Vatican City | The latest exhortation from Pope Francis has made headlines for its claims about the importance of defending the value of all human lives: the unborn, the poor, and the immigrant. But Gaudete et exsultate’s broad emphasis isn’t an excuse for Catholics to avoid confronting the evil of abortion, several commentators told CNA.
Greg Schleppenbach, associate director at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said the pope “warns against upholding an ideal of holiness that recognizes one form of injustice but ignores others.”
“Gaudete et exsultate is an exhortation on the mission of each Christian to grow in holiness. It is not written in a political or public policy context,” he told CNA Monday.
Kevin Miller, a moral theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, explained that the pope stresses the need to avoid separating the spiritual from the worldly.
Failure to defend the lives and the goods of others is “a damnable sin,” according to the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Miller said.
“All human lives – all human persons – are equal in dignity – or as we Christians can also say, equally sacred,” Miller told CNA, adding that judgements about moral duties need to recognize this.
Pope Francis’ exhortation reflected upon ideologies that “strike at the heart of the Gospel.” First are Christians who separate Gospel demands from a relationship with Christ and openness to his grace, a Christianity that becomes “a sort of NGO.”
The pope also rejected the error of those who view others’ social engagement as “superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” or who relativize it or treat as important only “one particular ethical issue.”
“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,” Pope Francis wrote.
“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,” the pontiff continued.
The pope was critical of those who consider the situation of immigrants as “a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions.”
Miller suggested that the Pope’s insistence that issues like care for migrants aren’t “secondary” might mean “We can’t just ‘wave off’ dealing with issues like care for migrants, based on a claim that dealing with issues like abortion is all we have the time, energy, political capital, etc., for.”
“Nor can we say that a politician is ‘just fine’ as long as we think he’s going to do something about abortion, simply regardless of his views on other issues having to do with human life or dignity,” he continued.
However, Miller suggested this does not mean one can avoid prioritizing issues.
“For one thing, no one person or organization can possibly do something about every issue,” he said.
The professor recalled Pope John Paul II’s words in the 1993 encyclical Evangelium vitae about, as Miller explained, “the especially great vulnerability of the unborn and the sick or elderly – in the face of abortion and euthanasia.”
John Paul II noted that such acts are sometimes a choice to take the life of a member of one’s own family, who is especially entrusted to our care. This makes these acts “especially unjust.” While all injustices are evil, not all of them are equal, according to Miller.
Miller said it is “not optional” to make honest and serious efforts to protect the unborn in law, nor is it optional “to make every reasonable effort” to welcome the migrant.
Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, reflected on what the exhortation might mean for public policy.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to policy or policy positions. What works in one state or in one country in regards to an issue doesn’t necessarily translate to another state or country,” Kraska said. “There is often an overarching policy position or goal that people would like to see accomplished such as ‘ending human trafficking,’ but how that goal is accomplished will vary depending on the moral, political, cultural and economic dynamics of the place where it is happening.”
“I believe that the bishops of the United States, via their document ‘Living the Gospel of Life,’ have provided great guidance on this exact issue,” she told CNA. Their 1998 pastoral letter said that any politics of human dignity must seriously address racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care.
“But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life,” the letter said. “Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.”
Kraska also cited Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s remarks at the March 17, 2009 Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“No one can claim to be Catholic and think it’s okay to treat immigrants unjustly or inhumanly,” Chaput said. “But you can disagree on immigration policies because you think that one works and one doesn’t. So when it gets to those kind of things, there can be some disagreement.”
“But if someone would disagree with the Church on abortion, I don’t see how they can call themselves a Catholic,” the archbishop added. “Now they might disagree on strategies…You can be a good Catholic and disagree on strategy. But it would be important for these folks who disagree on strategy to do all they can to protect the unborn’s dignity by trying their best to still– while they approach it from another strategic point of view—still clearly say that abortion is the unjust taking of a human life and is always wrong.”