Right after the March for Life, the USCCB organized the Catholic Social Ministries Gathering. As one of the few who attended both events, I saw many people who were both pro-life and pro-social justice but I also saw a false dichotomy between the two in some. Unfortunately, some at the March for Life show inadequate care for the poor and some who help organize the Church’s ministry to the poor have inadequate concern for the unborn.
It is great when we see those who do both. For example, many homes for unwed mothers help a woman avoid pregnancy while helping her break free from the cycle of poverty. Many times the care given by workers at a charity will mean they are the first people a woman goes to with an undesired pregnancy and they can direct her to save the baby.
Nonetheless, every election cycle it seems certain Catholics will use their faith to promote either of the two main political parties and denigrate the other. I remember a lady at daily Mass who proudly sported a bumper sticker of a notoriously pro-abortion politician knowing this stance because she thought he would help the poor better. (Other Catholics had legitimate disagreement on his economic policies so they weren’t that much more radically Catholic.) I remember talking to a Catholic businessman who seems to think we can let the poor fend for themselves.
We see the Popes unite both in their teaching. In the Catholic blogosphere, on the other hand, the left pushed many anti-Benedict blogs a few years ago and now the right pushes anti-Francis blogs. The group who complained about those who follow their conscience on contraception, now feel the right to follow their conscience on environmental protection. However, neither Francis nor Benedict nor the Church for that matter is left nor right. Full Catholicism is not either-or but both-and. If you don’t believe me, let’s read quotes from Francis and Benedict. “Charitable activity on behalf of the poor and suffering was naturally an essential part of the Church of Rome from the very beginning.” “This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.” They are both from our last 2 Popes but I tricked you: Benedict is first, then Francis. Every Pope taught and teaches this both-and.
We can’t hide our heads in the sand and pretend this dichotomy between pro-life Catholics and social justice Catholics doesn’t exist. Both sides have a partial version of the Church’s whole truth. We need to see how social justice matches the pro-life cause and how abortion is antithetical to social justice.
Signs of a Division
In a recent election cycle, a bishop issued a good pastoral letter indicating the weight of various political issues. He said abortion was most important and pointed out how Catholics cannot in good conscience vote for a pro-choice politician even if he seems good in other areas. A local reporter went and asked various priests what they thought of the document. One strongly supported it. The reporter said another was “Basically a Democrat” in the way he relativized what the bishop said. When other bishops have written on the importance of social justice I bet a reporter could find a priest in their dioceses whom he could describe as “Basically a Republican” in the way he relativizes what the bishop says.
This is a grave scandal in the Church and a huge obstacle to evangelization. Every Sunday we recite the creed that says “one” is one of the four essential marks of the Church yet the Church lives in division. This open division on fundamental issues wounds Christ’s heart.
Here’s some questions to think about to see if are fully in line with the Church. Should abortion ever be legal? Should the government recognize same-sex marriages? What about civil unions? Need workers paid a living wage? Are workers treated with dignity? Is contraception just a matter of choice in each person’s conscience? How do we treat the poor and disabled? Are they abandoned or cared for? What about the use of waterboarding or torture on terrorists? Is healthcare available to everyone? Are we destroying the environment for ourselves and future generations? Are we creating systems where some feel like second-class citizens? Do our laws and programs promote the rehabilitation of criminals or simply hold them in jail until they get back on the street? Should we deport every single illegal immigrant? If a homeless man walked into my parish, what would happen? Can we execute a schizophrenic American who murdered his ex-wife? Can we carpet bomb civilians in a foreign country? Can we ignore the genocide of Christians under ISIS?
I think we all know what our answers should be, but we need to live them in practice, not just theory. It is a challenge to accept the Church’s teaching on all those issues. We have tended to separate them falsely based on the division of our political parties in the USA. Instead of deepening these divisions, I want to propose an attempt to explain why social justice is a pro-life issue and why abortion is a social justice issue.
Pro-Life Means Fighting for Social Justice
When we fight for a pro-life cause, like against abortion and euthanasia, what principle is our fight based on? A human being has intrinsic value as a person from conception to natural death. We can’t kill a baby in the womb because that baby has a human nature and is thus worth protecting. If a human person is worth protecting from conception to death, we shouldn’t just defend them from death – we also need to protect them from danger and harm. I can’t claim to be pro-life if I protect babies yet do nothing to help those suffering domestic abuse. I can’t claim to believe in the dignity of all and not fight to end prostitution and rape culture. If we pro-lifers simply fight for the unborn child, we fall victim to the argument of abortion proponents that we aren’t really “pro-life” but we are simply “pro-fetus” or “pro-birth.” If the life of a 1 pound fetus is valuable enough to save, so is the life of a 30 pound child suffering malnutrition due to poverty.
Likewise, if we want to defend every life, we also need to make sure life is not undervalued. For example, there are groups of people in the US living on under two dollars a day. Individually, we might be able to help one or two, but if we change the systems, we might be able to find a way that the charitable and government aid meant for such people actually gets to them. When we buy stuff, do we try to get stuff that’s produced using fair wages and decent working conditions? Peter Buck of CRS Fair Trade made a good argument to me about how our choice in coffee can help the poor farmers in Latin America. Nonetheless, I know a lot of times there isn’t an option without breaking the bank: when buying clothing, North American made often seems super-expensive while none of the clothes made in Thailand or India indicate the wages and working conditions. I was only convinced to buy fair trade coffee myself a few days later when I was buying Folger’s and realized the CRS Fair Trade coffee wasn’t really that much more expensive.
Social Justice Only Makes Sense if It’s Pro-Life
When we fight for social justice, like against poverty or exploitation, what principle is our fight based on? Justice matters. Justice involves giving to each what is due to him. Not everyone has a clear theoretical sense of justice but I think most of us have a sense of injustice when the bodyguards for a billionaire push a homeless person out of the way so the rich may walk down the street unmolested. We also see a certain amount of justice when a boss shares the money more equitably among the employees. Even if a company doesn’t go to the extreme of giving a $70,000 a year minimum wage like Gravity Payments, most of us would see justice in a boss who shared more equitably. Justice doesn’t seek an absolute equality of all people but a certain equanimity. Nonetheless, some things are absolutely unjustice: a just salary might vary based on the country but abuse and rape are always unjust. The gravest injustice possible is depriving someone of life because without life no other form of justice is possible – it takes away the principle on which justice is built – the person – rather than just some aspect of justice. Protecting unborn children and the vulnerable (those who might be euthanized) shows the greatest concern for social justice. We can’t care about a starving child or an unjust wage if that child or that adult was aborted or euthanized.
Like many things, in the choice between pro-life and social justice, the Catholic position is not an either/or but a both/and. We need to be Catholics who are immensely concerned for justice: both for the life of the unborn and food for the malnourished child. Jesus doesn’t ask us to choose who we see justice for but seek justice for all human beings.
Note: If you are interested I posted 3 things from the March and the CSMG: The 15 Most Epic March for Life Signs, a video on #WhyWeMarch, and another video on How to Live Catholic Social Teaching.
Photography: See our Photographers page.