A oft used joke is to respond to a question whose answer is obviously yes by asking, “Is the Pope Catholic?” A variant of this would be to ask, “Is the Pope Pro-Life?”: the answer should be equally obvious. But it appears that this is not, or at least no longer the case. The most recent issue of Columbia, the house magazine of the Knights of Columbus, contains an article entitled The Gospel of Life According to Pope Francis. It is a compilation of pro-life sermons, speeches and essays by the Pope, mostly written during his tenure has archbishop of Buenos Aires. The preface to the collection is worth quoting in full:
During his 15 years as archbishop of Buenos Aires and his 10 months as Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has consistently defended the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death. In the face of what Pope Francis has called the “throwaway culture” of our times, a recurring theme in his teaching has been concern for the most vulnerable and defenseless human beings, including children — born and unborn — the disabled, and the elderly. While he made it clear in a widely publicized interview that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” it is equally clear that Pope Francis has not hesitated to speak out time and again about the crucial task of building a culture of life.
I find this passage surprising simply because the author felt necessary to write it: I think you would be hard pressed to find a bishop (at least in United States) who has not “consistently defended the dignity of human life.” Or as my son Kiko trenchantly put it, why are they beating a dead horse? Previously, the Pope has been criticized for not speaking enough about pro-life issues; this article is responding to these criticisms in a way that suggests that some people (perhaps even among the readers of the magazine) suspect that the Pope is not firmly committed to the cause.
The interview referred to in the article is, of course, the famous in-depth exchange from La Civilta Cattolica, published in English by America Magazine. The money quote, endlessly reported in the press, was the observation by Pope Francis that
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
It is worth noting the context: he was asked a question about difficult pastoral issues, and it immediately follows a discussion about abortion in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This passage was endlessly dissected by both Catholic and secular commentators; a great deal was read into it, and it was misinterpreted to varying degrees. The apotheosis of this was the Kansas abortion clinic which posted a redaction of this quote (omitting the pro-life assertions in the middle) in order to chastise the anti-abortion protestors who gathered outside. Or, in a similar vein, see the “thank you note” from NARAL dissected by my colleague Brett.
Nevertheless, to respond to these misinterpretations it would seem sufficient to simply give the full quote, perhaps highlight some other occasion where Pope Francis has spoken firmly against abortion (cf. LifeSite News) and move on. Why publish a long article whose only point is to drive home the already obvious fact that the Pope is solidly pro-life? I think the answer lies, at least in part, in the totalizing ideology that dominates in many parts of the pro-life movement: a belief that abortion is the single most important moral issue in the world today. The evidence for this is legion; one quote should suffice. In 2006, Bishop Michael Pfeifer wrote:
Abortion is not just one issue among many. Abortion is the central moral issue, the conflict issue, of this moment in our nation’s history. Abortion is separated from other important social issues like a just wage, affordable housing, and even the debate over war, by a difference in kind, not a difference in degree.
In saying this I want to be very clear: I am not attempting to downplay the significance of abortion. But what I do believe is that there are other equally pressing issues and I do not think I am “betraying the unborn” by paying attention to them. My point of view, however, puts me at odds with large parts of the pro-life movement.
My most jarring encounter with this attitude came during a short stint as the parish liaison for the Arhcdiocesan pro-life ministry. In as part of an attempt to reinvigorate the ministry, I put up a display in the vestibule highlighting a consistent life ethic. One of the issues I raised was world hunger, and to drive home the gravity of the problem I compared the number of children who die from hunger and malnutrition each year to the number of abortions performed each year. (There are approximately 3.1 million deaths annually from hunger, roughly comparable to the number of abortions, though obviously both statistics incorporate a great deal of guesswork. The numbers I found at the time put the number of abortions slightly lower than the number of deaths from hunger. *UPDATE SEE BELOW*) Someone in the parish vandalized the poster, deleting this comparison. Why? I do not know for sure but I can only surmise that it was because by making this comparison I was seen as derogating the centrality of abortion.In saying this I realize that I am eliding over many nuances and differences between individuals. Many, if not most pro-life activists I have known (including many in my Franciscan fraternity) are willing to engage with other issues. Indeed, when doing anti-death penalty work I often got a great deal of encouragement from pro-life activists: they would sign petitions, take literature back to their parishes, a few even invited me to speak about the death penalty. But in a lot of cases, this engagement was, as it were, at the periphery. Abortion remained the central axis of their moral universe, and they would cooperate on other issues only as long as I did not challenge this dominance.
Given this attitude, the over-reaction to the comments by Pope Francis is understandable. Any totalizing ideology is grounded in the (unspoken) belief that it fully explains the universe—but no ideology can. When gaps appear, when the ideology cannot explain something satisfactorily, the adherents must paper this fact over. And what could be more threatening to a Catholic pro-life activist than the thought that the Pope himself does not share their ideological beliefs? The response has been immediate and overwhelming: to preserve their weltanschauung, they must re-establish not simply that the Pope is pro-life, but that he is “solidly” pro-life: that he too believes abortion is the most pressing issue facing the world today. This point of view was clearly expressed by Kevin Burke, a pro-life activist. He concludes an analysis of the Civilta Cattolica interview by writing:
Don’t believe the media hype pro lifers. The Pope’s message in this interview and elsewhere is clearly one of affirmation and support with some always welcome spiritual direction. The primacy of our cause remains as an imperative flowing from the Annunciation and incarnation of Christ our savior in the womb of our Blessed Mother Mary. The Pope and the Church have your back. (emphasis in original)
I think Mr. Burke is both right and wrong. The Pope has his back in the sense that he is firmly committed to opposing abortion. But the glossed over “welcome spiritual direction” is an attempt by the Pope to break through to the members of the pro-life movement, to get them to recognize and accept that the gospel of life is about more than abortion, and they need to be as passionate about poverty, world hunger and the devastating effects of economic inequality. This is not because there is some facile inequality, but because all of these issues are manifestations of a throw-away culture that devalues persons and worships material wealth.
And this brings me back to the Knights of Columbus and their attempt to reaffirm that Pope Francis is really pro-life. At their 131 annual convention, the Knights passed a pro-life resolution, something they have done for years. Their commitment to opposing abortion is clear: it rings out in the opening sentence:
WHEREAS, the Knights of Columbus has a deep and historic commitment to oppose any governmental action or policy that promotes abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other offenses against life….
But when it comes to other issues, such as the death penalty, their position is tepid at best. The fifth paragraph of the resolution reads
FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Knights of Columbus will continue to uphold the traditional teaching of the Church concerning the death penalty, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by the late Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae.
When I was active in the anti-death penalty movement, this resolution was a source of joy and despair for me. Joy, because I could use it to point out that the largest Catholic organization in the state was on our side; despair, because the leadership reflected the spirit of this resolution. They were against the death penalty because the Church told them to be against it, but there was no passion. Their sole focus was on the “important” issues, such as abortion (or more recently, gay marriage). As a Knight, I can only pray that the K of C will really listen to Pope Francis, and understand what he is calling us all to do: to really be pro-life and not simply against abortion.
Postscript: My discussion of the totalizing ideology of the pro-life movement is indebted to the political philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, whose ideas I have discussed in several posts (here and here). Though not central to my argument I would be happy to further pursue his ideas in the commboxes.
Update (1/26/2014): It was pointed out to me in the commboxes below that this comparison is off by an order of magnitude. This incident happened almost 10 years ago, and I no longer have a copy of the poster I am referring to. My memory is clear that I was comparing abortion and deaths from hunger and disease, but I am no longer certain about the exact comparison. I apologize for the error.