Most of my thinking about how to protect unborn children and help pregnant mothers is shaped by the teaching of the Catholic Church. That exposes me to the argument that I’m trying to enforce my own narrow religious views. I deny that: if I can’t make arguments in favor of protecting children that non-Catholics understand, then my work will fail – and should fail. But I repeat, my thinking about how to proceed is largely shaped by my faith in Jesus and my determination to understand and follow the teaching of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church is not, and should not be, tied to a political party. But in my thinking, I find that the approach of the Church to moral issues draws me to the Democratic Party at its best. The Church’s approach is global, not nationalistic; it is consistent, not single-issue; it is generous and loving, not legalistic and restrictive.
I admit freely – and in fact enthusiastically – that other people shaped by the Church will be drawn to Republican Party. All the great political and social arguments of our time are reflected in religious arguments within all healthy religious communities. But to understand my political views in any depth, you need to understand how my faith shapes my views.
In brief: I embrace the immense challenges that are found in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. I embrace the teaching in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the Catholic version of the Social Gospel, which includes the teaching in the Gospel of Life from St. John Paul II.
Protecting the lives of the helpless is a universal responsibility, shared by all people of good will.
Chapter 2: Culture of Life
eleven short insights
John Paul II’s freeing concept (#10)
Catholic Church: pro-life, pro-justice (#11)
Virgin of Guadalupe: A Voice of Unity (#12)
The unity of the Catholic Church (#13)
Global fight against population control (#14)
Culture of Life, Civilization of Love (#15)
Paraclete: advocate, lawyer, lobbyist (#16)
The treasures of the Church (#17)
Six red flags at the border (#18)
Pro-life passages: all pro-immigrant (#19)
The “non-negotiables” (#20)
In conversations about race, there’s often a huge disconnect, as in Cool Hand Luke: “Now, what we have here is a failure to communicate.” Pope John Paul II describes a conceptual tool that may help to bridge the gap.
Perplexed individuals who have been accused of racism may review their personal histories, and insist truthfully that they have never used the N-word. That’s good! But can we get serious now? Racism is structural, and that structure does damage even without crude insults. JPII explains this. His concept is not exactly the same as this, but it’s close enough.
JPII said that there are some grave evils that cannot be exposed by a mechanical search for some technical violation of the Ten Commandments. He spoke of “social sin.” To think clearly, you need this idea, in some form.
In his revolutionary teaching about making peace and changing destructive habits (his apostolic exhortation “Reconciliatio et penitentia,” #16), he offers four definitions of “social sin,” and then uses one of them. The four:
1. Every time you do wrong, it affects everyone, directly or indirectly, because we are all interconnected in different ways, some obvious and some mysterious. So all sin is “social.” True, but kinda vague.
2. The Lord spoke of two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. Every violation of the second commandment can be called “social.” Also true but kinda vague.
3. Sometimes there are breaks between various human communities. These are evil. To call them “sins” requires some explanation: calling war a “sin” may be more of an analogy than a definition. This is the meaning that the Pope wants to use.
4. Sometimes people try to analyze things that go wrong, attributing the evil to uncontrollable structures, leaving no one responsible. The Pope dismisses this fourth use of the phrase as a worthless fraud.
Back to the third meaning. There are breaks in society that are evil, that we need to talk about as evil. He lists examples (in a previous section, #2):
• Violating human rights
• Violating conscience
• Racial or religious discrimination
• Nuclear weapons and the arms race, instead of addressing poverty
• Unjust distribution of wealth and power
Who does these things? Who “distributes wealth unjustly”? Sure, it happens, but when and how and who’s responsible?
JPII says that “such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.”
So what do people actually do that adds up to these social sins? He says,
“It is a case of the very personal sins …
• of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it;
• of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of
+ or the conspiracy of silence,
+ through complicity
+ or indifference;
• of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world and also
• of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of higher order.
The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.”
So what does racism look like, if it’s not an actual lynching, not shouting the N-word? Well, JPII says it might be more simply “taking refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world.”
You can’t get at this profound evil in a legalistic fashion. You can’t haul someone into court for the crime of “taking refuge in a supposed impossibility.” You can’t get at this thing in a Baltimore-Catechism-trained confession: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned … I took refuge in a supposed impossibility.”
Social sin is hard to get at legally, or legalistically. But it points the way toward reform (and/or repentance). Did we hide behind a claim of helplessness, a supposed impossibility? We did. I did. Can we stop it? We can. I can.
The language of social sin points to the future, not the past. It speaks of us, not of me. It points to healing and hope, not to shame. It makes it possible to take responsibility without admitting criminal behavior.
The way out of social sin is not by prosecuting and jailing the perpetrators. It’s not by “three Hail Mary’s and a good Act of Contrition.” It begins with understanding the deeply rooted problem and recognizing the humanity of its victims, and then acting in solidarity with them.
Racism exists, and it kills. But who did it? Did “I” do it? I’m inclined to deny it. Does that mean no one did it, that it just happened? Or was it just a few bad actors, like the KKK? That’s just not real, and we all know it; there’s more to the story. But if it’s not me and it’s not them, who did it?
Did “we” do it? Of course we did! So let’s stop it!
Clear thought helps build peace.
I’m a pro-life Democrat, and a Catholic who embraces the whole teaching of the Church, whether it seems to be from the left or the right. And I note an interesting detail about the Church’s teaching about abortion: the key documents from the teaching of the Church about abortion are all written in language and context that are congenial to “seamless garment” liberals.
The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), published in 1965, refers to abortion twice. Paragraph 27, within the section on “The Community of Mankind,” is a “seamless garment” presentation. It has abortion in a list of evils that includes “murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction.” The list includes assaults on life itself, but also assaults on human dignity, such as deportation. On the other hand, paragraph 51, within the section on marriage and family, speaks of abortion and infanticide, in the context of sex and love and chastity.
Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical from Pope Paul VI that turned his reputation upside down, transforming an ultra-lefty into the rock of the right, is about birth control, not abortion. But it’s worth noting that he raises three key concerns. Most of the encyclical is an argument about morality, but he also makes three social predictions in paragraph 17, about consequences. One is a familiar slippery slope argument, generally congenial for rightwingers: a mentality that accepts contraception will soon accept other forms of immorality. Second, he says that a contraceptive mentality will make it easier to treat women as objects, mere instruments for the satisfaction of a man’s desires. This argument is generally dismissed by feminists as factually wrong, but the concern is based on lefty feminism. Third, he points to the risk of totalitarian abuse: what is permitted may become mandatory. That is, Pope Paul’s arguments include a moral code that pleases conservatives – but also a feminist plea and a social justice perspective.
Pope St. John Paul II did the same kind of thing when wrote about family life in his apostolic exhortation on family life, Familiaris Consortio. He denounces abortion, and discusses it within the context of a “contraceptive mentality.” But also, in this document that pro-lifers flourish, he speaks about the rights of migrants and exile and refugees. He declares (in paragraph 46) that families have a right to migrate in search of a better life.
The key pro-life Catholic document of our time is, of course, St. John Paul II’s 1995 Gospel of Life. Here too, the teaching of the Catholic Church is placed carefully in a broad context, in the seamless garment. In paragraph 3, he repeats the teaching from Gaudium et Spes, considering abortion within a list of grave evils, assaults on human life and dignity, including “poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war,” and “murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction” and “arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution,” among others.
The key Catholic pro-life documents are embedded in the language and approach of social justice.
In 2009, Hillary Clinton, then serving as the Secretary of State, visited Mexico, and made her way to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The rector of the basilica brought the image down from its usual place above the altar, so that she could look closely at it. She looked it over a bit, and then asked, “Who painted it?” She was mocked by her detractors for the question. I never understood that mockery. I would gladly sacrifice an arm for the opportunity to explore that question with her.
The story of how the image appeared is powerful, if you can believe it. And if you can’t believe the story (look it up), the image is still beautiful and detailed, although it’s on a rough fiber – on a peasant’s cloak. The technique to produce it is still not understood. The colors are not paint; there’s nothing between the fibers. And it’s not dye; the back of the cloth is blank. And if you can’t accept the story, and don’t care about the technique, you’re still left with its impact: the image is extraordinarily eloquent in its pictorial messaging. In 1531, after a decade with the conquistadores, nearly all the people of Mexico remained baffled and unimpressed by the Spaniards’ explanations of God. But the clear ideas conveyed by the image resulted in the prompt and permanent conversion of millions of people.
Ireland was brought to Christianity by St. Patrick. Germany was converted by St. Boniface. The Slavs listened to Sts. Cyril and Methodius. But Mexico! Mexico’s claim about their patroness is astounding! They received the Gospel from Mary.
The message of Lourdes is about healing, and something about the Immaculate Conception. Fatima is about repentance and prayer for Russia. But Guadalupe is ultra-simple: I’m with you.
So she’s with someone – but who? Was she speaking to Mexicans, or Central Americans, or all the people of the Americas? Everyone?
The Virgin of Guadalupe was not a part of the life of Catholics in the United States in my generation. I attended excellent Catholic schools for 12 years, and – to the best of my recollection – the first time I heard of her was when I was 22. The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington has an impressive collection of images of Mary from all over the world, many of them in side altars. One of the smallest alcoves has the image from Mexico. The people who built the shrine knew about Guadalupe, but it wasn’t a major priority for them.
When Cesar Chavez was organizing farmworkers, they had marches and demonstrations that used two symbols. One was the angular black eagle that was stamped on lettuce that was picked by the UFW. The other was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The workers – including Latino immigrants, many undocumented – thought that she was with them.
And American Catholic pro-lifers today think she’s one of us.
Indians and conquistadores, peasants and scholars, farmworkers and pro-lifers: the Virgin of Guadalupe bridges gaps, and unites us.
On the night of the Last Supper, the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church. To me, that seems to imply three things: (1) the unity of the church is immensely important, and (2) it is likely to be extraordinarily difficult, perennially bordering on miraculous, and (3) it will come about. So I am committed to the unity of the Church, as the express desire of the Lord and as something valuable in itself, and also as a prerequisite to the work of the Church.
In my lifetime, the Church’s work for unity has been extraordinary. The Second Vatican Council included a determination to end several bitter divisions: the split between the Christians and Jews, the split between Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, the split between Catholics and Protestants, and the war between Christians and Muslims. We have a mixed progress record. And we have a new split, between the left of the Church which emphasizes the social Gospel and the right of the Church which emphasizes personal morality. Having a left and right is healthy and normal, if they cooperate. Splitting them is destructive: there’s only one head and one heart.
One prominent detail of the current division, and of the urgency of unity, is the split between pro-lifers and pro-immigration activists. To me, it seems blindingly obvious that they go together, in a consistent ethic of hospitality.
The unity of the Church is expressed and confirmed in the Eucharist, the Mass.
Catholics assert their belief that the bread and wine we share at Mass is in fact the body and blood of our Lord. This isn’t the time or place to explain that: I want to look at two implications of it.
The Catholic Church asserts that a zygote, a newly fertilized ovum the size of pencil dot, is a child of God and a member of the human family. That’s not obvious to the naked eye. But if you feed and protect a zygote, it takes a short time – maybe nine months, if you’re fussy about what you see – to become more easily recognizable. Is it hard to believe that a tiny thing, smaller than a mosquito’s head, is a brother or sister? If you think a small piece of bread is the body of Christ, embryos are easy.
St. John Chrysostom was eloquent about seeing the Lord in the poor. And he said that if you don’t see the Lord in the poor man at the door of the church, you will not find him in the chalice.
It seems to me that these two assertions belong together. The Lord comes to us in tiny children and in needy strangers.
The Lord invites us to see both truths, and to cooperate with each other.
That, I believe, is what the Lord would have us see.
This has a political implication. We almost certainly cannot protect babies without Democrats, nor welcome immigrants without Republicans. We need pro-immigration Republicans and pro-life Democrats.
The eugenics movement organized in America in the 1920s to improve the human race by social control of reproduction, or breeding “more children from the fit, less from the unfit.” This included sterilizing the “feeble-minded.” But by far, the most important part of this vast human engineering project was the drive to reduce the number of “colored” people – mostly overseas, by population control. The most dramatic example of population control was NSSM 200, a 1975 document which defined black babies in Africa as threats to our national security, alongside Russian bombs and Chinese Communists and Cuban propaganda. When you see how much work the USA has done to drive down the world’s population, you realize that abortion within the USA – over a million babies annually – is a small fraction of the real problem, the global bloodbath – 40 or 50 million babies annually. American pro-lifers usually fixate on 2-3% of the dead.
The global fight does not resemble the national fight. Let’s look at three examples – resisting sterilization in Puerto Rico and then two United Nations conferences on population.
In the 1930s, American industrialists wanted a stable and inexpensive work force. Puerto Rico was cheap, but wasn’t stable; the people were poor and restless. American employers set out to reduce family size there, by sterilization. Catholics were already fighting eugenic sterilization in all 48 states, and they went to work in Puerto Rico. But they were beaten back soundly – until pro-choice feminists organized to protect women. Catholics and pro-choice feminists cooperated in Puerto Rico, and won.
I covered the International Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1984 for the National Catholic Register. At the opening press conference, I asked the executive director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), Rafael Salas, why the UNFPA was giving awards to the Chinese and Indian population programs, which were openly coercive, neither pro-life nor pro-choice, neither pro-child nor pro-woman. He huffed and fluffed, and later hunted me up to chat – but didn’t answer.
A pro-life coalition was there, resisting UNFPA’s agenda: the Americans led by Alan Keyes, the Vatican, Latino nations, and Muslim nations. A spokesman for the Vatican told me that the coalition was familiar; the same group had been in the same fight ten years before at another UN population conference, in Belgrade.
Ten years later, there was another UN conference on population, in Cairo. A similar coalition formed to resist, but this time recalled Puerto Rico. Pro-lifers worked to distribute information about NSSM 200, an American population control document. The pro-lifers cooperated with many pro-choice feminists who despised coercive policies.
My point is simple. American pro-lifers today are generally ignorant about the global fight. They have aligned themselves with eugenic anti-immigration activists, and attacked the Vatican, Latinos, Muslims, and pro-choice feminists.
For decades, the pro-life global coalition has included the USA, the Vatican, Muslims, and Latinos – with pro-choice feminists collaborating against coercive depopulation. But Republican pro-lifers want nothing to do with that. They don’t even want pro-life Democrats!
There’s a phrase that became a slogan for the pro-life movement – “to build a culture of life, a civilization of love” – that came from St. John Paul II’s encyclical, The Gospel of Life. Are we still planning to build one? I’m still committed, but I don’t know how many other pro-lifers have any idea what he said.
In paragraph 91, he wrote about population control, and he denounces coercive abortion (all abortion, but coercive abortion in particular), or any coercive measure to limit birth. No surprise there. But then he offers an alternative solution to the “population problem.” He writes: “Governments and the various international agencies must above all strive to create economic, social, public health and cultural conditions which will enable married couples to make their choices about procreation in full freedom and with genuine responsibility.” Wait a minute. Who did he say is supposed to create these economic and social conditions? “Governments and various international agencies.”
It gets more intense: “They [these governments and international agencies] must then make efforts to ensure ‘greater opportunities and a fairer distribution of wealth so that everyone can share equitably in the goods of creation. Solutions must be sought on the global level by establishing a true economy of communion and sharing of goods, in both the national and international order.’” Say again? He said that a pro-life response to population problems includes governmental efforts towards a fairer distribution of wealth. That’s St. John Paul II the notorious Commie.
Mike Schwartz, a great pro-lifer leader and speaker and activist for decades, used to talk about “poverty” and “overpopulation.” He noted that the two words refer to the same thing – an imbalance goods among people. But the first word sounds like something that Jesus asked the rich to fix, and the second word sounds like something stupid that poor people did.
JPII’s encyclical continues, asserting that pro-life work “also appears as a providential area for dialogue and joint efforts with the followers of other religions and with all people of good will.” Ecumenism! And even cooperation with atheists!
Two weeks after the bloody events of 9/11, at a meeting with Muslims in Kazakhstan, Pope John Paul II spoke again about cooperation in building a civilization of love. “From this place, I invite both Christians and Muslims to raise an intense prayer to the One, Almighty God whose children we all are, that the supreme good of peace may reign in the world. May people everywhere, strengthened by divine wisdom, work for a civilization of love, in which there is no room for hatred, discrimination or violence.”
Pope Benedict XVI continued his predecessor’s drive for a civilization of love. Speaking to Muslims in Cameroon (March 19, 2009), he said: “I therefore encourage you, my dear Muslim friends, to imbue society with the values that emerge from this perspective and elevate human culture, as we work together to build a civilization of love.”
I’m serious about the culture of life and civilization of love, unabridged.
In a healthy nation, we would have parties offering different approaches with different emphases, pushing and shoving a bit but aiming for unity. In a healthy nation, there is tension between money checked by political power, and political power checked by successful business. In a healthy nation, the advocates of individual rights and responsibilities would wrestle with the advocates of social rights and responsibilities. Some truths that are obvious from one perspective but obscured from another. We need each other. It’s proper that we jostle; we don’t have to despise each other.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer two rather different interpretations of a Gospel story. I embrace both. I note that one is easier for Republicans to grasp, and the other is easier for Democrats to grasp.
The story of the Good Samaritan offers a model of hospitality. A man is mugged, and lies by the side of the road, bleeding. A civic leader comes along and sees him. His view is that he must takes good care of his immediate family, then his circle of good friends, then his neighbors; but the roadside victim isn’t on any of his standard those lists. So he passes by. Then a religious figure who runs several welfare agencies also sees the bleeding man. But he can’t figure out bureaucracy should handle this problem, so he too goes by. A third man, an outsider, sees and hears the man in trouble, and stops to help. He stops the bleeding, and moves the man to shelter. He pays for food and nursing care for a few days.
Jesus deals with us with tenderness, in a one-on-one relationship, ensuring that the basic needs of life are met. Be like that, he says.
Social Gospel model
Another reasonable interpretation builds on Moses and puts the needy individual in the center.
Moses insisted that we should welcome strangers, because – remember! – you too were once a stranger in a strange land. Memory should stir compassion. Similarly, in Jesus’ story, the Good Samaritan, who knows what it’s like to be ignored, sees the man’s plight and promptly imagines himself in that situation. Imagination should stir compassion. The Samaritan, like the solid citizen, has set of circles of responsibility in the back of his head; but the center is the man in trouble. Is the victim’s family here? Nope. Friends? Nope. Neighbors? Hm. What’s a neighbor? When that desperate man looks at me, does he see a neighbor? He hopes so, but does he? It’s up to me to decide.
The victim is central: what does he need? Food? Get it. Nursing? Get it.
Suppose he need a legal advocate? If that’s what he needs, then I should help him get a lawyer. Suppose he needs a new immigration policy? If that’s what he needs, get it!
That approach can lead right to the whole social Gospel.
So the parable has at least two plausible applications. You don’t have to choose; you can embrace both.
I don’t think that St. Lawrence was a Democrat – truly I don’t. But as a Democrat, I find his understanding of “treasure” to be congenial.
The story is, during some great persecution, the emperor swept up all the prominent leaders of the church in Rome, and sent them off to kingdom come. A deacon named Lawrence took responsibility for leading the living remnant. Then the bloody-minded oppressors demanded that Lawrence collect the treasures of the church and surrender it all. Lawrence agreed to do so, and showed up in due time at city hall – with all the blind and lame and broken of the city: in God’s eyes and Lawrence’s, the treasures. The powerful lords of the city were unamused, and they roasted him. He died, the story goes, cracking jokes: “Turn me over! I’m done on this side.”
I think of Lawrence and his treasures when I hear Republican leaders talking about immigration policy. It’s not just their savage inhospitality that baffles me; it’s also their brutish stupidity when they are faced with God’s Treasures.
I do not understand people who assume that every sensible American agrees that we want to keep out immigrants who arrive with needs. Many Republicans are willing to debate about how many immigrants who are educated, with valuable skills, should be allowed in. But generally, they assume that we need to screen out the freeloaders who are hoping to get someone in the family into an American hospital.
The Church asserts that migration is a right – a right, belonging to individuals but also to families. If a worker wants to immigrate, and has family members with special needs, why should that be an obstacle? Immigration policy isn’t just some kind of employers’ recruitment plan; it’s the immigrant’s right.
Recall the struggle when President Obama was working to get his Affordable Care Act through Congress. He hit a startling roadblock. In the final weeks of negotiations, the Catholic Church – which had been pressing for universal health care for a century – opposed the bill. They had concerns about abortion and protection for conscientious objectors. But also, they opposed it because it excluded undocumented immigrants.
Is an immigrant who needs medical care an expense or an epiphany? In the totally insane American health care “system,” patients can run up six-figure hospital bills very quickly. But Jesus – the Lord of the universe – said: when I was sick, you helped me. Is that true? Is it relevant?
I’m not opposed to encouraging people to get medical help in their own countries – as long as we (Americans) are serious about foreign aid packages – through the government or through other organizations – that ensure that poor nations can provide competent health care. But we aren’t serious; we dabble.
If you don’t see Jesus in the sick, you don’t see him at all. And if you think you do, you are dangerously deluded.
I stand with St. Lawrence and Pope Francis. Receiving health care is a right; providing health care is a privilege.
In his teaching about the last judgment, Jesus gave us six invitations, six injunctions. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned – and enter the kingdom of God. What? Why? Because you cared for Me, says the Lord. Alternatively, don’t feed the hungry, don’t give drink to the thirsty, don’t welcome the stranger, don’t clothe the naked, don’t visit the sick, don’t visit the imprisoned – and go to hell. What? Why? Because you didn’t care for Me, says the Lord.
That’s pretty clear. So what are we doing at the border?
People show up at the border, fleeing from violence or poverty. Many of them are hungry, or were recently and will be again soon. And thirsty. And they are, obviously, strangers. That’s three red flags flying. Are the red flags for Christmas: Look, Jesus is here! Or are they red for warning: danger!
They are red for a choice. Choose life.
Some of the hungry thirsty immigrants aren’t dressed properly for the weather: that’s a fourth red flag. Some are sick: that’s five.
Our response, often, is perplexing, and dangerous as Hell opened wide: we lock ’em up. That’s the sixth bright red flag. How can we be so stupid? I don’t understand how Christians overlook what’s unfolding, what’s waving in our eyes.
Many pro-lifers have a checklist of grave evils in hand. It’s not the same as the list from Jesus. What they are concerned about is a list of five “non-negotiable” items: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and homosexual marriage. And none of those are going on at the border, it seems, and so pro-life leaders opt to be neutral. That’s strange, using a checklist that was developed a few years ago instead of the Lord’s own words.
But actually, it’s worse! Most national pro-life leaders are not neutral about immigration; they support the savage inhospitality of the Trump administration.
Worse still: abortion is an issue at the border. There are pregnant women among the refugees and migrants. Globally, there are about a million pregnant women, homeless and wandering or even fleeing on the roads of the world. And some are at our border. Is there a pro-life response to these crisis pregnancies? Nope. Most pro-lifers are quite willing to go along with Republican leadership, and work hard to keep these women out, lest they give birth to anchor babies. If they are born here, they’re citizens here, and they might bring their families here one day. So pregnant women get special attention: it is especially urgent to keep them out.
So at the border, six red flags fly. Republican leaders ignore them. And abortion is an issue, but pro-life leaders go along with a determined effort to keep crisis pregnancies out of here.
The angels who ate with Abraham at Mamre are the same ones who destroyed Sodom. They reward hospitality, and they punish complacent inhospitality.
Angels of Sodom, draw near.
I have been fighting against abortion since 1972, when I was doing alternative service as a conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam. During these five decades, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the passages in Scripture about unborn children – in Isaiah 49, Psalm 139, all the references to God’s special protection of orphans, Luke’s Visitation story, and Matthew’s Holy Innocents story. I find these passages inspiring, pregnant. However, when I started looking at Scriptural teaching about welcoming strangers, I didn’t find a scattered handful; I found hundreds of passages. When a pro-lifer uses Scripture to talk about abortion but not about immigration, that’s a problem. It’s unbalanced and biblically illiterate.
All the pro-life passages are also pro-immigrant.
Consider Isaiah 49: “before I was born, the Lord called me, from my mother’s womb he spoke my name.” When Isaiah says this, he is speaking to foreigners: “Hear this, distant nations.” And Isaiah’s mission, from his mother’s womb, is not just to the people of Israel; he is a light to the Gentiles, to all people to the ends of the earth. He is a voice calling the Israelites back from exile.
Consider Psalm 139: “you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” The Lord’s words are addressed to a wanderer, a fugitive: “Where can I run from your love?” Nowhere in the universe is hidden from God.
Consider all the passages about God’s special protection of widows and orphans – which pro-lifers apply to mothers without family support and babies without parental protection – that is, to mothers and babies at an abortion clinic. Of the 21 passages in Scripture referring to widows and orphans, 18 are about a trio, not a pair: widows and orphans and strangers. The Lord cares for people without national protection.
Consider the Visitation, when the fetal John dances with joy at the coming of the embryonic Jesus. The setting for the story is hospitality: Elizabeth and Mary, host and guest, coming together in mutual love and admiration.
Consider the story of Herod’s massacre. It begins with some mysterious foreigners from the east making a pilgrimage to honor the newborn king. How they knew, and how much they knew: this remains mysterious. But these strangers were invited by God. Further: the allusion to Rachel, the lamentation in Ramah, is her wailing for her children who are killed or driven into exile. Further: The story ends with the Holy Family going into exile in Egypt. Pope Pius XII said the exiled Holy Family is “for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind.” Matthew’s remarkably poignant story of a threat to helpless babies is also a remarkably poignant story of exile.
The plight of threatened unborn and despairing mothers cannot be separated from the desperation of refugees and exiles. These are different details of a single reality. Our response must be a consistent ethic of hospitality with a welcome for all strangers, including the unborn.
One of the weirdest developments in the pro-life movement in the past few years has been the emergence of a list of “non-negotiable” items. The idea is weird: is this a political term, or a business term, or what? It’s not standard in any discussion of justice or morality that I know of. Even in politics or business, what’s wrong with negotiation? The items that made the list are weird: some are definitely negotiable. But the biggest problems, it seems to me, are what this list seems to replace. The idea of the list, I think, is that some issues of right are wrong are clear, and we can’t bend on them. Okay, I get it, I guess. But this list doesn’t resemble the Ten Commandments: are they negotiable? It doesn’t resemble the Sermon on the Mount. It doesn’t resemble the Lord’s fiery injunctions in his sermon on the Last Judgment. It doesn’t resemble the teaching from Vatican II or in St. John Paul II’s encyclical, The Gospel of Life. What is this list?
It has five items: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and homosexual marriage. It does not have contraception.
Euthanasia has gray areas. When you decide whether to continue a treatment – for example, penicillin for pneumonia when the patient has terminal cancer – the moral question turns on your intention. Are you permitting the natural process of death, or are you deliberately hastening death? That’s complex – negotiable.
No serious Catholic moral theologian objects to embryonic stem cell research, unless it’s (1) human, and (2) destructive. Putting this item on the list was sloppy.
Some fertility treatments are likely to result in twins. That’s a form of cloning. And in fact, it’s the only form of human cloning currently going on. Like most Americans, I would oppose cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer, and it is a threat on the horizon. But why put it on this list if no one is doing it? And if you do want to put it on the list, a part of the moral issue here is separating sex and procreation: contraception is sex without procreation and cloning is procreation without sex. I wasn’t there, but I think the non-negotiators negotiated on contraception and backed off prudently.
Human cloning can involve life and death. President Clinton’s bioethics board argued that human cloning wasn’t horrible unless you produced cloned adults, and they advised proceeding with human cloning but killing the embryo after two weeks. But the non-negotiable five list – at least in the Priests for Life version – doesn’t include any arguments against this “clone-and-kill” policy.
So what’s this gibberish list all about? What’s it for? I think the attraction of it is that it’s divisive. “Unconditional surrender” and “no compromise” and in fact “non-negotiable”: what fun to say! It doesn’t get anything done, but it separates one side from another, and lets the dividers feel tough.
When pro-lifers opt to divide, they just ostracize themselves. Which is non-useful.
I prefer Matthew 25.