Bp. Robert Barron on the pro-life/social justice split in the Church

In an interview with my friend Kevin Birnbaum at Northwest Catholic, he calls it a “tragedy for the Church“:

NWC: The Cornerstone conference arose in response to this division between “pro-life” Catholics and “social justice” Catholics — this lack of communication and cooperation, sometimes distrust and even disdain. What should be our attitude toward this dichotomy within the church?

Bishop Barron: Well, we should be against it. To me, it’s one of the bitter fruits, in some ways, of the post-conciliar period — mind you, not the council; Vatican II is very clear on this. But in the post-conciliar period there was a tendency within Catholicism to fall into these two camps, and I’ve watched that all my life in the church. Call it left-right, liberal-conservative, or, as we see it in the Catholic context often, this: Are you more on the life issues or more on the justice issues? And it’s just a false dichotomy, and it’s not in the great saints, it’s not in the teaching of the church, it’s not in Vatican II, but it’s a divide that happened in the wake of the council. And I think it’s really regrettable.

What we have to do is go back to Christ. You return to Christ, and what you find there is this integrated view of life. And you see, of course, this profound concern for the inherent dignity of every individual person and the respect for life from conception to natural death clearly on display. At the same time, you see a clear passion for justice, from the Hebrew prophets all the way up to Jesus and then through the great tradition. So, to my mind, it’s just glaringly obvious: These two things have to be central to the church’s preoccupation.

So that’s speaking generally. Where people debate sometimes is over prioritization. Yes, the church will say things that are intrinsically evil have to take a certain priority. So euthanasia and abortion are prime examples of things that are intrinsically evil, so they have to be opposed in a kind of prioritized way. But I think this should never blind us to the mutual implication, really, of these two sides. So, anyway, that’s a general remark about, I think, the regrettable division between these two.

What do you think are some concrete steps we could take, institutionally and as individual Catholics, to begin to heal this divide in the church?

Well, what I’m going to talk about, actually, at the conference is the Eucharist and the Mass. Because I think, in my mind, what brings together the great pro-life people and the great social justice people in our tradition is a love for the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we have Christ really, truly and substantially present. We have Christ offering himself to the Father. We find the unity of the mystical body in Jesus, and we find therefore this deep, deep connection to all people in the mystical body.

So I would take the Eucharist as the way forward — the Mass itself, that feeds both a deeply pro-life perspective and a deeply social justice connection. That’s what I’ll be urging: the Eucharist and the Mass as the thing that draws us together and shows us the way forward.

What relationship do you see between Catholic social teaching and the church’s mission to evangelize?

Oh, it’s huge. And I’m with John Paul II when he said that essential to the New Evangelization is the church’s social teaching. So I think it has a huge evangelical impact, and here’s why: We can talk about the teaching of the church on God and Jesus and the Trinity and the Eucharist and so on, but it’s seeing the church in action that often evangelizes people. And then go back to the early centuries — “how these Christians love one another” — that’s what grabbed the attention of a lot of pagans. And then I think up and down the centuries, it’s people living the Christian life in its radical form that has a huge evangelical power.

And I don’t think John Paul would mind this at all when I say he was the second-greatest evangelist of the 20th century — because the first, in my mind, was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. That no one evangelized more effectively than she is because of this radical commitment to the church’s social teaching. So it has a huge impact for evangelization, which is not just a matter of ideas but often a matter of witness.

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