Two weeks ago Charles Camosy, a professor of ethics at Fordham University, published an open letter to Pope Francis in which he asks the Holy Father to give defense of the unborn a “more central place” in his formal teaching. Here at WPI, Pedro Gabriel has shown that Pope Francis is in fact a “pro-life champion,” in his deeds, magisterial documents, and letters, sermons, and speeches.
It is the magisterial texts Camosy is concerned about, specifically Francis’s recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti. He writes to the pope: “You didn’t even address prenatal children at all when giving an extended set of reflections lamenting insufficiently universal human rights. This was a major disappointment.” This statement, upon which Camosy’s entire letter hinges, is false.
By mentioning “insufficiently universal human rights,” Camosy refers to the subsection of that name in Fratelli Tutti, nos. 22-24, Ironically, this subsection contains the only use of the word abort[ion] in the whole document! Francis calls human trafficking “a perversion that exceeds all limits when it subjugates women and then forces them to abort” (24). For Camosy, this somehow does not count as a reference to unborn children, perhaps because it refers to forced abortion rather than elective abortion.
Yet there is also a reference to the unborn in general in the immediately-preceding subsection of Fratelli Tutti. The pope, quoting one of his own speeches from 2016, writes: “Persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ – like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ – like the elderly” (18). This sub-section is called “A ‘throwaway’ world” (18-21). Francis thus directly connects mistreatment of the elderly (including euthanasia) to abortion, the wasting of food, and racism—all elements he includes under the umbrella of “throwaway culture,” in which anything and anyone can be treated as disposable at will. This point follows upon the message of his encyclical Laudato Si’, in which he repeatedly connects abuse of the environment as an integral part of “throwaway culture” (e.g., 20-22).
So the unborn, the poor, disabled people, and elderly people are specifically listed right at the outset of Fratelli Tutti as of prime importance for social justice and human rights. For Camosy, this does not count because it is not said in the sub-section entitled “Insufficiently Universal Human Rights.” That is true, for the reference to the unborn is four paragraphs earlier and forms part of the immediate context of his words about human rights. Both subsections are part of the section called “Lacking a Plan for Everyone” (15-28).
To complain (in an open letter no less) that Francis’s reference to the unborn appears in one subsection rather than in another, is absurd. Worse still, Camosy fails to acknowledge that any reference to the unborn may be found in the encyclical (let alone in the immediate context), writing: “you didn’t even address prenatal children at all.” Unless a reader of his letter investigates this for themselves (or reads this piece!), they will be left with the false impression that the pope ignored the unborn in Fratelli Tutti, when in reality he directly mentioned them – twice!
Perhaps Camosy thinks subsection 22-24 of Fratelli Tutti is of such special significance that the omission of abortion and the unborn from it is egregious. (Of course, it’s not omitted; he calls forced abortion “a perversion that exceeds all limits,” but let’s ignore that). After all, this is the subsection, according to Camosy, in which the pope gives an “extended set of reflections.” Not really; it’s only three paragraphs, in which Francis says “many forms of injustice” persist today, but makes no attempt to enumerate them. The pope instead sums up these injustices as the exploitation, discarding, and killing of human beings (22). This language directly recalls the previous sub-section I quoted about “throwaway culture,” in which the pope names the unborn, the poor, disabled people, and elderly people. Does Camosy seriously expect us to believe that Francis’s decrying of “many forms of injustice” that “exploit, discard and even kill human beings” doesn’t include the four groups he just named as the principal victims of “throwaway culture”?
If we arbitrarily constrict ourselves to subsection 22-24, as Camosy does, then the pope names only two injustices. Paragraph 23 is about “the exclusion, mistreatment and violence” against women, and paragraph 24 is about human trafficking (during which he mentions forced abortion). There is no “extended set of reflections” here. The whole encyclical consists of reflections, and it includes many topics of great import, including the right to life of the unborn, whom the pope saw fit to mention in paragraph 18.
It is clear, then, that Camosy’s open letter is false in its foundational claim. Pope Francis has already made the defense of the unborn a significant part of his magisterial teaching.
Camosy also suggests that going forward, Pope Francis should make the condemnation of abortion a more central part of his pontificate. He writes:
Holy Father, I believe you were right to call for a new balance in the Church’s teaching. I believe you were right to spend the first several years of your pontificate building up the Church’s focus on the poor and the stranger. But with the legal recognition of prenatal children being under threat like never before […] now is the time to hold up the other side of the balance.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding about Pope Francis’s presentation of the Church’s pro-life social teachings. The first eight years of this pontificate were not a messaging recalibration or balancing act, as if the pope had decided that we needed to talk a little less about abortion for a while so that, after a few years, the anti-abortion message could be amplified at the opportune moment.
Pope Francis’s “strategy” (if you wish to call it that) on pro-life issues was never about messaging or even balancing. It was about fundamental thinking and doctrine. We can never return to “the other side of the balance” because the Church, in its official teachings, has always presented a consistent ethic of life, in which abortion is a crucial, central issue, but not the only one. The Church has been outspoken for more than a century about many important social issues, such as immigration, nuclear war, racism, labor, etc. Certain politically-conservative Catholic voices, especially in the United States, have insisted loudly for decades that abortion is the pre-eminent moral issue, as though the Church’s other social teachings were optional matters of merely “prudential judgment” (the implementation of anti-abortion policies and laws requires just as much, if not more, prudence as other laws and policies).
But this is a grave error, as has been clear since at least 1995, when Pope John Paul II published the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in which he united opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty. Pope Francis wasn’t trying to push the “left” side for a while, so that later we could push the “right” side more. No, he has been saying that in the Church it is not about left and right at all, but a consistent ethic of life and social justice. Here at WPI we have repeatedly tried to show this, so I won’t belabor the issue again. Instead just read these articles of ours: Pedro Gabriel’s “The Seamless Garment is the Catholic position” (as well as his brand-new sequel, “The Seamless Garment must be properly understood,”) and Steven Millies’s “Being pro-life requires the faith to see ‘both/and’”.
Pope Francis eloquently summed up the Church’s consistent ethic of life in Gaudete et Exsultate 101, which I quote in full:
The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defense 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 cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.
This is the best summary of the Church’s social doctrine I’ve ever seen. There can never be any retreat from it to a position of “let’s just focus on abortion now” because that would be a falsification of the Church’s teaching. In the same way, there could never be a “let’s ignore abortion now” to focus on something else (again, see Pedro’s new piece). We can be about more than one thing; in fact, we must be, if we are to be defenders of all life. Francis never ignored, relativized, or downplayed abortion. He has consistently defended life and advocated for justice for all, especially the most vulnerable for all eight years of his pontificate. And I know that, however many years he has left, he will continue to do so.
Image source: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Creative Commons
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).