to the Illinois Republican State Central Committee for moral guidance, either. We have separation of church and state for a reason.

But the Supreme Court, by allowing state legislatures to mandate specific theological doctrines on the beginning of life and one’s obligations to one’s neighbor (or to the current majority in one’s state legislature), has ripped that moral agency away from women, their families, their doctors and their pastors. Roth puts it more delicately than I:

It appears that, in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned, this deep conversation around a morally justifiable abortion in a particular pregnancy, considering all the attendant circumstances of that particular pregnancy, will be able to take place in some states and will not be able to take place in other states.

Roth also cites ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’ pastoral letter issued June 24, the same day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. In it Eaton acknowledges that ELCA’s “social teaching is complex and does not hew to clear categories or labels such as ‘pro-abortion’ or ‘anti-abortion’.” She explains the issue of moral agency in greater detail:

First, as a pastor of this church, I want to acknowledge that this decision affects many people, especially those whose pregnancies unfold in complex situations and the people who love them. Many now find their moral agency restricted because federal law no longer guarantees access to legal and safe abortion. They already face difficult moral questions, and the Supreme Court decision only adds to their anguish. As our social statement reminds us, we have both the freedom and the obligation to serve neighbors in complex situations. As a church, we are called at this moment to recognize and spiritually support people who are struggling with decisions around pregnancy. 

Citing the 1991 social statement in detail, Eaton also urges mutual respect for people of different faith traditions. To this end, she pledges ELCA to continue as a “community of discernment where thoughtful and diverse perspectives can be shared and heard.” She says:

This church acknowledges that individuals and religious traditions hold divergent viewpoints over when life begins. These divergent views are not only scientific but also biblical and cultural. The ELCA social statement acknowledges these ethical ambiguities and states that “the closer the life in the womb comes to full term the more serious such [moral] issues become.” (p. 7).

As we live into this new legal framework, we can respond to and minister in the current situation, for instance, by ministering to individuals who seek abortions; advocating for laws that provide free or affordable health care, child care and education; providing and promoting sex education; continuing to be a community of discernment where thoughtful and diverse perspectives can be shared and heard; and advocating for state laws that provide legal, safe and affordable abortions, and against legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances (p. 9). 

Finally, and in very much the same vein of mutual respect for one’s neighbor, she calls for peaceful resolution of the conflicts sure to be stirred up by any political turmoil following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs:

[…] this church is on record against hate speech. Let us be instruments for peace where there is none. Let us listen to one another. Let us serve the needs of neighbors in all the complexities life presents. God calls us to be for others, just as God in Christ is for us.

Back in Central Illinois, Bishop Roth puts it like this:

We live in a time when there appear to be no limits to vitriol and self-righteous villainizing of one’s opponents.  That cannot be us.  We Lutheran Christians frame our understanding of what it is to live as a Christian in daily life around God’s grace.  All that we are and all that we hope to be is the result of God’s love and forgiveness, freely given to us sinners through Jesus Christ.  Gratitude for God’s grace leads us to be gracious with and respectful of others, and particularly women and girls agonizing with a pregnancy in fraught circumstances.

To all of which I say amen.

Links and Citations

Elizabeth A. Eaton, “Bishop Eaton issues pastoral message on SCOTUS ruling regarding Roe v. Wade,” ELCA News, June 24, 2022

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Social Statement on Abortion,” Aug. 28-Sept. 4, 1991, Department for Studies of the Commission for Church in Society, ELCA

Jon Roth, “Pastoral Message Following The Overturning Of Roe v. Wade,” July 5, 2022, Central/Southern Illinois Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Wikipedia articles on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Michael J. Madigan, moral agency and Summa Theologica.

[Published July 9, 2022]

One thought on “Pastoral letters clarify — US Supreme Court’s anti-abortion ruling denies moral agency to people of faith

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