Kristina Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, recently wrote an article titled “Where Pope Francis Misses the Mark” where she expresses her concerns for something the Holy Father taught in his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. Hawkins expresses many of the same criticisms that other pro-life organizations have stated about this document, so I thought it would be valuable to respond to her article to help clarify for everyone what Pope Francis has taught and to address some of her comments about Catholic Social Teaching.
Let’s start by looking at exactly what the pope said about abortion in his new document:
“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 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.
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” (GE 101-102).
What Pope Francis is saying here is that a Christian’s opposition to abortion comes from the belief that all persons are equally and radically valuable. Therefore, we cannot pit our efforts to end abortion against efforts to help the poor, the immigrant, and the refugee. In other words, if I’m opposed to abortion because of human dignity then I cannot be opposed to humane immigration and refugee policies. I’m deceiving myself if I work to undermine the dignity of immigrants and think that’s okay because I’m opposed to abortion.
However, like many people, Hawkins misunderstood the Holy Father and thought he was saying something quite different. In her article she said:
“Pope Francis is definitely right in that we should be responsive and aware of all the issues mentioned. In fact, for myself and many other converts to Catholicism I know, the Church’s unwavering consistency on life was what caused former Protestants like myself to give the Church a second look from what we thought we already knew about Catholicism. But, there is nothing wrong with focusing on abortion. I don’t fault people who devote their lives to homelessness, healthcare, or immigration, as they are important issues Christians are called to address. But I’m also not going to apologize when I say I believe abortion is the most important to me.”
In other words, she thinks that the pope is saying that it’s wrong for Christians to spend so much time working to end abortion or that Christians must spend equal time and resources on all these social issues. However, I find it difficult to reach that conclusion when in the same paragraph the pope says “Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate…” (GE 101).
We only have finite time and resources, and God has given us particular gifts and talents, so we devote our efforts to the issues God has placed on our hearts and the issues most pressing in our lives. It is not wrong to prioritize some issues over others. However, that can become problematic if our opposition to one moral evil blinds us to other evils, leads us to use evil means to advocate for our issue, or leads us to excuse or minimize other evils. We cannot say that because we only have finite time and resources that we must focus on abortion and then spend a considerable amount of energy opposing the Church’s teaching on immigration, deportation, capital punishment, the poor, etc.
Unfortunately, Hawkins didn’t just misunderstand the Holy Father, she also goes on to speak about Catholic Social Teaching. Say said:
“We all have a role to play, and those of us moved to defend preborn infants and their mothers often specialize in those unique needs. While abortion isn’t the only issue that counts, it does deserve the most attention from Christians worldwide as no other injustice kills more each year and the Church has clearly defined abortion, the taking of innocent human life, as an intrinsic evil.”
This idea that abortion deserves the most attention from Christians because it is intrinsically evil isn’t uncommon, but it’s also wrong. Abortion is certainly an intrinsic evil, and the Catholic Church does indeed teach that intrinsically evil issues should take priority over other issues. However, abortion is far from the only intrinsic evil. The Council Fathers of Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes 27, said that the following issues are all “opposed to life itself” and “infamies” that “poison human society” and are a “supreme dishonor to the Creator.” And Pope Saint John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor 80, explicitly taught that those same issues are also intrinsically evil. The evils mentioned are:
- any type of murder
- willful self-destruction
- torments inflicted on body or mind
- subhuman living conditions
- arbitrary imprisonment
- the selling of women and children
- disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons
In other words, simply because abortion is intrinsically evil, that is, evil in all circumstances, doesn’t mean it necessarily demands the most attention. Certainly Christians who feel called to give it the majority of their time and resources are doing something just and noble, but if another Christian dedicates their life to fighting human trafficking they wouldn’t be doing a lesser thing simply because they aren’t spending their energy opposing abortion.
Catholic Social Teaching is rooted in the radical equality and immeasurable dignity of all human beings, thus all of these individual social issues are united together. If we value the lives of immigrants yet advocate for laws the devalue the unborn then we are hypocrites. Likewise, if we value the lives of the unborn yet advocate for policies that harm refugees and migrants then we are also hypocrites. Pope Francis is calling us to transcend our political Right/Left thinking and examine our own consciences when it comes to these issues. In other words, we shouldn’t see this new exhortation as a weapon that the pope is wielding against us or as a weapon that we can use against others. Rather, we need to let the words of our Holy Father convict us and encourage us to see Christ in all those who are poor and vulnerable.
[Image: Kristan Hawkins, taken from her public Facebook Page]
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.