Rejoicing in the Gospel of Life?
compiled by Tony Masalonis from a discussion by (in alphabetical order) Tony Masalonis, Bill Samuel, Julia Smucker, Lisa Stiller, Richard Stith
Consistent Life Network blog posts express the opinion of the authors only. Although several of our Board members contributed to it, this post does not represent an official statement by Consistent Life as an organization.
On April 9, 2018, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ “apostolic exhortation” Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad). We aren’t a Catholic organization, but many CLN members are Catholic, and 1.2 billion other people are, so we pay attention when the Catholic Church speaks on our issues.
Gaudete is broad, containing meditations on popular Gospel passages and examples of how to live “holiness” in everyday life. But one part touches directly on what we as consistent-lifers hold dear: Francis refers to the “harmful ideological error” made by those who criticize other people’s work for justice, saying these critics are wrong to act as though:
the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred…. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. ….
We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.
These words have raised Catholic and non-Catholic eyebrows. In particular, much has been written about the apparent equating of abortion and immigration. Some commentators, including abortion defenders, praise Francis for coming out of what they consider the dark ages, while others sharply criticize him for failing to clearly restate Catholic teaching that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsic evils while other issues are matters of “prudential judgment.”
Even within CLN leadership, we have different takes on Gaudete’s treatment of life issues. In this post we cover some different perspectives within our group, acknowledging that as consistent-lifers, we firmly agree about protecting life and we (perhaps cautiously) celebrate the Catholic Church’s increasing support for the Consistent Life Ethic (CLE).
You Can’t Have Well-being without Being
Some of us acknowledge the validity of “traditional” pro-lifers’ concerns about Gaudete. For most of the endangered people the Pope mentions, their death isn’t the main concern. Rather, we’re concerned primarily about their misery. So Francis isn’t focusing on universal and consistent opposition to all lethal violence.
It’s wrong to ignore the plight of migrants. But it’s also wrong to put economic well-being on a par with life itself.
While none of us in the CLE movement think abortion is the only issue, it’s reasonable for some folks to consider it the key issue. It’s currently the largest example of mass killing in the world, and it involves families attacking their own members.
It’s like people in the U.S. South in the 1950s saying that overcoming segregation was overwhelmingly the most important issue. They’d be wrong to forget other issues, but their courage and stamina should be praised, rather than belittling them as merely concerned about race.
Although Francis clearly asserts the importance of defending the rights of unborn babies, a few sentences later he appears to mock the seriousness of “bioethical issues” by putting scare quotes around the word “grave.” This punctuation choice seems in tension with consistent-life concerns about direct killing.
Many inconsistent pro-lifers are pro-war and pro-death penalty, and closed-minded about migrants. They can and should be criticized for that. But they’re perfectly consistent about opposing the deliberate and culturally-approved killing of the innocent and helpless, shown by their strong, counter-cultural opposition to killing unborn (and newborn) infants and old/sick people – often at great cost to themselves.
“All Lives are Equally Sacred”
Some of us think the Pope is understandably frustrated at people waving the pro-life banner while showing little concern for social justice issues that impact human well-being. He’s also careful to note for the social justice crowd that the lives of the unborn are critically important.
The distinction made above between causing death and causing misery is much weaker than one might suppose. Many suffering from conditions like poverty, trafficking, and forced migration die because of them. Human dignity is a theme in Catholic Social Teaching (CST) going back to Rerum Novarum (1891, generally considered the founding document of modern CST), and CST holds that the right to life includes not only the right not to be directly killed, but also the right to a dignified life. Sanctity of life and quality of life cannot be neatly separated.
Whether or not one reads Gaudete as suggesting abortion opponents are indifferent to lives of the born, it’s evident that many people see abortion as the one issue. Many are Catholics.
Feticide isn’t the only case where a family destroys its own members: it’s the same with euthanasia. And abortion, as horrifying as it is, isn’t the only form of mass killing. War, genocide, and terrorism are excruciatingly common. Euthanasia and executions are rampant in some countries. All the forms of violence we oppose kill in great numbers. Most chilling, the potential death toll of world-wide war is over seven billion – the entire human race.
Consistent-Lifers United in Diversity
Does Gaudete reaffirm the CLE? Negate it? Both? Neither? Parts of the document seem at first to be a ringing affirmation – and then we notice two omissions: the death penalty and war (“peace” is mentioned many times, but in a general sense.) Instead of these forms of direct killing, the Pope includes those who aren’t targets of intentionally lethal violence. We must be equally concerned to protect their lives – but their lives aren’t quite as directly menaced.
It would have also been nice to see more about connections between life issues. Many anti-abortion people are so “single issue,” they don’t see connections between issues, especially poverty. If we address poverty, we begin to address abortion. The 1950s “single-issue” anti-segregationists, unlike many traditional pro-lifers, understood links between issues; they got that poverty was wrapped up in segregation, and that desegregation was a way out of poverty. Talking about abortion and poverty from this perspective might make the document more palatable, even convincing, to some traditional pro-lifers.
However, these deficiencies don’t make Gaudete a bad document. Every statement needn’t address every issue or every angle. Francis and other Popes have addressed other lethal violence well elsewhere. We ourselves don’t talk about every single life issue in everything we say. Popes too are free to focus on a few threatened populations at a time without losing their CLE credentials!
As consistent-lifers, we strive to speak to single-issue abortion opponents just like we should speak to single-issue death penalty opponents or single-issue pacifists: “Hey, folks, it’s really important what you’re doing, and we see why you focus on that. But here are important additional steps some feel called to take in the same direction. We hope you’ll join us, but if you’ve got your hands full already, at least let us know you’re with us.” We should not in any way put these people down, publicly or even in our own minds.
We have different opinions about how successfully Pope Francis has adopted this CLE attitude. In context, his critique of inconsistency shows he’s not denying the gravity of bioethical concerns – certainly not that of abortion, as he says explicitly. Rather, he’s saying they don’t override all other concerns about human life and dignity. It’s true, though, that those quotes around “grave” could potentially be misleading.
But we definitely all agree that building up our fellow workers for life and peace in a “cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected,” as our mission statement reads, is the way to go. And although some of us think Pope Francis missed a chance to holistically proclaim a consistent ethic of life in this new document, perhaps by more unequivocally declaring abortion’s gravity and by addressing war and executions, we continue to applaud his excellent overall track record of standing up for all life.
For more of our blog posts from different religions, see:
Atheism: The Vital Need for Diversity
Christianity: The Consistent Life Consensus in Ancient Christianity
See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.