Mon Oct 22, 2012 - 12:11 pm EST
Pro-life vs. social justice: a false dichotomy
October 22, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The gruesome reality of abortion first struck me when I was 17. After going through the motions for years, I had finally recommitted to my Catholic faith. As I devoured the Catechism and other great works of the faith, I remember feeling as though I had been living in the cold, shadowy depths of a cave for years only to discover that a path to the warm, sunlit outside world was just around the bend.
The wall of silence around abortion got me particularly – how could I have gone so long with nary a hint of the genocide raging right under my nose? I knew I needed to learn more. So one afternoon, sitting in my parents’ basement, I decided to take the plunge and Google: abortion pictures. After beholding those tiny, bloody limbs, my life was never the same. Suddenly struck by the conviction that abortion is the gravest of affronts to justice, I vowed that I would not rest until the injustice ended.
So you can see why I get rather rankled over talk about some Great Division in the Church between “pro-life” Catholics and “social justice” Catholics. In the last few days some respectable Catholic pundits have warned of a grave split on these lines in the lead-up to America’s Nov. 6th election. But as far as I’m concerned we might as well be juxtaposing male and human, dog and animal, or chair and furniture. If the pro-life battle is not a part of “social justice,” then I don’t know what is.
The false division baffles me all the more because at the time that I was diving head-long into the pro-life cause at the age of 17, I was also falling in love with the witness of St. Francis of Assisi and the Church’s truly radical teachings on Gospel poverty. Consider this Patristic aphorism, quoted in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes: “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him.” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia puts it just as bluntly: “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell.” The Church teaches that to follow Christ we must not only renounce worldly values but worldly things. For me, being both unshakably pro-life and ready to sacrifice for the sake of the less fortunate were basic demands of the faith, so it took me aback when I began to see them juxtaposed.
This supposed dichotomy arises from a fundamentally sociological theory of the Church that divides the faithful into “tribes”: “pro-life” vs. “social justice”; “traditional” vs. “progressive.” That theory in turn is based on the “seamless garment” doctrine of Chicago’s late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, which claims that the Church’s pro-life position should be applied as part of a “consistent life ethic” to a range of issues, including poverty, war, capital punishment, health care, and immigration. Whether stated or not, the takeaway is that the positions held by these various “tribes” are equally valid. And the result is that it is deemed acceptable for a Catholic to vote for a candidate like Barack Obama – despite his extreme support for intrinsic evils like abortion and same-sex “marriage” – because he is supposedly more focused on promoting the dignity of the poor.
But as the Vatican’s Cardinal Raymond Burke tells us, while the various public policy issues may be related, “they are not all of the same cloth.” Discussions around war, capital punishment and government programs for the poor involve prudential judgments in which people of good faith can legitimately disagree. But abortion, same-sex “marriage”, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia are intrinsically evil. Both poverty and abortion are “social justice” issues, but that doesn’t mean they are equally grave. Poverty is an extremely important issue, but it won’t be on a level with abortion until we have politicians and activists parading the country claiming a legal right to kill the poor.
This move to divide Catholics into “pro-life” and “social justice” tribes, whether intentionally or not, actually undermines the pro-life movement: if the fight for unborn rights is not part of the Church’s call to pursue justice, then the movement has no grounding in the Gospels. Obviously, Christ never mentions abortion. In the Beatitudes, He doesn’t say those who “hunger and thirst” after rights for the unborn will be “satisfied”; it’s those who “hunger and thirst after justice.” So if we cut off the pro-life cause from the work of justice, then we cut it off from the work of the Gospel. I don’t know if this is the explicit aim of any of the tribal theorists, but I dare say it’s part of the diabolic plan.
Along with this tribalist theory is the dichotomy that’s been imposed between the Church’s moral and social teachings, leading to the myth that the Church’s pro-life efforts are guided by Catholic moral teachings and the “social justice” efforts are guided by the social teachings. The truth is that all of the Church’s work in the social sphere is rooted in her moral outlook. The Church seeks the common good precisely because she deems it good. So when the Church labours to alleviate the plight of the poor, that mission stems from her moral conviction that it is wrong to leave others in destitution. Likewise, the Church teaches that abortion is morally wrong but then she urges the faithful to bring that truth into society and enshrine it in law. The sad consequence of reducing abortion to a strictly moral question, divorced from the Church’s social teachings, is that we downplay the need for social action to protect the unborn.
The modern Church’s most celebrated advocate for the poor knew better. Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, who dedicated her whole life to the destitute of India, declared in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize that the “greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.” Mother Teresa recognized that service to the poor is deeply pro-life – and not in some vague, seamless-garment sense. At the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, she revealed that her Missionaries of Charity had saved over 3,000 babies from abortion at their children’s home in Calcutta. “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child,” she urged.
Embracing Catholic teaching necessitates a deep concern for all men and women who are vulnerable. But it also leads us to recognize that some are more vulnerable than others, and that if we cannot secure the most fundamental right to life, then there is no basis for the right to food or health care. Sadly, those so-called “social justice” Catholics who are stumping for Obama have had to twist the faith to make their case – by imposing a false equivalency on the issues, or claiming that the “truly pro-life” candidate is the rabidly pro-abortion incumbent whose policies on poverty will supposedly, somehow, reduce abortions. The fact is that President Obama has defined himself as a public figure by the promotion of abortion and other intrinsic evils; the same could not be said of his challenger, whatever problems we have with him. In this election, there can be no “Catholic argument” for Obama.
The division facing the Church heading into the election is not “pro-life” vs. “social justice”, or unborn rights vs. the dignity of the poor. In the end, it comes down to a much deeper division cutting right through the heart of our identity as Catholics in the modern world and pointing to the grave need for this Year of Faith: It’s a division between those Catholics who embrace the Magisterium and those who do not, between those who would have the world conform to Christ and those who would have Christ conform to the world, between those who would cling to the Cross amidst the blistering storm of the age and those who prefer to go along for the ride.
Patrick Craine is the Canadian Bureau Chief for LifeSiteNews.com and president of Campaign Life Coalition Nova Scotia.