I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).
A profound one-liner from Jesus that crystalizes his mission and desire – God’s desire – for humanity. God is the source of life, grace, love. So, undoubtedly, if God is for life, so must we be.
Jesus’ words in the synagogue of Nazareth, in Luke, Chapter 4, announce that he has come for the oppressed and the impoverished: 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.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12, Paul has that beautiful teaching about the Church as a living body with diversity and unity. We are all parts of the Body of Christ, each unique and needed, but with different missions. Paul also 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.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
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.
As a Jesuit, I have been blessed to serve in various areas of ministry, alongside excellent, dedicated lay persons, religious and priests. Some of these ministries have involved direct threats to life: sidewalk counselor in front of abortion clinics; Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion retreats; ministry with migrants and refugees, including those in and out of detention.
It is heart-wrenching to encounter the constant flow of men, women, children, pregnant mothers and mothers with newborn babies, and to hear their stories of a treacherous journey across Mexico. Each of them made this choice as the last recourse for saving their family from very real death threats and extreme poverty. Now here, they are threatened by deportation back to the original threats.
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.
It is also heart-wrenching and mind-boggling to think of the multitudes of unborn children who were never born due to an abortion.
One feels so helpless when a young mother enters 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 looking even more miserable.
In the “vineyard of the Lord,” there are so many good people serving with great fidelity and generosity:
- in prison ministry;
- in shelters with homeless or with migrants and refugees persons;
- in the Gabriel Project, a ministry for women experiencing crisis during pregnancy;
- in food banks or soup kitchens feeding the hungry;
- as sidewalk counselors at the abortion clinics;
- visiting shut-ins and homebound elderly persons;
- ministry to AIDS patients;
- in advocacy for justice.
So many, young and old, have felt a strong call from God to serve others and find great fulfillment in it. They are the needed hands, feet, eyes and ears!
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 is a division with no doctrinal foundation and it is not validated by Catholic Social Teaching. Where does it come from?
Abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research … all are issues typically addressed under the label “pro-life.”
War, immigration, health-care, economic justice, care for Creation, etc., fall in the “social justice” category.
Capital punishment may fall under either heading.
A key question to consider regarding this division: Are Catholic Christians giving more weight to their identification with a political party, by tagging themselves as either “liberal” or “conservative,” rather than by Catholic morality and Catholic Social Teaching?
Do some draw more consistently from American values and patriotism, as defined by some, rather than from the Gospel, normative for members of the Kingdom of God?
Truly, it is alarming to realize that there are about 3,000 abortions in the United States each day. UNICEF estimates that about 29,000 children die in the world each day from preventable causes, including lack of vaccines, treatable disease and lack of clean water.
Our challenge: in the face of so much evil, what can I – we – do about it in a Christian manner? Do I feel righteous outrage by both realities?
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 fail to keep the balance so well expressed in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, Faithful Citizenship, produced as a guide for formation of conscience during elections.
The inter-religious Consistent Life Network regularly addresses issues such as the elimination of nuclear weapons, abortion and care for the environment – topics often not considered connected. 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.”
In my experience, those who are more politically conservative give primacy to the moral teachings that deal with the self and individual moral choices, often related to sexuality. The more liberal person focuses on structural, societal evils and societal injustice. A well-formed person on either “side” does not disregard the other concerns, but finds one viewpoint more compelling for ministry and action.
Both are important: personal integrity and structurally building the Kingdom.
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.
I have added the emphasis on the word “engaging,” because it is central to our way of proceeding. Can we stand in the other person’s shoes and consider the topic from their perspective, when it is well grounded and credible? Do we have that freedom and flexibility? Can the other person do the same?
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 the other persons’ shoes and lobby for their issues. Magnificent!
Pope Francis emphasizes fostering human encounter as a way to break down barriers, end stereotypes and convert the heart. He also promotes the central Christian virtue of mercy, declaring a “Year of Mercy” in 2016. Our Province Congregation prior to General Congregation (GC) 36 pointed to the importance of reconciliation. The Congregation’s Decree 1 is titled Companions in a Mission of Reconciliation and Justice.
Discussions about abortion quickly become polarized, with one side often categorizing abortion opposition as impinging on women’s personal moral choices, or simply anti-women. This is inaccurate, as evidenced by the women who seek help for post-abortion syndrome in a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat. The best advocates for 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.
When defending the unborn child, how many fail to consider the pregnant migrant women, those walking through the desert or riding on top of a train grasping to reach the U.S.?
Government budgets undoubtedly reveal priorities. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners has said, “A budget is a moral document.”
As a conscientious Catholic, one can become frustrated when a candidate is truly in favor of helping the marginalized and vulnerable in our society, but has nothing to say about abortion at any stage of the pregnancy. This, too, is an inconsistent ethic of life.
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 Christian, Gospel-based common ground? Can we 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?
More fundamentally, can we honor, respect and support those who are working in a ministry that may not be our own priority, but is nonetheless essential? 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 work to be comprehensively pro-life.
Father Rafael Garcia, SJ, works with immigrants in El Paso.