“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 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.'”

Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, Paragraphs 101-102

Richard Stith is among the geniuses of the world, and I’m blessed to know him. In a letter to friends who share a consistent life approach, he wrote a preliminary response to Gaudete et Exsultate. It was of course – coming from him – thought-provoking. But I’d like to respond.

Stith raised three issues. First, the exhortation seems to be a ringing endorsement of the consistent life approach; but if you measure it as such, it falls short. It puts abortion in a context of other life issues, but does not mention war and the death penalty. That’s a lot of violence to overlook, and these are odd omissions indeed if Francis intends to endorse the consistent life approach.

Second, Stith points out that when the Pope speaks about immigration and abortion together, this seems to equate intentional lethal violence with misery. Stith in no way minimizes the misery caused by restrictions on immigration; but misery is different from intentional lethal violence. So, again, the Pope’s approach is not quite the same as a consistent life approach

And third, Stith is concerned that the Pope seems to accept the largely false “canard that pro-lifers do not do anything much to help out in the difficult daily lives of moms and babies after they are born.”

With regard to the third matter, it seems to me that pro-lifers have to accept that in 2018 the leadership of a substantial portion of the pro-life movement (other than the Consistent Life Network!) is untrustworthy. Millions of people continue to set aside their own ease and comfort so that they can help women and children threatened by abortion: I thank God for them, and thank them for their dedication. Nonetheless, there are criticisms of the movement as a whole that were not honest and fair 20 years ago that are honest and fair today. The Trump campaign pulled pro-lifers into an ad hoc coalition with people embracing some truly awful ideas.

With regard to the first and second issues, I agree with Stith’s argument that what the Pope is saying is not the same thing that the consistent life network is saying. But it isn’t obvious to me that the differences matter. It seems to me that abortion is a huge issue, and it’s complex enough that we consider it from a variety of different perspectives, learning from each.

From the beginning, the pro-life movement has always addressed a few issues. It has never been single-issue. Consider:

  1. Jack Willke and The Abortion Handbook

Jack Willke put abortion in a framework that included euthanasia. Abortion and euthanasia are not obviously similar: tiny and fresh versus full-sized and wrinkled; sharp lines (life begins at …) versus grey areas (the natural process of death, ordinary/extraordinary measures, who decides); deliberate lethal intervention versus deliberate non-intervention; etc. But Willke emphasized that abortion is a living person – with a beginning and end here on earth. From sperm and egg is not a continuum; it’s a change. From zygote to elderly is a continuum. From aging to corpse is not a continuum; it’s a change. Willke wanted to emphasize the value of the life of an individual, from beginning to end.

  1. The Human Life Center in Minnesota

There were many pro-life activists who emphasized that abortion is rooted in an attitude toward human sexuality. If a person accepts that sexual activity is private matter, and that its meaning for them is entirely up to them – if sex and birth drift apart in theory and in practice, with sex for fun and IVF for babies – and if we accept the apparent commonsense proposal that good fun cannot cause great damage – then abortion follows.

  1. Eagle Forum and the Conservative Coalition

Eagle Forum and allies often insisted that the pro-life movement should be single-issue. But when they got to work, their single issue was anti-abortion, anti-feminist, pro-nuke. This conservative coalition is still visible and vibrant, although it’s changed a smidgeon. Now it’s anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-gun.

  1. Slavery and the Holocaust

Jesse Jackson, before he turned pro-choice, said that the mentality of slavery and the mentality of abortion are the same: treating a person as a thing. It was an interesting argument, but in fact pro-life activists and civil rights activists did not build a coalition. Ask Jesse why not.

Similarly, many pro-lifers compared abortion to the Holocaust, for two reasons. First, abortion involves killing huge numbers of people while society looks on and refrains from interfering. The phrase “Never again” expresses a shared determination, but the precise focus of this determination is not quite identical among Jews and Christians. Jews often mean, “We will never let this happen to us again.” But Christians often mean, “We will never turn our backs on a slaughter again.” Second, abortion produces corpses that end up in the waste stream, or in labs, or in crematoria. Tracing the bodies to a crematorium in Alexandria, Virginia is sobering. The cremation of innocent victims looks like a holocaust. However, despite the similarities that pro-lifers saw, many Jews have expressed opposition to this linkage. It never helped build an effective coalition.

  1. Consistent Life Network

The consistent life approach was championed by Juli Loesch in the early 1980s, in the organization she founded, Prolifers for Survival. It was her intention to bring pro-lifers into the Mobilization for Survival. The ideas was embraced by Cardinal Bernardin, who spoke about a “seamless garment.” And now the idea is carried forward by the Consistent Life Network. They speak for me, for sure.

  1. Pope Francis offers another angle

I hadn’t really focused on it until Stith spelled it out, but the Pope’s approach is not the same as CLN. One might say it’s about a consistent approach to hospitality.

I’ve been working for six years to link abortion and immigration. And I learned slowly that most people consider hospitality to be a decoration, like flowers on the table, not a matter of immense and eternal significance like justice and truth. Emphatically, Stith does not trivialize hospitality. He notes that what the Pope is saying isn’t exactly the same as what Loesch and Bernardin said. Okay: it’s a new approach.

The links include:

(a)    Restricting immigration and expanding abortion are major accomplishments of the eugenics movement.

(b)   Both are about hospitality to people who show up in our lives on their schedules, not ours, capable of altering our lives substantially even if inadvertently.

(c)    It is almost impossible to construct an argument for restricting immigration that isn’t also an argument for can’t be turned pretty easily into an argument for global population control. And global depopulation schemes include forced abortion. In other words, restricting immigration here leads to more abortion overseas. Recent reports of increased miscarriages among pregnant women being held for deportation are horrifying in themselves; but they are only the tip of the iceberg.

(d)   Both abortion and restricting immigration are ways to turn away from the creative initiatives of the Lord, who always cherishes us but almost always challenges us. When the uncomfortable Other shows up in our lives, it’s likely to be God. Do not be afraid! Angels always say that when they show up, because people are always scared.

(e)   Immigrants and babies change our lives – but the changes, on balance, are joyful and delightful and enriching and wonderful, now and forever.

I’m not disturbed by Stith’s comments. I think he’s right: the Pope’s links are not consistent life links. They are similar, but not the same. It’s actually something new and different. And I embrace it wholeheartedly.

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