Must the Pope EXPLICITLY Mention Abortion to Congress?

Must the Pope EXPLICITLY Mention Abortion to Congress? September 24, 2015


Blessed Mother Teresa spoke very forcefully and directly and at length about abortion, at both the UN (1985) and the National Prayer Breakfast (1994). Thus, it was not out of the question that Pope Francis might have done the same to Congress.  Hence, it is not immediately objectionable for someone to be (respectfully) disappointed that he did not do so. [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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I’m always in the middle somehow: seeing truths on both sides of a debate. Currently, the rage all over the Internet (from what I hear) is that pro-lifers are upset because the pope didn’t explicitly condemn abortion in his address. He did indeed reference it in referring to the right to life and the respect we must give to life in “all it’s stages.”

For many, that is not good enough. But there are several angles in which to approach this. It’s not a one-dimensional, clear-cut, or immediately obvious matter. We can discuss whether he must address the issue explicitly every time he talks to any important body. I think the answer to that is clearly no. Is it important enough to (often) bring up, however, even if only indirectly or more subtly? Clearly, yes. Earlier today, I very strongly defended pro-lifers from the complaint that they are “single-issue” folks: as if this is some emblem of shame on their part.

My own position (for what it’s worth) is that it was neither wrong that he didn’t explicitly address abortion, nor wrong to hope that he would do so. There’s no necessary or intrinsic sin or disobedience in that, in and of itself. We can sometimes go too far overreacting to what people are saying, too. I’ve heard that a bunch of people are “whining” and “grumbling.” I’m sure many are, because it’s been a whinefest for over two years about Pope Francis. I’ve consistently, vigorously defended him, in a book, and a collection of 175+ links to articles that do the same.

But there may also be some who simply hoped that the issue would have been brought up in more specificity, and with direct “convicting” force, as, for example, Blessed Mother Teresa did at the UN (on 26 October 1985), and the National Prayer Breakfast (on 5 February 1994). At the UN, she said:

[T]o begin that year of peace, we must begin at home, we must begin in our own family. Works of love begin at home and works of love are works of peace. We all want peace, and yet, and yet we are frightened of nuclears, we are frightened of this new disease. But we are not afraid to kill an innocent child, that little unborn child, who has been created for that same purpose: to love God and to love you and me.

This is what is such a contradiction, and today I feel that abortion has become the greatest destroyer of peace. We are afraid of the nuclears, because it is touching us, but we are not afraid, the mother is not afraid to commit that terrible murder. Even when God Himself speaks of that, He says “even if mother could forget her child, I will not forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand, you are precious to me, I love you.” These are God’s own words to you, to me, to that little unborn child. And this is why if we really want peace, if we are sincere in our hearts that we really want peace, today, let us make that strong resolution that in our countries, in our cities, we will not allow a single child to feel unwanted, to feel unloved, to throw away a society. And let us help each other to strengthen that. That in our countries that terrible law of killing the innocents, of destroying life, destroying the presence of God, be removed from our country, from our nation, from our people, from our families.

Blessed Mother Teresa also spoke very forcefully at the prayer breakfast:

But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even His life to love us. So, the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts.

By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And, by abortion, that father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. The father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.

Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India, with the children of Africa where quite a few die of hunger, and so on. Many people are also concerned about all the violence in this great country of the United States. These concerns are very good. But often these same people are not concerned with the millions who are being killed by the deliberate decision of their own mothers. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today — abortion which brings people to such blindness.

Likewise, Pope Francis might very well have said the same sort of thing to Congress. I agree that it would have been great if he did. He has done so elsewhere. But he has his reasons, and I respect those, whether I know what they are or not. He certainly has a different overall approach to the issue (i.e., how to best talk about it), which is not objectionable even to such a one as Fr. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.  

In any event, it doesn’t have to be the case that any criticism of the pope whatsoever is either technically “disobedient” (as a matter of canon law) or in a spirit of complaining and disobedience. Let me unpack that a bit, if I may. Some other folks might, for example, say before the speech today: “I wish he would mention someone like Dorothy Day. Wouldn’t that be cool?” So he did and consequently those who admire Day (as I do myself) were happy.

By the same token, a pro-life activist, who has devoted his or her life (often at great personal cost), to the preborn children might have hoped, on their part, that he would say more about abortion, directly (just as Blessed Mother Teresa did, to high political powers). They were simply wishing he would do what she did. Whats wrong with that? If he had done so, then they would have been happier, just as all the Day and Merton fans are now.

It’s no more wrong to say that a pro-life activist could or should hope that the pope would have been more direct about abortion than it would be to join in with the ecstatic throngs today who are excited that he mentioned Rev. Dr. King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton: all figures who are greatly celebrated by those on the more liberal or “progressive” side of the spectrum. If it’s fine for them to be happy today; why, then, is it wrong for someone to be disappointed at what they thought was too little of an emphasis on the pro-life issue? That’s perfectly acceptable.

What is not acceptable, though (I agree) is truly grumbling or complaining or thinking that oneself knows how to be pope better than the real pope does. Thus, each instance of a registered criticism would have to be examined on its own. A lot of it may indeed be unsavory whining. But other instances of an expressed critical opinion concerning what the Holy Father said about life issues, may be perfectly respectable constructive criticism. It is possible to do that!

We can’t say that every disagreement with the pope whatsoever is being disobedient. I disagree with Pope Francis on certain details regarding global warming, and use of nuclear power for energy purposes. I have disagreed with papal pronouncements about the war in Iraq (and as a Catholic I am fully at liberty to do that). I disagree in part about capital punishment, thinking that it is called for in cases of mass murderers and terrorists only. I’m permitted to do that, too. Pope Benedict made that clear, in the year before he became pope:

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishmentThere may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

(Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion — General Principles)


I disagree on all three of these points with the utmost respect for all popes. My position, then, is that popes can indeed be criticized, but it should be rare, well thought-out, and done with the utmost deference, respect, and charity. And it should be on matters where we are at liberty to disagree. Disagreement as to how explicitly he talked about abortion to a particular audience is far, far from being a dissenter or disobedient or lousy Catholic, if stated respectfully.

I’m always the peacemaker, it seems, who often sees truths on both sides of a given debate. I’m not gonna divide from fellow Catholics over this, or foster further division and acrimony by producing purely polemical tracts that are meant to inflame passions; adding fuel to the flames of contentiousness and disunity.

On a related issue, of what the pope said today; I was delighted by all four references to great American figures.

I’ve been to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and grave, and Gettysburg twice. 

I’ve visited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s church, home, the place where he gave his final speech, and the motel where he was killed. I also met Rosa Parks once (she lived in Detroit in her later years), and we have visited the spot where she got on the bus and refused to go to the back. We’ve even sat in the seat on the bus. It is kept here at a museum in metro Detroit, about five miles from our house.

Thomas Merton’s marvelous early writings helped me to convert to Catholicism and especially to appreciate Catholic spirituality.

Dorothy Day was a distributist. I am, too.

Let others keep fighting and dividing and polemicizing and being “orthodoxy cops” if they must. Nothing good will come of that. I will continue to look for common ground in the Church and in the larger society, and seek Chesterton’s “radical center” of orthodoxy.

We will always do well if we remember our Lord Jesus’ prayer for unity:

John 17:20-23 (RSV) “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. [22] The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. 


The Catholic Church is big enough to incorporate multiple approaches. The Holy Father has made it clear (see, e.g., this excellent article by Phil Lawler) that he is taking a “pastoral” approach.

Another approach is the “prophetic” one, which is equally biblical and valid. An example of that would be Blessed Mother Teresa’s strong denunciations of abortion that she made at the UN in 1985 and the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, as I noted above.

Jesus was “prophetic” when He turned over the tables of the moneychangers and confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees. He was pastoral almost all of the time when interacting with seekers and open-minded people.

St. Paul was prophetic when he denounced the sins of the Galatians and Corinthians. He was pastoral with the Athenians on Mars Hill.

Elijah was prophetic when he opposed the false prophets on Mt. Carmel.

David was alternately prophetic and pastoral in the Psalms.

St. Stephen was prophetic when he denounced the sins of the Jewish leaders, just before he was stoned to death.

So I say it’s great that Pope Francis takes one approach. That’s prudentially good for him at this particular time in history, and given his office.

It’s also good that others are prophetic, and it isn’t wrong for a pro-life activist to have wished that the pope was more “prophetic” in talking to Congress.

But since he wasn’t, it must be accepted in trust that he knows what he’s doing; and no one should publicly grumble and complain in a sinful, divisive way. 

There are multiple strategies for different situations in the pro-life movement as well. The Planned Parenthood videos are extremely confrontational in intent. The result was a nationwide horror at what they contained, leading to much discussion and quite possibly massive defunding. That’s a very good result. In many other situations, a more pastoral approach is called for.

The problem is, so often, that people think their approach or method is the best and only way, and don’t allow for others to be different. This is occurring on both sides of the current raging debate about what the pope should or shouldn’t have said to Congress.

The Catholic Church is bigger than all that. It has and allows for plenty of diversity and sub-dogmatic difference of opinion or practice or approach.

Both/and rather than either/or.

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