Our Pro-Life Pope

The Holy Father spoke to an association of Italian doctors last week and his words could not have been more clear. Here is the lead paragraph from the Vatican Insider report:

Fidelity to the Gospel of life and respect for life as a gift from God sometimes require choices that are courageous and go against the current, which in particular circumstances, may become points of conscientious objection,” Francis said in today’s address to the Italian Catholic Doctors’ Association. “The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a ‘false compassion’, that which retains that it is: helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to obtain euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to ‘produce’ a child and to consider it to be a right rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs presumably to save others,” the Pope said in his speech.

If anyone doubted Pope Francis’ pro-life commitment, these words should squash their reservations.

Some pro-life Catholics were worried when Pope Francis said last year that the Church should not obsess only about abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. Their worry was in direct proportion to the degree that these same critics had obsessed about the triumvirate of issues which, with euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, were listed as the five “non-negotiable” issues by Professor Robbie George, a meme that caught fire in conservative Catholic circles. I pointed out at t he time that, in a sense, none of the Church’s teachings are “negotiable,” and that this meme amounted to a reduction of Christian ethics to political efficacy. But, there was never any doubt the pope was firmly committed to the pro-life cause. Anyone who has read and pondered the Scriptures must perform some strange intellectual somersaults to be other than pro-life.

These same pro-life advocates who criticized the pope’s comments on obsession have also tended to dismiss, downplay, or derogate Pope Francis’ consistently trenchant criticisms of the modern economy and his commitment to social justice. This, too, betrays a political agenda not a sound doctrinal or theological stance. The Church’s pro-life concerns are linked in their essence with the Church’s commitment to social justice.

In 1997, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops passed a document on Hispanics and the New Evangelization that included this paragraph:

In our country, the modern, technological, functional mentality creates a world of replaceable individuals incapable of authentic solidarity. In its place, society is grouped by artificial arrangements created by powerful interests. The common ground is an increasingly dull, sterile, consumer conformism – visible especially among so many of our young people – created by artificial needs promoted by the media to support powerful economic interests. Pope John Paul II has called this a ‘culture of death.’…The New Evangelization, therefore, requires the Church to provide refuge and sustenance for ongoing growth to those rescued from the loneliness of modern life. It requires the promotion of a culture of life based on the Gospel of life.”

The phrase “culture of death” may have been used by partisans to equate with “party of death” when speaking of the Democrats – Cardinal Burke used that unhappy phrase – but that equation was always wrong.

Long before the USCCB document, which better captured the thought of St. Pope John Paul II than most neo-con writings and interpretations of him, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote these incisive words:

Whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed…then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of "knowledge," and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation – a world in which power and te profit margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated – a world in which art itself is forced to wear the make and features of technique.

In other words, I would challenge both the Catholic left and the Catholic right to acknowledge that alongside all the achievements of modernity, there co-exists the rot of modernity, and both run deep, deeper than the usual political narrative permits.

The abortion issue is thoroughly politicized and, frankly, I do not see how we can soon disentangle it from politics. My hope is that, over time, a new generation of young people, who have seen their own sonograms, will come to view the issue differently at a deep level, deep enough to change the political landscape.

The issue of euthanasia has not yet been so politicized, at least not yet. Part of the reason is because there are people on both left and right who have witnessed the dignity-affirming care that a loved one receives in hospice. That kind of experience tends to trump facile partisanship. Some of my friends on the right may not appreciate the analogy but this fact that experience can trump ideology is seen also in the debate about LGBT rights: People who know a gay or lesbian person are less likely to fall into cheap characterizations, and subsequent denunciations, of them.

Euthanasia – and physician-assisted suicide which amounts to the same thing – is an issue that scares the living daylights out of me. It is so easy to see how the culture described by Balthasar and the USCCB above could slide into an acceptance of, or chosen desire to look away from, pressures being put on the elderly and the infirm to end their lives quickly and painlessly, the better to be able to get the inheritance, or terminate the obligation to visit in hospital, or save all that money that is spent on health care for the elderly. There is a lifestyle libertarianism, especially on the cultural and political left, that can easily adopt a deathstyle libertarianism. And the effort to legally enact euthanasia laws are backed by powerful economic interests: long-term health care for the elderly costs insurance companies and government budgets a lot of money. Conversely, my conservative friends need to recognize that the elderly and the infirm face challenges other than euthanasia laws. Efforts to cut off funding for health care for the elderly, or to privatize it, are anathema. If we, as a society not just as private individuals, do not have a communal obligation to care for those who have fashioned the society we inherited, then we have abandoned any idea of the common good and, just so, any pretence to being a Catholic thinker. When my Republican Catholic friends talk breezily about “makers” and “takers,” they are setting the elderly up for a fall.  

In order to defeat the euthanasia campaigns, it is imperative that the Church’s leaders build bridges, especially to those who might not usually find themselves aligned with the Catholic Church. As well, in many states, especially those where the Church’s public image has been harmed by the clergy sex abuse crisis or other self-inflicted wounds, the Church cannot be seen to be leading the charge without seriously harming the chances of success. The 2012 campaign in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, however, provides a template for success.  

A last word, and challenge, to my friends on the Catholic left. In the face of anti-abortion reductionism, with self-appointed zealots and even some bishops telling us that abortion was the only real issue upon which we should consider our votes, it has been easy, too easy, to make excuses for pro-choice politicians who support the Church’s social justice teachings on other issues. We were not wrong to insist that a voter can, in good conscience, consider many issues and the likelihood of any progress on those issues, in casting our ballots. But, we must also remember that we are making those excuses because these pro-choice politicians are wrong on abortion. We need to remind ourselves – and remind those politicians – that we hold our nose when we vote for them. And, on the issue of euthanasia, let’s be a little less quick to give any politician a pass.









Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here