No One Is Expendable: Gaudete et Exsultate, the Consistent Life Ethic, and an Appeal to Fellow Passengers

Pope Francis’ recently promulgated apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, while not apparently garnering as much before-and-after chatter as previous documents such as Amoris laetitia and Laudato si, did cause a bit of a stir in a few places – including, perhaps surprisingly, the Consistent Life Network.

I join those who remind that the entire exhortation, a full-orbed call to holiness based on the beatitudes in Matthew 5 and the final judgment in Matthew 25, is well worth the read.  But of course the paragraphs that have ruffled a few feathers are those that connect life issues, broadly defined (as they have long been in Catholic social teaching), and critique any single-issue dogmatism that would create artificial divisions among them.

101. The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”, with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”.

These paragraphs precipitated a flurry of discussion among some Consistent Life board members, Catholic and otherwise, regarding our readings of the pope’s tone and message, which one board member brilliantly compiled and condensed into a recent blog post.  While the post reflects certain tensions – or what a few people half-jokingly called “violent agreement” – the majority of us were inclined to give Francis a more favorable interpretation.  Here I will simply underscore a few additional points, with the help of some of the better commentary I’ve seen.

Jack Quirk, a co-conspirator of mine in the Catholic blogosphere, anticipated the controversy on his Christian Democracy blog shortly after Gaudete‘s publication.  Citing par. 101, he wrote,

In saner times this would be uncontroversial. But we do not live in a sane time. Rather, we live in a time where the unborn and the poor are tools of politicians. The polemics to follow can be anticipated.

One side will object that Pope Francis has downgraded the importance of unborn human lives. This, it will be said, marks such a departure from traditional Catholic doctrine that the Holy Father has now manifested his heretical tendencies for all to see; and that he, therefore, need not be listened to when he speaks on behalf of the world’s afflicted. The other side will say that the pope has let it be known that abortion is only one issue among many such that it can be discarded in favor of other priorities. Neither of these readings can be justified.

The pope has not downgraded the seriousness of abortion. On the contrary, he insists that we be firm and passionate in our defense of the unborn. But he is also pointing out that other human lives are just as sacred, also requiring our serious concern. Moreover, he is by no means identifying any human issue as discardable. He is not saying that one human life issue is more important than the other, that is, he is not saying that one human life is more important than another. Quite the contrary, he is saying that all human life is sacred.

This message should be troubling to the inhabitants of the entire political spectrum in American politics. Many Catholics in the United States have steeled their consciences against the Faustian bargain they are called upon make with the two-party system. But Pope Francis is calling upon us to tear that contract in half.

It is difficult to see how the above paragraphs in Gaudete can be read as a dismissal of the seriousness of abortion or other bioethical concerns, given the direct and unequivocal affirmation of the dignity of prenatal lives contained therein, not to mention the Vatican’s recent offer of care for Alfie Evans, with the personal backing of the pope.  Unfortunately, however strong the affirmation of the dignity of the unborn, some will perceive it as being downplayed whenever abortion is mentioned alongside other issues, as if human dignity were a zero-sum equation where affirming the equal dignity of one vulnerable human population is automatically a lessening of that of another.

Paul Fahey at Where Peter Is wrote an eloquent response to this misconception:

What Pope Francis is saying here is that a Christian’s opposition to abortion comes from the belief that all persons are equally and radically valuable. Therefore, we cannot pit our efforts to end abortion against efforts to help the poor, the immigrant, and the refugee. In other words, if I’m opposed to abortion because of human dignity then I cannot be opposed to humane immigration and refugee policies. I’m deceiving myself if I work to undermine the dignity of immigrants and think that’s okay because I’m opposed to abortion….

We only have finite time and resources, and God has given us particular gifts and talents, so we devote our efforts to the issues God has placed on our hearts and the issues most pressing in our lives. It is not wrong to prioritize some issues over others. However, that can become problematic if our opposition to one moral evil blinds us to other evils, leads us to use evil means to advocate for our issue, or leads us to excuse or minimize other evils. We cannot say that because we only have finite time and resources that we must focus on abortion and then spend a considerable amount of energy opposing the Church’s teaching on immigration, deportation, capital punishment, the poor, etc….

Catholic Social Teaching is rooted in the radical equality and immeasurable dignity of all human beings, thus all of these individual social issues are united together. If we value the lives of immigrants yet advocate for laws the devalue the unborn then we are hypocrites. Likewise, if we value the lives of the unborn yet advocate for policies that harm refugees and migrants then we are also hypocrites. Pope Francis is calling us to transcend our political Right/Left thinking and examine our own consciences when it comes to these issues. In other words, we shouldn’t see this new exhortation as a weapon that the pope is wielding against us or as a weapon that we can use against others. Rather, we need to let the words of our Holy Father convict us and encourage us to see Christ in all those who are poor and vulnerable.

While some may read a critique of a single-issue approach to being pro-life as an attack on pro-lifers tout court, there is a crucial difference.  Catholic social teaching’s continuous affirmation of universal human dignity means that all human lives have equal value, and that while the right to life by definition includes the right not to be directly killed, it also includes the right to a dignified life – in other words, the right not to be subjected to inhumane living conditions.  Thus, the adage about “equal concern for all lives but not for all issues” easily becomes overstated and tantamount to splitting hairs.  This is not to say that there is never any such thing as a secondary issue, but fixation on the ranking of issues – particularly those involving human beings whose lives and dignity are threatened – often distracts from the fundamental principle underlying them all.

Tony Magliano, writing for the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, highlights the inconsistency of this on both sides:

I have encountered many Catholics who are deeply committed to ending abortion, but often have no hesitancy about going to war – which always involves killing countless innocent people.

And on the other hand, I have encountered many deeply committed Catholic peace activists who are indifferent to the war of abortion waged against innocent unborn babies.

But Pope Francis is in neither camp. Rather he is crystal clear that we are not to subjectively rank the life issues, but rather to objectively link them all together.

The resurrecting of this ancient teaching of the early Catholic Church – insisting on absolutely no blood-spilling – is both the most moral and the most logical position to hold. It proclaims to governments, corporations, society and the whole world that no one is expendable! And that each person made in God’s image and likeness is to be cherished and protected.

When I was studying theology, a repeated metaphor came up in a few of my class discussions of the Church as a large ocean liner: continuously moving, though not haphazardly but in continuity with its own course, and at such a pace as is possible for such a large vessel to move.  Sometimes, it was added, the ocean liner may send out little speedboats (theologians) to help navigate its course – still, presumably, with the common cause of avoiding perils and keeping the ocean liner on course toward its ultimate destination.

I realized that in most things, I am content to remain with the ocean liner, trusting the soundness of its direction and speed.  It is in the movement toward an ever-fuller and more consistent affirmation of nonviolence that I see myself as one of the speedboats, calling back to the mother ship that yes, we can and must continue in this direction.  My hardest task, however, is often convincing many of my fellow passengers to get on board even with where the ocean liner already is.

This is not a new problem with the pontificate of Francis, who continues to guide the ocean liner in the direction it had already been going.  From the application of life issues to the necessity of a living wage in Rerum novarum, to the consistent-life laundry list of Gaudium et spes 27, restated by John Paul II in Veritatis splendor 80, to name only a few examples, concern for all human lives – and yes, by extension, for all human life issues – is a central thread running throughout Catholic social teaching.  The real scandal, then, is that this central thread is little-known enough that it appears new.

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