[When I prepared this post several days ago, I scheduled it to go up on January 22, the Roe v. Wade anniversary. Yesterday morning, I decided it should wait until today. On the anniversary of the day abortion became legal, in the U.S., it is quite fitting to focus on that particular issue. As I tweeted yesterday, may God have mercy on us and transform our hearts … and keep the marchers warm! ]
Among the many things about Pope Francis that have dismayed some conservatives – his criticism of their pet economic theories, his inattention to pageantry in the liturgy, his emphasis on mercy and respect for the consciences of those who disagree with church teaching – there is also the Pope’s insistence on viewing abortion within the context of other issues that threaten the well-being of the most vulnerable people on the planet and indeed of the planet itself.
It is an approach that some feel relativizes the church’s anti-abortion stance, doing harm to the movement. In a November 2013 New York Times article, one pro-lifer commented, “It seems he’s focusing on bringing back the left that’s fallen away, but what about the conservatives? Even when it was discouraging working in pro-life, you always felt like Mother Teresa was on your side and the popes were encouraging you. Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus.”
Francis’s treatment of abortion in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), is a perfect illustration of his approach. It comes in chapter four of that document, in a section headed “The Inclusion of the Poor in Society.” Francis opens the section by saying that every Christian “is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor.” He calls for solidarity with the poor, a more just distribution of goods and income, and a recognition of church teaching that says “the social function of property” takes precedence over the right to private property.
Right after comments on migrants and the victims of human trafficking, Francis turns his attention to the unborn, whom he calls “the most defenseless and innocent among us.” He insists that “a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development” and defends “the inviolable value of every single human life.” In his next paragraph, he moves on to his concern for “creation as a whole,” which, he says, is “frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation.”
This is the kind of things that has been driving some conservatives crazy. Even Francis himself is clearly aware of the criticism. Acknowledging in his big America interview that he had been publicly “reprimanded” for his approach to abortion and issues related to sex, he insisted, “When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”
What too many of Francis’s critics and supporters alike seem not to notice is that his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, saw things through very much the same lens. In some of their most authoritative statements, both popes made clear that they viewed abortion within the context of the same set of social issues that Francis emphasizes.
When Pope John Paul II published his 1995 encyclical on the sacredness of human life, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), he opened that document by immediately setting his words in the context of the church’s long tradition of opposing unjust threats to human dignity. In fact, he specifically made reference to its defense of the rights of workers during the Industrial Revolution:
Just as a century ago it was the working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the Church very courageously came to their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of the worker as a person, so now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church feels in duty bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice. Hers is always the evangelical cry in defense of the world’s poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated.
Today there exists a great multitude of weak and defenseless human beings, unborn children in particular, whose fundamental right to life is being trampled upon. If, at the end of the last century, the Church could not be silent about the injustices of those times, still less can she be silent today, when the social injustices of the past, unfortunately not yet overcome, are being compounded in many regions of the world by still more grievous forms of injustice and oppression, even if these are being presented as elements of progress in view of a new world order.
John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, took a similar approach in his 2009 encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in the Truth”), on the topic of human development. This time the Pope emphasized the parallels that the church’s pro-life teachings share with its concern for the environment. Writing that “the way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa,” he continued:
The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood.…
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.
As a lifelong Catholic with strong “conservative” tendencies, I do not doubt the importance and the gravity of the church’s opposition to abortion. For what it’s worth, there was a time in my own life when a quiet abortion might have been seen as a very helpful solution to a terrifying and profoundly life-altering situation, but the child that was later born, now a teenager, has been and is still today one of the jewels of the journey of my life. My opposition to abortion is solid, both in theory and in practice.
But I am troubled by the tendency of some of my allies in the anti-abortion movement to insist that abortion stands alone as an utterly incomparable offense to human dignity, and to criticize the Pope for suggesting otherwise. Indeed, Francis stands in a strong tradition of taking a broader view.