Many Catholics claim that a wide variety of issues are “prolife.” I am one of them. We affirm as Catholics that God has made all human beings in His image. Therefore, all human beings have inalienable dignity. When we encounter a difficult moral issue, the first question we should ask is whether a given position affirms or denies that dignity. This requires us, among other things, to make the protection of human life a paramount ethical priority. Anything that harms and degrades human beings is contrary to this basic principle.
But some prolifers protest against what they see as a watering down of the concept. Matthew Loftus argued in 2018 that labeling a wide range of issues “prolife” makes it too easy for people to avoid what he sees as the duty of supporting bans on abortion. I see a lot of prolifers cite this article or repeat its sentiments. I don’t find it a very convincing article, in part because it takes a rather straw-man position as its antagonist. Loftus assumes that the broader use of the term will always have to do with enabling babies to be delivered safely or preventing women from having abortions. In other words, to use a progressive cliche, he’s still identifying “prolife” with “pro-birth.”
The Gospel of Life
The mainstream, orthodox Catholic argument, however, is that all issues having to do with life are connected. John Paul II argued this in his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae. In fact, he goes beyond making an ethical connection among “life issues.” He roots the ethic of life in our most basic beliefs about creation and redemption, and indeed the nature of God. God is life. God is the fountain of life. And God has created us for life, not for death. The Didache, one of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings, describes all human life in terms of two ways: the way of life and the way of death.
Therefore, in a sense it is true that all ethical issues are prolife issues. But Loftus has a valid point when he suggests that we should distinguish between direct and indirect threats to life. To use his example, zoning may be an important issue with ramifications for human life. But most of us would hesitate to introduce the term “prolife” into a debate about proper zoning practices. “Rhetorical inflation” can defeat the purpose for which we employ it. Use a strong term too often and too broadly, and we weaken it.
Retribution and defense
Some issues, though, clearly do bear directly on human life. And among these, perhaps the most obvious (other than abortion) is the death penalty. Evangelium Vitae contributed significantly to the development of Catholic doctrine by clarifying that the death penalty is only legitimate when necessary to defend society. A purely retributive function is not enough to justify it.
Writing in First Things in 2001, Avery Cardinal Dulles argued that in principle the retributive function of capital punishment is still a legitimate basis for the practice. In his view, however, this only works if society has a concept of a “transcendent order” served by the death penalty. When a society sees government simply as the expression of the will of the people, retributive punishment becomes nothing more than an act of vengeance. He clearly thought he was speaking in accord with the Pope in arguing this. But I don’t see such an argument in Evangelium Vitae. That being said, Dulles’ argument is a good refutation of the attempt by many more conservative Catholics to defend the death penalty as currently practiced in the United States. I think he’s right that such attempts assume a framework for the death penalty that no longer exists.
Innocent life or all life?
Many conservative prolifers argue that we should protect only “innocent” life. Or, more strongly, that executing murderers is a prolife act because it protects innocent life though retributive justice. I certainly accept the distinction between innocence and guilt as relevant. (Many Christians I know who oppose the death penalty do not accept this distinction.) The Church teaches that it is always wrong, without exception, to kill an innocent person directly and intentionally. To kill an aggressor in war or self-defense is not intrinsically wrong. And at least until Pope Francis’ recent changes to the Catechism, Catholic doctrine did not claim that executing criminals was intrinsically wrong. (We can argue over what those changes mean. And because of that ambiguity, I’m basing my argument on Evangelium Vitae rather than on the new Catechism language.)
But to say that killing the “guilty” may sometimes be legitimate is not to say that their lives do not matter. Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism (with or without the new language) make that clear. The same respect for life that forbids us to kill the innocent makes us extremely reluctant to kill anyone at all. The idea that we show respect for life by killing the guilty retributively is a longstanding, venerable notion in our culture. (And in other cultures, as the notorious recent Chinese textbook rewriting John 8 indicates.) It’s a view that many in the Church have expressed. But it is clearly not in keeping with the mind of the Church today.
The sordid reality
If the state and its executioners could really confine themselves to killing the guilty, we could at least have a serious debate about this. The stern defenders of the tradition (or at least one strand of it) could make their case and those of us who side with JPII and Benedict and Francis could reply with some degree of civility.
But that is not the world, or the society, we live in. When we look at the sordid reality of the death penalty as it is carried out in the United States today, we see a deeply corrupt, ramshackle, arbitrary system that cannot be trusted not to kill the innocent. We see a system where, as Sister Helen Prejean recently pointed out on Twitter, those without capital get the punishment.
In his last few months in office, President Trump managed to kill thirteen prisoners on death row. For seventeen years the federal government had executed nobody. Trump, last July, broke that record and proceeded to rush through a series of executions, with the apparent goal of killing as many death-row prisoners as possible before he left office. His devoutly Catholic attorney general, William Barr, spearheaded this effort.
The judicial murder of Lisa Montgomery
One of the victims in particular, Lisa Montgomery, caught my attention because of the horrific circumstances both of her life and of her crime, and because of the strong evidence that she was not mentally competent and not responsible for her grotesquely violent actions. My Patheos colleague Mary Pezzulo has laid out the facts in Montgomery’s case with her usual clarity and eloquence. Montgomery was abused throughout her life, including horrific sexual abuse from her stepfather and other men when she was a child, and an abusive marriage to her stepbrother. She was poorly served by her legal team and the evidence for her mental incapacity was never adequately presented.
The allegedly “prolife” Trump administration killed this woman, this deeply broken and traumatized daughter of God. They did it in the name of justice and protecting the innocent. They committed judicial murder.
If this is not a prolife issue, nothing is. If the “Gospel of Life” proclaimed by St. John Paul II is true Catholic doctrine, then the execution of Lisa Montgomery is a grave blasphemy against the central proclamation of orthodox Christianity. In the words of the Book of Wisdom (1.13), “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” Or in the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”
Making God’s name to be blasphemed
Claiming to be “prolife” but narrowing the term to abortion does not just contradict the teaching of the Church as found in Evangelium Vitae. It also provides the world outside the Church with a horrifically bad witness. In the words of St. Paul, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Anyone who tries to defend the prolife position will quickly hear the objection that prolifers obviously don’t really care about defending life but are simply trying to control women. Bizarrely, some prolifers seem to think that narrowing the definition is an effective response to this objection. In other words, they are treating it as a terminological problem. “You say that we aren’t prolife because we believe in the death penalty? Ha! That isn’t what ‘prolife’ really means, so there.”
But it isn’t a terminological problem. It is a problem of moral credibility. When people say “you aren’t really prolife unless you also . . . . ” they aren’t playing word games. They are taking the face-value meaning of “prolife” seriously. If what you cared about was life, you would behave differently than you do.
The Church agrees. But it’s hard to make that case when so many “good Catholics” are trying actively to undercut it.
A lot of prolifers are claiming that the younger generations are increasingly prolife. In my experience, young people care very much about defending human life. But most of them, in my experience, don’t think that the conventional prolife movement does that.
A prolife movement that cheers on the judicial murder of Lisa Montgomery has become a parody of itself. It will become a movement that exists simply to make American conservatives feel morally superior and to justify them in supporting any other immoral position they happen to find convenient.
Proclaiming the Gospel of life
I know that I’m probably preaching to the choir. Those who are not convinced already will not be convinced by me. But at least I can add my voice to stronger and more eloquent voices like Sister Helen. At least my non-Christian (and non-Catholic) friends can see one more example of someone who really tries to be faithful to the whole “Gospel of Life.” And perhaps some young Catholic who is beginning to think seriously about these issues will be moved to take the Church’s full teaching more seriously than many self-appointed champions of orthodoxy seem inclined to do.
And if I am simply howling into the void–well, sometimes there’s a place for that too.
God does not desire the death of the living. The only Gospel worth proclaiming is the Gospel of life.
This is the teaching of the Church. The whole, full rich, life-giving teaching. Why can’t we try to be faithful to it?
Photo by Matthew McQuarrie on Unsplash