By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
On the heels of the U.S. bishops’ recent declaration that abortion remains their top political priority, Pope Benedict XVI this morning issued a reminder that children already born, especially those who suffer from poverty, disease and war, must also have a place within the church’s ambit of concern.
While Benedict clearly affirmed the dignity of human life from the moment of conception, his remarks suggest a desire that the church’s opposition to abortion not exclude other pressing social concerns.
The pope spoke this morning to participants in a Nov. 13-15 conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Assistance to Health Care Workers, on the theme of “Pastoral Care of Sick Children.”
Benedict noted that every year, some four million newborn children die around the world at less than 26 days after birth, often due to poverty, poor health care systems, and armed conflict. He called that a matter of “urgent” concern.
“I’m thinking above all of the little ones who have been orphaned or abandoned as a result of misery or the breakdown of the family,” Benedict said. “I’m thinking about the little ones who are innocent victims of AIDS, or of war and the many armed conflicts underway in different parts of the world; I’m thinking about the infants who die because of poverty, drought and hunger.”
“The church does not forget these smallest of her children,” the pope said.
“If, on the one hand, it applauds the initiatives of wealthy nations for improving the conditions of their development, on the other, it strongly feels a duty to invite greater attention to these brothers and sisters of ours, because it’s only due to our choral solidarity that they can look to life with trust and hope.”
The pope expressed hope that “conditions of disequilibrium, which still exist, be healed as quickly as possible by resolute interventions in favor of our smallest brothers and sisters.” He quoted a line from the Roman poet Juvenal: Maxima debetur puero reverential, “Maximum reverence is owed to a child.”
“The ancients already recognized the importance of respect for the child, a precious gift for society, whose human dignity must be recognized – a dignity the child possesses to the full from when, still unborn, it finds itself in the womb,” Benedict said.
The pope called for striking a balance between aggressive medical treatment and what he called “experimentalism,” meaning treating sick children as mere research subjects.
“At the center of every medical intervention must always be attainment of the true good of the child, considered in terms of his or her dignity as a human subject with full rights,” the pope said.
In this regard, the pope called for special efforts to communicate with – and to take consideration of the wishes of – the families of sick children, above all their parents.
“If health care workers, doctors and nurses, feel the weight of the suffering of the small patients they care for, one can only imagine how much greater is the suffering experienced by the parents!” the pope said.
“The medical aspect of treatment and the human dimension can never be separated," the pope said. "The sick person, especially the child, understands the language of tenderness and love particularly well.”
For believers, the pope said, that tenderness and love is an expression “of the predilection that Jesus nourished for the little ones.”
The bishops of the United States met Nov. 10-13 in Baltimore, their first gathering in the wake of the 2008 elections. In a statement issued by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the conference, the bishops signaled that opposition to abortion – especially the prospects for passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, or FOCA – will be a top concern with the incoming Obama administration.
At the same time, the bishops signaled willingness to work with the Obama White House on issues such as “economic justice and opportunity for all; immigration and the situation of the undocumented; better education and adequate health care for all, especially for women and children; [and] religious freedom and peace at home and abroad.”