On Catholicism and the sanctity of life

Pope Francis gave an address to a joint session of Congress today. I hope to have an essay on the broader themes of his speech for tomorrow, but today I want to focus on one aspect which seems to have tarnished his halo with leftists who have pinned their hopes on him and are now disappointed, just as they did with President Obama.

Here is the offending passage:

The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

That's it. That was his only glancing reference to abortion. And he didn't even use the word abortion.

But look at what he said: human life must be protected at every stage of its development.

As I've written before, I was raised Catholic. And although I can't in good conscience call myself a believer any longer, that upbringing undergirds who I am. I can no more dispense with it than I can dispense with all the skeins of life which have made me who I am.

I've always been a liberal. And as early as I can remember, I've always disagreed with the Church's position on abortion and birth control. Many times, I've disagreed vehemently with the Church, wanting finally to cast aside that part of me.

But as I've grown older, I have, I hope, grown wiser. What used to be black and white in my youth has become a symphony of grays. I still disagree with the Church on abortion and birth control. But I can respect its stance, at least on abortion.

How can I do this? Because unlike many of the evangelical Religious Right, the Catholic position on life is a total one. Again, turn to Pope Francis' words: life must be protected at every stage of development.

Too many on the right shed crocodile tears for the unborn, and then cavalierly toss them aside once they leave the womb. It's an ideological, theological concern, not a moral one. Once you're delivered, you're on your own. If you have substandard schools, no job prospects, are hungry and unhoused, that's not society's problem.

The Catholic stance on the sanctity of life doesn't end at the delivery room. It extends for a person's entire life. It encompasses social and economic themes. One of my religion teachers in high school would take students every summer on a road trip to protest at nuclear test sites. That is what a moral position on the sanctity of life should entail. Priests would regularly call for the end of abortion and the death penalty. "Life" wasn't some political term by which to score political points; it was the very meaning of existence.

Yes, I know, many on the Catholic right mirror their evangelical brethren in their disregard for what happens to a human once she is brought into the world. But that's their sin. The Church to which they claim to belong has a very different conception on what "life" means. Making sure everyone can live a decent life, free from want, violence, and oppression is the Church's theology. And among its best members, it's the theology practiced every day, in the most mundane ways, in the struggle to make the world a reflection of God's love.

You can't be for life in the womb and then insouciant about it once it comes into the world. That's not "pro-life"; that's "pro-birth". Pro-birth is a sorry theology upon which to hang your hat.

I don't think the Church will ever bend on abortion. It might bend on contraception. And of course I believe that legislation shouldn't be written with religion in mind. But if more of the pro-life movement had a comprehensive view of life, it might win more adherents and success. That it focuses solely on what happens inside a woman's body is testament that the movement is about control, not morality.

I'm no longer churched. But I'm glad that we have a Pope who lives in the same world of grays that I do, and that he has decided that he's not one to judge.



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