By Rafael Garcia, SJ
In the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus proclaims his “mission statement”: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk. 4: 18-19).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, Paul has that beautiful teaching about the Church as a living body with unity in diversity. We are all parts of the Body of Christ, each unique and needed, but with different missions. Paul calls us to have equal concern for each other:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ… The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
The marginalized among us are a priority for Jesus and Paul. Moreover, Jesus tells us that whatever we do or not do to the little ones in society, we do to Him: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matt. 25: 40).
As a Jesuit, I have been blessed to serve in various areas of ministry involving those who are marginalized and rejected, working alongside excellent, dedicated lay persons, religious and priests. Some of these ministries have involved threats to the life of those considered least among us: Sidewalk counseling in front of abortion clinics; Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion retreats (about 17 of them); ministries with migrants and asylum seekers, including men, women and children in detention centers.
It is heart wrenching to encounter the constant migration flow of men, women, children, pregnant mothers and mothers with newborn babies, and to hear their stories of a treacherous journey across Mexico. Typically, migrating became the last recourse for saving their family from very real threats to their lives and extreme poverty. Now here in the U.S., they are threatened by deportation back to the original threats and the possibility of a violent death.
It is heart wrenching to encounter in a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat a mother who is feeling great remorse for one or more abortions and has been carrying this cross for years. I remember a woman, deeply affected and wounded, due to four abortions. The retreat brought some healing.
As a sidewalk counselor, one feels helpless when a young mother walks towards the abortion clinic with a glum look and does not want to hear anything about help and alternatives. Often enough, the post-abortive woman departs the clinic looking even more distraught.
The abortion issue has been polarizing due to its complexity and valid arguments on both sides. Truly, a woman is not an “incubator,” and thus it seems logical that after a rape or incest, the victimized woman may not – or she may – want to be a mother, a mother of a child conceived in violence, trampling on her free will. This is a valid question. Studies show, though, that an abortion does not remedy the trauma of rape or incest.
Truly, it is alarming to realize that there are about 1,700 abortions in the United States each day. This is down from years past.
Another alarming statistic: 29,000 children die in the world each day from preventable causes, including lack of vaccines, treatable disease and lack of clean water. I could not believe it when I learned this statistic from UNICEF.
Through the years, I have been saddened to experience the divisions, between individuals and structurally, of those working in “pro-life” ministries and those working in the area of social justice. This division has no doctrinal foundation, and it is not validated by Catholic social teaching. Where does it come from?
In my experience, those who are more conservative give primacy to the moral teachings that deal with the self, individual moral choices and sexuality. Some of these are abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, gender issues.
The more liberal person focuses on structural and societal injustice, to include war, immigration, healthcare, capital punishment, economic justice, care for Creation.
A well-formed person on either “side” should not disregard the other concerns. For a Christian, both personal integrity and structural changes leading to a more just society are necessary.
Catholic social teaching is part of our doctrine and moral teaching, yet it is unknown to many. “Insofar as it is part of the Church’s moral teaching, the Church’s social doctrine has the same dignity and authority as her moral teaching. It is authentic Magisterium which obligates the faithful to adhere to it.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, para. 80).
Why is this body of teaching that connects faith with life so unknown and apparently not emphatically taught?
Are many Catholic Christians in practice identifying more with a political party and its platform, rather than with Catholic morality and Catholic social teaching? Do people on “both sides” relate more consistently to particular American values and patriotism, as defined by some, rather than to the Gospel, normative for members of the Kingdom of God?
This partisan identification, if allowed to dominate, creates antagonism, shuts down dialogue and respect for the other, and might even turn to violence. This appears to be a new idolatry.
Our challenge and gnawing question: In the face of so much evil, what can I – we – do about it in a Christian manner? Do I feel righteous outrage by the various anti-life realities? We should!
A Consistent Ethic of Life
The Catholic Church masterfully teaches a consistent ethic of life, but many find it hard to follow its “consistency.” Often, both leaders and the faithful cannot hold the tension that the broad spectrum of the many life issues so well expressed in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, Faithful Citizenship, produced as a guide for formation of conscience during elections. A consistent position may make you a persona non grata with those who identify with only one side.
The inter-religious Consistent Life Network regularly addresses issues such as the elimination of nuclear weapons, abortion and care for the environment. It is consoling to see them addressed together.
On their website, they quote Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, known for her resistance to capital punishment: “I stand morally opposed to killing: war, executions, killing of the old and demented, the killing of children, unborn and born … I believe that all of life is sacred and must be protected, especially in the vulnerable stages at the beginning of life and its end.”
Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, well known for his prayerful, peaceful activism against war, violence and nuclear weapons held a consistent ethic of life. In October 1991, Fr. Berrigan participated in a silent sit-in protest in front of a Planned Parenthood facility and was arrested with others. In a speech at the University of Buffalo on May 1995, Fr. Berrigan stated, “and pro-choice supporters who oppose war but want to retain the right to kill unborn children are also in a morally indefensible position…. Abortion is a human horror. War is a human horror, and capital punishment is a horror. Civilized people have no business disposing of life at whatever stage.”
In March of 2003, the Jesuit Conference of the United States published a document titled “Standing for the Unborn.” Many may be unfamiliar with this document. It states:
First, abortion is a human rights issue. It is also a social issue and not simply a personal decision made in artificial isolation from wider social reality. Jesuits ought to find their place among those who demonstrate the obvious confluence of women’s rights and respect for life in all its forms.
Under Part III – “Public Dialogue About Abortion in a Pluralistic Society,” it affirms:
The more attractive option seeks neither to flee nor to dominate situations of pluralism. It commits us rather to a process of engaging those who initially disagree with us on some issues, seeking to create an acceptable consensus wherever possible by building upon those truths on which we can reach agreement, while continuing to educate and persuade those who disagree with our convictions. The path of ‘proposing, rather than imposing’, was described by the great American Jesuit theologian of the past century, John Courtney Murray.
Some years ago, on this province’s behalf, Provincial Assistant for Social Ministries Mary Baudouin worked together with the Louisiana Catholic Conference to bring together ministry leaders in the areas of social justice and pro-life. I participated, and it was a transformative event. It did get tense at times! One of the outcomes was that leaders of the Houma-Thibodeaux Diocese who separately engaged in lobbying for social justice and pro-life issues in the state legislature, decided they would switch places, walk in their colleagues’ shoes and lobby for their issues. Amazing openness and solidarity!
Discussions about abortion quickly become polarized, with one side often categorizing abortion opposition as impinging on women’s personal moral choices, or simply as anti-women stances. This is inaccurate, as evidenced by the women who seek help for post-abortion syndrome in a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat. The best advocates and proclaimers of the truth that abortion hurts women are post-abortive women who have overcome their shame and are ready to speak.
Thoughtful people are disillusioned when politicians or others wave the “pro-life” banner, yet cut needed aid to impoverished and marginalized mothers, devoting a huge portion of the budget to the military and weapons. Sadly, in my experience, “pro-life” ministries, are not involved in helping the many pregnant women in migrant shelters or living in vulnerable situations.
Government budgets undoubtedly reveal priorities. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners has said, “A budget is a moral document.” It is jaw-dropping to see a pie chart of how the U.S. budget is sliced and used.
As a conscientious Catholic, one can become frustrated when a political candidate is truly in favor of helping marginalized and vulnerable persons in society but has nothing to say about abortion at any stage of the pregnancy. The inconsistent ethic of life erodes his/her credibility. As a bumper sticker announced, “I am a pro-life, anti-war voter … where are our candidates?”
We should work toward reconciliation, to bring union of minds and hearts to the many good people working on these issues of life. Can we find scriptural and humanitarian common ground? We must rise above the politics of all this, even the labels of liberal and conservative, and truly discern what is Gospel and part of the Church’s consistent ethic of life.
Pope Francis emphasizes fostering human encounter as a way to break down barriers, dilute stereotypes and convert the heart. Encounters among peoples, with genuine openness and humility, will surely crumble barriers and stereotypes, and bring new life and hope. We must see the other also as a son or daughter of God with whom I may disagree, but probably agree with on more than I might suspect.
We’ll only be credible when we are truly committed to respect for life, in all stages and in all situations where it is disrespected. Let us pray for and let us work for comprehensively pro-life individuals, communities, churches and cultures. Let’s walk through the narrow door which widens our heart and recovers our sight.
Fr. Rafael Garcia, SJ, is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in El Paso and also ministers to migrants and asylum seekers.