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Pro-Life or Social Justice: a False Catholic Dichotomy

February 10, AD2016

CS-LIttle Boy-Pixabay

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.

About the Author:

We love Jesus because he loved us first. Fr. Matthew wants to help you experience Jesus and become his apostle. He is a priest with the Legionaries of Christ ordained in 2013, and lives in the Washington DC metro area where he studies at STL and helps out with a few ministries. Fr. Matthew is also one of the top priests on social media with over 35,000 Twitter followers. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Fr. Matthew has worked throughout North America.

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  • Timothy O’Connor

    Hello Fr. Matthew. I have been reading your article over the past few days. As I look into the Catechism, in relation to the political “ism’s “. I think that if all Catholics would vote for pro-life candidates first, would be a good start. Then through prayer and it’s affect maybe leaders in business will change their pay structure. Like a supervisor getting 10 % more than the workers. So there is rewards for what station your at, and incentive to move up. At each level going up, increase at the increment. Then the largest sum would go back to the community for education, and community development. I know that there are a lot of gaps and holes in statement, in practicality. But the essence of my thought is to bring everyone up, not to forcefully bring others down, so we can all be equally miserable. I have friends who would call me naive, lol Which tells me that I should pray. On a point of humor, when my secular friends and family call me naive, I know I’m on the right track to pray.

  • adam aquinas

    While I agree with the bulk of your essay, I must always say, we need to look in the mirror:
    Have you read “El Imperio Financiero de los Legionarios de Cristo” Makes one wonder….
    http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-heads-mexico-amid-legionaries-christ-disclosures-0

    • The article refers mainly to 2 things:
      1. Old news that has generally been cleaned up.
      2. Investments that an author is dishonest n how he describes them. For example, the Legion locked some money in for a few years to a mutual fund holding stock in a telecom company, during that time this telecom company added porn service to its cell or cable service, therefore the Legion invests in porn. Although technically true in a tangential way it is dishonest. We had a small interest in a mutual fund that had a small interest in a company that was moral but changed it’s business. (A friend of mine read the book and pointed out that the main new things were a few tangential arguments like this.)

  • JuniataKid

    Hi Father,

    I don’t believe that it’s a for-or-against proposition on social justice. The divide seems to be along the lines of “how.” To one side, social justice is a “we” proposition, and they vote for candidates who promise to fund government social programs. To the other side, social justice is an “I” proposition, and this side statistically gives more of their own time, money and even blood (many more blood donations from this side) to help those in need, while opposing government-run social programs. So it boils down to which side’s ideas work better for our neighbors in need. When you see the violence, addiction, lack of education and 72% illegitimacy rate in neighborhoods that live off of government-run programs and government funding, you have to wonder if that solution isn’t doing more harm than good.

    You’d also mentioned a living wage. How much is that? Economists demonstrate that raising the minimum wage eliminates jobs, especially entry level jobs that teens and young adults need to get a foothold in the workforce. No one is hurt more by raising the minimum wage than black teenagers, whose unemployment rate is astronomically higher today than at any point during segregation. As we see in Seattle and DC, instituting a “living wage” of $15 an hour for food service workers has driven up costs, driven down business and depressed employment in those cities. So yes, there’s a living wage (until the definition changes again). But there are now fewer opportunities to earn it. The poor aren’t well served by this particular social justice victory.

    These are the areas of disagreement within “social justice,” not whether or not we should care about social justice.

    • That’s insightful but it gets to a different issue of “how” which I avoided. I think there is a tendency of some on the “right” to give neither themselves (service, donations to charity, etc.) nor via taxation. The argument of “how” to achieve social justice is different from what I wrote, and for now, I leave that tabled. Maybe I’ll write on it later.

    • JuniataKid

      True, there are some who do that, just as there are some on the other side who skirt the law to lower their tax burden. But overall, statistics show that the right is more generous than the left. Different ways of looking at a problem: “we should do something” vs. “I should do something.” But I do think the “how” is the real divide. I don’t believe government can (or that politicians really want to) help the poor. So it comes down to the life issue to me.

      And thanks for responding, Father.

  • Thank you, Father for a thought provoking piece And in time for Lent. As we practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving, I’ll be using the time to think about what you said. I’m pro-life, but could do better on the social justice part.

  • LgVt

    I often find myself comparing the term “social justice” to the bronze serpent Moses made at God’s direction in the Old Testament. Like the serpent, “social justice” was a good thing at its origin–a new and helpful way of describing the activities and aims of the Church in the world.

    And like the serpent, which eventually became an object of idolatry itself, “social justice” has been corrupted, so that it is now synonymous with “I’m pro-abortion, but look at all the other good things I do!”

    And thus, like the serpent, “social justice” must be destroyed, so that it can no longer be abused.

  • Jim H.

    Thank you for the article, Father. I agree one must be concerned with both sides of the coin, starting with life. One certainly can accept a pro-life candidate, and yet prudentially believe that same candidate will nominally help the poor as well. On the other hand it is a little problematic to accept a perceived “pro-poor” candidate and yet prudentially decide that the same candidate’s staunch pro-abortion isn’t a problem.

  • Chris C.

    Father, the Popes do unite care for the poor with care for the unborn. Unfortunately many who claim to promote social justice equate support of a top down, bureaucratic welfare state with “helping the poor”. There are not a few clerics who make this mistake. The Church out of its bounty offers much to the poor, the greatest of which is the gift of Christ Himself, and which entails the running of clinics, hospitals, orphanages, schools, and a variety of social services. They are geared to feeding, comforting, and sheltering not only the body but the soul as well. What passes for social justice advocacy seems to bypass working in and through the Church, and joining with social radicals who profess a commitment to address “the root causes of poverty” which opens the door to leftist political activism.

    • Did you read it or just write a comment based on the title?

    • Chris C.

      Why do you ask? It’s not as if the title by itself is informative is it?

    • I definitely wrote a more nuanced understanding of social justice than you imply by simply calling it top-down leftist activism. I’m not saying no to activism but that makes no sense apart from actual care for the poor.

    • Chris C.

      I called the phony politicized version that often passes for social justice, “top-down leftist activism”. There is an authentic version that two thousand years of great charitable work bear witness to. Supporting bureaucracy laden federal programs, benefits no one more than the bureaucrats and their political benefactors. The poor are often just the excuse to keep the money pouring in. I might think otherwise if I ever heard if these activists actually ask pointed questions about what’s happened with all the money, and why is there still so much poverty, what’s causing single parenthood and what impact does that have on poverty; in short something other than simple demands to support “programs for the poor. Someone’s getting rich off the welfare state. It sure isn’t the poor.

    • FreemenRtrue

      2 trillion dollars of welfare since LBJ has spawned an underclass of poor. Social Justice, enacted at the point of a gun by extorting taxes from workers, ‘distributes’ a mean living to the ‘poor’ without a requirement to earn. Institutionalized government ‘charity’ is simply a scheme to purchase political power by capturing a voting bloc. Let the churches alone do charity or let it be person to person – there is grace in that. Let families help families. Let us not look away and allow the government to fill a void in our souls and our communities. After all, will a man ask me for bread if he will not work?

    • I know charity is the most helpful. But I do not consider myself knowledgeable enough in social programs to say exactly how to fix or change them so they more effectively serve the poor.

  • Birgit Atherton Jones

    The problem arises when so many Catholics fail to recognize that abortion is an intrinsic evil and always wrong, while there are many morally acceptable ways to approach poverty. In the search for justice for the poor, many fail to acknowledge the concept of subsidiarity. Instead, they want care of the poor to be addressed by large, distant factions. Give the man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. See the needs of the neighbor, who is right under our noses, and address it locally. Our parish does this. We care for missions, of course, but we also share our talents for local needs.

    • adam aquinas

      And just where does Jesus say that there are many morally acceptable ways to approach poverty and social justice,,,,Matt 25…The Parable of the Sheep and Goats…if you seen hungry, feed; if you seen naked, clothe; if you see someone thirsty, give them drink; if you see a stranger (immigrant, invite them into your house; if you see someone in prison visit them; if you see someone sick, care for them.
      I don’t see Jesus offering His believers alternatives…He said if YOU see, then DO. It is a statement of personal responsibility. Let’s not get lost in pseudotheology. It was a direct command to EACH OF US, so simply do it….there is one morally acceptable way…Do it! Let’s not philosophize about teaching people to fish ….Jesus simply said give them fish, like HE did. All other approaches avoid our responsibility for social justice in Matt 25.

  • james

    To paraphrase Jesus words to the women caught in adultery [ it seems ] Is there no one left to vote for ?