By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In a stroke of pro-life rhetoric that may have particular resonance in the United States, senior church officials are increasingly comparing the defense of unborn life today, including opposition to abortion and the destruction of human embryos, to the struggle against slavery and racism in earlier historical periods.
That argument comes at a moment when the United States is celebrating the election of the first African American to the presidency, and thus the country’s progress in race relations since the era of slavery.
Yet in making that comparison, officials may also have to come terms with the church’s own checkered past, since prior to the late 19th century official Catholic teaching did not generally regard slavery as an “intrinsic evil.”
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, linked the struggle against slavery to the church’s opposition to abortion during his presidential address at the Nov. 10-13 fall meeting of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore.
“Symbolically, it is a moment that touches more than our history when a country that once enshrined race slavery in its very constitutional order should come to elect an African American to the presidency,” George said. “In this, I believe, we must all rejoice.”
“We can rejoice today with those who, following heroic figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, were part of a movement to bring our country’s civil rights into better accord with universal human rights. Among so many people of good will, dutiful priests and loving religious women, bishops and lay people of the Catholic church who took our social doctrine to heart then can feel vindicated now.”
George then explicitly made the parallel between racism and abortion.
“The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice,” he said. “If the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that African Americans were other people’s property and somehow less than persons were still settled constitutional law, Mr. Obama would not be President of the United States. Today, as was the case a hundred and fifty years ago, common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good.”
Also during the Baltimore meeting, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pennsylvania, called for a more muscular posture from the conference on denying communion to pro-choice politicians. He explicitly compared doing so to “canonical measures” taken by bishops in earlier periods against Catholic politicians who espoused racism.
(Church historians say that Martino may have had in mind, at least in part, the actions of the late Archbishop Joseph Rummel in New Orleans, who publicly excommunicated three local Catholic politicians and activists who opposed the desegregation of Catholic schools in the archdiocese in 1962.)
The parallel between opposition to slavery and the protection of unborn life was also raised on Dec. 12 by Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in the presentation of a new Vatican document on biotechnology opposing human cloning, the freezing of embryos, animal/human genetic hybrids, and a number of other procedures seen as affronts to human dignity.
“The church has been committed throughout the centuries in defense of certain fundamental principles which are today the common heritage of humanity,” Fisichella said.
“Certainly, at the time the church was challenged by a fringe of forward-thinkers who, in the name of progress and the laws of the market, preferred to trample upon the fundamental rights of persons. How can we forget, for example, the commitment of missionaries against slavery in countries that had been colonized, or the defense of workers at the beginning of the 19th century? Today, the issue that will mark the coming decades and the life of society is determined by the defense of the dignity of the person from conception to natural death.”
Many analysts applaud this way of making the pro-life argument.
Theologian Charles Camosy of Fordham University, for example, said the church is too often hobbled by “unfortunate and artificial” division in the church between what he called “moral status conservatives” and “social justice liberals,” which means that both camps often fail to take “a comprehensive approach to the church’s moral resources.”
Making the case for unborn life by drawing upon the Catholic tradition of social teaching, Camosy said, could do a better job of getting social justice Catholics on board, and perhaps making the pro-life argument more persuasive to the broader world.
Yet analysts also caution that the church, if it pursues this line of argument, may face pressure to be candid about its own history. Throughout the centuries, historians note, both the Vatican and the American bishops generally upheld the morality of slavery in principle, even if they also vigorously denounced abuses in practice.
As late as 1866, in the middle of the Civil War in the United States and at a time when the abolitionist movement was fully formed, the Vatican’s doctrinal office issued an instruction stating, “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law.” As is well known, ecclesiastical institutions in the United States and elsewhere often owned slaves.
To be sure, popes, bishops and theologians also frequently denounced slavery as it was actually conducted, especially racial slavery; in 1435, for example, Pope Eugene IV demanded that European colonizers stop enslaving native peoples in the Canary Islands. Those judgments were repeated in 1537 for what was then known as the “Indies,” and in 1686 for Africa.
Most theologians say the emphasis in Catholic teaching on a common human nature always pointed toward the conclusion reached by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in its document Gaudium et Spes, which denounced “imprisonment, deportation, slavery … the selling of women and children.”
Nonetheless, historians say, the Catholic church traveled something of a “learning curve” through the centuries on issues of slavery and racism. A clear acknowledgment of that reality, some suggest, might actually help the church push the broader society along a similar “learning curve” today with regard to new threats to human life and dignity.