Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Theodicy and Abortion – From the Daily Office – October 27, 2012

From the Book of Ben Sira:

It was he who created humankind in the beginning,
and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 15:14-17 – October 27, 2012)

Grief (watercolor wash, artist unknown)Well, there it is! Bigger than life! Free will! Of course, I know that as an Anglican I am not supposed to use this text, or any part of the Deuterocanon, to settle matters of doctrine, but only read them ” for example of life and instruction of manners.” [Articles of Religion, Article VI, BCP 1979, page 868] But come on! There it is!

I probably shouldn’t go there, but the past 48 hours have made it impossible not to think about free will without thinking of Indiana senate candidate Richard Mourdock who stirred up controversy when he said during a debate that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” He tried to explain himself later saying, “God creates life, and that was my point,. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does. Rape is a horrible thing.” He only dug a deeper hole. If it is true that politics and religion don’t mix, it is even more true that politics and the problem of theodicy don’t mix!

“Theodicy” is a little-used word theologians coined to describe what is generally called “the problem of evil.” It posits this rational conundrum:

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is all-good.
  3. God is all-knowing.
  4. Evil exists.

Only three of these four propositions (says the issue of theodicy) can be true; since we know that evil exists, then one of the other three statements must be false. Many philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this issue and I’m not going to get into it in a brief meditation on the daily office lessons, other than to acknowledge that it exists and that one way it is answered is the very subject Jesus son of Sirach brings up in this reading: free will. In other words, in making the universe (and humankind within it) free, the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God allows the possibility that evil may occur.

St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed in the Summa Theologica that God’s ultimate purpose for creation is so good, so great that it involves “allowing” the possibility of evil, but (as Aquinas points out) to “allow” is not the same as to “cause”. Furthermore, the enduring good that allows evil includes the possibility that good can redeem evil; because of this remaining good, a return path to good is always possible. I think this is the theological concept candidate Mourdock was trying to articulate, but doing so badly and causing himself and his party a good deal of trouble.

I can agree with Mr. Mourdock up to a point, but not about the conclusion he ultimately reaches. In his view, apparently, the return to good, the redemption of the evil of rape, is found in the conception of life which may result. For him, that redemption is (apparently) automatic and, thus, a pregnancy resulting from rape is redemptive; it is a good so great that it cannot be aborted. But neither Aquinas nor any theologian has ever argued that the return to good is automatic; it is always and only contingent – it is possible but never guaranteed. Furthermore, there is the counter possibility in the circumstance of a rape that further evil, not good, could result from the pregnancy and later birth. Indeed, the experience of women who have born the children conceived in rape shows a wide variety of outcomes, many extremely negative, many a continuation of the evil done to them.

That is why I cannot come to the theological conclusion reached by candidate Mourdock, nor to the political conclusion to which he comes, i.e., that abortion should be outlawed with no exception provided for conceptions resulting from rape. Indeed, I cannot come to any conclusion which entirely outlaws abortion. To do so denies to women the freedom of will given humankind from the beginning about which Ben Sira writes; this is a matter about which women should decide for themselves “in the power of their own free choice.” Therefore, abortion should be safe. It can only be safe if it is legal and regulated; if it is outlawed, it will nonetheless continue. The choice for our society is not between abortion and no abortion; it is between abortion which is safe and abortion which is deadly.

I cannot say that I would never, as a priest, counsel a woman to undergo an abortion, but I would nearly always argue for an alternative. In the end, however, it would not be my decision; it would be hers. And if she chooses to abort the fetus, then it is her right to have that procedure done in the safest way possible. Years ago, I participated in a panel discussion with an Eastern Orthodox colleague ordained many years longer than me. During the presentations he said, “I would rather console a woman who’s had a safe, legal abortion, than bury one who’s had an illegal abortion. And I’ve done both.” Unlike my colleague, I have not, thank God, buried the victim of an illegal abortion, and certainly I never want to.

We will always wrestle with the problem of theodicy, but we should do so in the context of theological schools and churches. It is not an issue to be solved in the halls of congress, nor in the operating suites of hospitals, nor in the offices of obstetricians, nor with the bodies of women whom God made free to act as a matter of their own choice.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.


  1. Matt

    Great post, Father. I am not a Christian but if I was one, I like to think I would have a leader such as you. I’ve read a little of the “problem of evil” and Theodicy and have never been able to reconcile the problem enough to be a believer. (Even if I was trying to be a believer, which I’m not.)

    An off-topic interesting note- on the Theodicy Wikipedia page, there is a link to Flannery O’Conner in the “see also” section.

  2. eric

    Thanks for your note, Matt. I’m not surprised that that whomever wrote the Theodicy Wikipedia article included links to Flannery O’Conner’s writing; the author (who was a Roman Catholic of the American South) explored the problem of evil in many of her works.

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