Despite the Catholic Church’s clear and consistent teaching that having an abortion ― and in fact, using all forms of artificial contraception ― is wrong, American Catholics are very much divided on the issue.
This division was on display during Tuesday’s vice presidential debate between Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana ― two men of deep faith and two very different kinds of Catholics. Quoting scripture, Pence defended his party’s line on the “sanctity of life” and said that the idea of late-term abortions were “anathema” to him. On the other hand, Kaine, who has personally opposed abortion in the past, said he believes that women should be able to make their own decisions about pregnancy.
“That’s something we trust American women to do,” Kaine said during the debate.
Many American Catholics agree with Kaine.
In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015, a very slim majority of all Catholics in the country (51 percent) think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Forty-five percent of all Catholics think it should be illegal in all or most cases. About 4 percent didn’t know how they felt, or refused to answer. Catholics who attended services weekly or more were more likely to support the church’s official anti-abortion stance.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found about the same breakdown ― 48 percent of Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 47 percent said that it should be illegal in all or most cases. Five percent didn’t know.
The numbers are telling, especially given the fact that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been so adamant in its stance against all forms of artificial contraception and against abortion in all circumstances ― often leading the charge in lawsuits that attempt to block women’s access to contraception.
The stats suggest that despite what they’re hearing from pulpits, a good number of Catholics disagree with their bishops about a woman’s choice to make their own decisions about pregnancy. In other words, some Catholics are looking outside of the church for moral guidance.
It’s a reflection of a tradition that is embedded within the catechism of the Catholic Church, which emphasizes the importance of Catholics’ individual consciences when it comes to navigating faith and family life.
In fact, the word “conscience” was mentioned by both vice presidential candidates during their discussion about abortion. Pence said that he couldn’t “conscience about” a party that supported partial-birth abortion. Kaine said that he supports the right of American women to “consult their own conscience” when making choices about their reproductive care.
Studies show that above the Bible, the pope, and the Catholic Church’s teachings, the majority of American Catholics (73 percent) look first and foremost to their own conscience for guidance on difficult moral questions.
For Catholics, protecting life is important ― but so is following your conscience.