Updated: Mar 16
In January, I sat down (over Zoom) with Rev. Ronald K. Tacelli, SJ, an associate professor in the Boston College Philosophy Department where he specializes in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. We discussed his views and insights of the abortion issue, the importance of those with special needs in our society, among other related topics.
MM: As a Jesuit priest and as someone who has taught philosophy, how has your philosophy and your faith instilled the values in and taught you to treat and think of some of the most vulnerable people among us [in the unborn] with great charity and respect?
RT: Well, they’re human persons. As a philosopher, not just as a Christian, I think that’s pretty obviously true. I don’t think you need faith to realize the truth that each single human individual is a person, which means that each human individual is someone absolutely unique in this world. [He or she] isn’t just something you can exchange at will. If you happen to lose a pencil, you get another pencil; no problem. But human persons are not like that. Each human person is unique and has a special contribution to make to this world—one that nobody else is able to make. And again, you don’t have to be a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim to recognize the truth of that. I think anyone open to reality should be able to see it. But the Christian faith, more than any other in my opinion, affirms that truth. Therefore, I would say the freedom I have as a philosopher is affirmed by what the teachings of Christ and the Church hold out to me. So as a philosopher, as someone who is devoted to truth, I can embrace those teachings with great confidence.
MM: You talked about this in your article, but could you repeat and expand on why it’s important to have special needs people among us in society?
RT: My cousin Christopher is at The Campus School [at Boston College] and he has special needs. He’s mentally and physically disabled. I remember a relative once asking me: “Why did this happen? What could possibly come of this that’s good?” And as I recall, I said something in reply like this: “We’re all going to be taught a deeper meaning of love than we had experienced or thought of before.” And that’s what happened. When I see the way my cousins care for Christopher who is so needy and vulnerable, I realize that they’ve been given a real lesson in what true love genuinely is. And our whole family has been taught that lesson through them. As Christians we can talk a good game sometimes about our need to love our brothers and sisters, but sometimes, when our brothers and sisters are very needy, that love will cost a great deal. And in the kind of world in which gratification comes so quickly to us, that kind of love can be not only undervalued, but even rejected … Those of us who are impaired physically or mentally do not, on that account, lose dignity. Dignity cannot be measured in IQ points, fashion, or a pleasing form. Dignity is ultimately measured by the infinitely beautiful and good spirit that gives us life and that exists in every single individual uniquely. Having the handicapped, those who are very unfortunate, among us, can help us to realize the things in life that are most important and things that we should value most, even though we can often lose sight of them. That’s why I think it’s a healthy thing [at Boston College], where there are so many bright, attractive people who are fairly well-off and come from pretty good backgrounds, to have the Campus School. It helps us to realize that the physical characteristics we have, which can be good and beautiful, are not the most important thing. We need to focus on the truth of what is most important. And I think the handicapped can make us see that something of infinite worth can sometimes be clothed in a rather distressing disguise.
MM: What can more able-bodied people like you and me learn from someone with special needs, say Down syndrome, considering that the vast majority of people with Down syndrome report being very happy with their lives and content in their relationships?
RT: You have to treat individuals as the beautiful and worthwhile persons that they really are, and that's not always easy. Sometimes you can treat people with Down syndrome or people who are just poor and economically deprived with enormous condescension, even if you're giving them charity. You can think of yourself as someone who is quite superior, who’s being kind to your inferiors the way royalty might be kind to some peasants … But that is false. That's really false. And Christianity helps us to see that it is false and why it's false.
MM: There is a Catholic Charities Disabilities Services group [in Albany, New York]. In addition to this, what's something that you think that the Church or just the Society of Jesus itself could add to better serve the special needs community?
RT: It strikes me that in losing its focus on the question of abortion, the Church has hurt its ability to speak out in a fully convincing way about how we treat the handicapped. I really think that the shyness of so many of us in the Church to speak out against the slaughter of so many “inconvenient” lives, millions upon millions, has dampened our voice in [proclaiming] the teaching of the Church that every single human being is of incomparable and, in fact, infinite worth. The world does not believe this. The world believes that only certain human individuals have worth; if you lack a certain level of development, or fall below a certain size, or happen to have been conceived in an act of violence, then, at least in the womb, you don't have any worth. But the Church’s teaching—and what is certainly true, not just from the point of view of Revelation but I think for anyone who looks at the problem clearly—is that all human beings are persons and therefore have immeasurable value. Think of it this way. It’s very clear that every time in the past when we’ve treated only some human beings as persons and denied personhood to others—Africans who were enslaved, Jews during the Holocaust, Native Americans who were displaced—we feel that those are the times in human history that we [must] look upon with particular shame. Well, if that's true, then why, in the case of abortion, should we be willing to act on the principle that only some human beings, namely those who are already born or who don’t have certain handicaps, are persons? After all, when we look back at human history, and consider those times when we’ve included all human beings under the umbrella of personhood, those are the moments we’re rightly proud of. So if we have to act on one of those two principles—either the one that excludes some and says only some human beings are persons, or the one that includes everyone and says all human beings are persons—why not choose to act on the principle that all human individuals are persons and [must] be treated with dignity, since the times in our history when we acted on that principle of inclusion fill us with such pride? Why act on the exclusionary principle that causes us such shame? Isn’t it ridiculous to do that?… [The Church is] supposed to have a preferential option for the poor. I would say that a preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for those who are thought of as being worthless in our society, whether that's the unborn, or someone who’s physically or mentally handicapped.
MM: Why is it so important for all Americans to stand up against abortion?
RT: Elizabeth Anscombe, a great Catholic philosopher, said something like this: Nations that have liberal abortion laws become, if they were not already, a nation of murderers. I really think that with abortion now so fixed in our culture, it’s very difficult to go back, because if we go back, all of those people who have had abortions will think of themselves in very different ways from how they consciously think of themselves now. And the rest of us will also think of ourselves in a different way. We’ll ask ourselves things like: “How did we allow all of this to go on in our midst?” We find it so easy to condemn other people in the past who watched evils happening all around them—say in Nazi Germany. We condemn them, but we don't condemn ourselves. And yet it’s hard to see how we haven’t all become complicit in this emblematic symbol of the culture of death. Nowadays we hear a lot about helping the poor and the powerless, but abortion is a case of the powerful being able to destroy the completely powerless. If there were any power in that unborn child to fight back, nobody performing abortions would take that chance. There would be no abortions. No, in the case of abortion, those who have power, who are in no danger of harm to themselves, are paid to kill those among us, those human beings, those persons, who are the most powerless and vulnerable. That’s how we’ve really come to treat the poorest of the poor.
MM: What would say to parents who have just received a poor prenatal diagnosis, likely non-lethal but chronic?
RT: If I knew them well, I might say something like: You know, this little child deserves to be welcomed into the world, and if it has very special needs, then it deserves to be welcomed with those needs and given a chance to teach us all a lesson in what love really means. It's not a lesson that you particularly wanted, or that’s going to be easy, especially not right now. But [this is] still a real lesson in love. That little child with all those needs—that’s your child and it deserves your love. You can either give or refuse to give that love. The choice is yours. But I hope that this child will one day come to feel the acceptance of parents who for all their sadness still love the child that has been given to them.
Fr. Ronald Tacelli, SJ, with his cousin Christopher at a pre-covid Christmas dinner