Christians committed to the defense of life and justice have every reason today to feel like strangers in a strange land. Consider the following.
In 2016 we endured one of the most divisive national elections on record, in which supporters of each candidate said the other was untrustworthy and unfit for office—and many strongly suspect that both sides were right. Since then, partisan distrust and polarization have not healed but worsened to the point that almost nothing can get done in Congress, and each party seems largely concerned with tripping up the other.
Each end of the political spectrum has its extremist groups, such as Antifa on the Left and the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalists on the Right. Each is willing to use violence, and anyone who disagrees with one extreme is likely to be tagged as an activist for the other. Neither group has much use for the religious freedom of Christians, or for the Catholic Church’s vision of the dignity of each human being. The Klan is anti-Catholic as well as racist, and was once involved in efforts to prohibit Catholic schools by law; activist liberal groups ally themselves with the abortion industry, and want to prohibit those committed to Catholic teaching on marriage from operating bakeries and florist shops.
Such hatreds along political lines are aggravated through the social media—to such a sickening extent that one horrible mass shooting at a nightclub prompted online comments like “Well, at least many of the victims were gay.” Another shooting, of a conservative congressman who ultimately recovered, was greeted by comments that the shooter should have had better aim. And America’s worst-ever mass shooting led one CBS executive (who was later fired) to opine that at least the victims were country music fans and therefore probably Republicans.
As economist and social commentator Arthur Brooks has said, the problem here is not division or disagreement, or even anger—lively and even passionate disagreement are inevitable and can be healthy in a free society. What is prevalent now, he says, is “contempt,” which he defines as “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.”
The dignity of each human life has been under attack in a variety of ways for many years. Now the place where it is most denied is the arena of political debate itself—the public square that we must enter to make our arguments about human dignity at all.
Where did we get this corrosive climate, in which people can ignore contrary arguments about any issue simply by asserting the worthlessness of any human being who gets in the way of their own goals and desires? Theories will differ. Personally I would offer this: We have had one of the world’s most extreme policies allowing the destruction of unexpected or inconvenient unborn children for over four decades now. We are one of only seven nations allowing abortions after the fifth month, putting us in the same league as China, Vietnam, and North Korea. We are the only Western nation that still regularly uses the death penalty as a response to crime. In recent decades there have been powerful and well-funded campaigns, successful in five states and the District of Columbia, to have society declare that a good way to get rid of the problems of terminally ill patients is to assist them in getting rid of themselves. And for half a century we have been inundated with a “sexual revolution,” fueled by pornography that has poisoned minds at every level of our society from presidents, legislators, and Hollywood producers to the most callow youth on our college campuses. Two generations of our people have been taught that other people—especially girls and women—can be treated as objects of exploitation by those who are more powerful—most often irresponsible boys and men. Isn’t it likely that these developments have led some people to think they have a right to treat inconvenient other people as worthless compared to themselves?
But that is a description of our society when it is at its worst. What about those of us who are, for example, members of the Catholic Church?
We do not yet have armed camps. But we do have divisions, of three kinds.
The first is the divide between “pro-life/pro-family” Catholics and “social justice” Catholics. Each group has found a more sympathetic ear for its priority issues in one political party or the other; and from associating with that party, each has experienced the temptation to endorse what that party says in areas where it parts from the Church’s vision.
In the 1980s, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin tried to address this divide through a “consistent ethic of life,” uniting the Church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia with issues such as unjust war and capital punishment. These stances, he said, form a “seamless garment” of respect for life. Catholics could specialize in tackling one issue or another, but should always respect and support those advancing other issues.
This message had some positive effects. It also ran into problems. Some pro-abortion politicians declared themselves “pro-life,” saying they supported most of the seamless garment, though Cardinal Bernardin himself publicly rejected that misuse of what he was saying. Some Catholics reacted to this development by attacking the consistent ethic itself for undermining the Church’s effort to protect unborn children.
Cardinal Bernardin was grieved by this. He abandoned the term “seamless garment” because it could be misused to imply that all issues affecting human life are equally fundamental. But he did not win a consensus in favor of his effort to bring the Church’s moral concerns about life and dignity under one umbrella.
That brings us to the second divide, between those who support different ways of uniting all the Church’s policy stances. Some have embraced the “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic” idea. Others prefer the image proposed in the U.S. bishops’ 1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life: Some build their house on a firm foundation, whereas others build their house on sand and it is washed away. Our call always to respect innocent human life at its most defenseless, and never destroy it, is the foundation stone for the house of human dignity. Other issues are the walls and crossbeams of the house, but they can’t stand without the foundation.
Now we have two images for our public commitments, each taken from the Gospels: The seamless garment that the Roman soldiers cast lots for as Jesus was crucified, in Chapter 19 of John, and the house built on rock that Jesus speaks about in Chapter 7 of Matthew.
This is the divide I see on Facebook among some of my more sophisticated Catholic friends.
Which approach do the U.S. bishops take? Here’s what they have said in the most recent edition of a document (now titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship) that they have issued at the beginning of each presidential election season since 1976:
Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity:
The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.
The second [temptation] is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. [Among these threats the bishops cite environmental degradation, racism and other unjust discrimination, pornography, the plight of those suffering from hunger or lack of health care, and others.]. . . . Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues. Clearly not every Catholic can be actively involved on each of these concerns, but we need to support one another as our community of faith defends human life and dignity wherever it is threatened. We are not factions, but one family of faith fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ. . . .
The bishops add that the principles of the Church’s social teaching
provide a moral framework for Catholic engagement in advancing what we have called elsewhere a “consistent ethic of life” . . . . Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. . . . If we understand the human person as the “temple of the Holy Spirit”—the living house of God—then these issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation. (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22).
So the bishops are saying it’s both/and. This should not be surprising in a church that has been called the Church of Both/And: faith and works, Scripture and Tradition, word and sacrament, truth and charity. The Church’s social vision is comprehensive, and it begins by seeing that human life is inviolable. Its ethic is consistent, but not homogeneous. It makes distinctions, but not divisions.
To put it more simply: Life itself is the first right we receive from the hand of God. It is the condition for all the others. If I say you have a right to vote, but I can kill you when you try to get to the voting booth, you don’t have a right to vote. In fact, if we don’t have an innate right to life simply because we exist as members of the human family, none of us really has basic human rights at all—we have only privileges, based on various qualities that can be greater or lesser, and can come and go as we pass through different stages of life. And direct attacks on life are especially grave when they are aimed at those who are most defenseless, at either end of the life span, and when they are practiced by those who should be the first defenders of life—one’s own family, and members of the healing professions.
But if life is fundamental because it is the condition for all other rights, a major reason I am defending it is to make all those other rights possible. Our stance in defense of life should blossom into efforts to help life reach its full flourishing in every area of human activity. It is true that the walls of the house cannot stand without the foundation; it is also true that without walls, the foundation doesn’t look like much of a house.
Therefore in their recent Faithful Citizenship documents, the bishops have distinguished “single-issue” voting from “disqualifying issue” voting:
As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.
There is a third and final divide. It is the divide between myself, along with the people I am addressing above—all of us who are passionately concerned about defense of life, social justice, in fact public “issues” in general—and most Catholics, even most churchgoing Catholics.
These Catholics seldom fall into warring pro-life and social justice camps. They come to Mass for spiritual sustenance, an encouraging word, a haven from conflict. They see secular politics becoming an increasingly nasty battleground and they want none of it. This leads many of them to cry: “No politics in church!”
Often parishioners—and even pastors—do not draw a clear distinction between electioneering (supporting or opposing candidates) and taking a position on public policy issues. That distinction is important both legally and theologically. But the confusion is understandable in light of our society’s politics of personality and the current broad appeal of “ad hominem” arguments.
Our faith does call us to uphold the human dignity of others, beginning with the most vulnerable, and that demands our unified action for the common good. But it is not hard to understand why Catholics do not want partisan warfare in their parish.
Advocates for life and justice like myself have to involve more of our fellow Catholics. Imagine what a distinctive contribution would be made to our political culture if even one-tenth of churchgoing Catholics were committed to speaking out regularly on the Church’s concerns. To achieve that goal of broader agreement and participation, however, advocates like me need to ask ourselves whether we sound like party operatives, or messengers for a Gospel of life and love.
In what follows I want to suggest three ways that Catholics can make a distinctive contribution to the Church and to politics in our increasingly divided society, a contribution that promotes a comprehensive culture of life.
First, let us be Catholic first.
Being Catholic first means seeing all issues on their merits as moral concerns, not through a partisan lens, and understanding how all of them are joined at their root in God’s unconditional love for each and every human being.
This is what Pope Francis has championed—not so much a consistent ethic, as a call to dig deeper than ethics. He has said we must get back to basics, appreciating how all our specific moral concerns are grounded in God’s boundless love for each and every person and our call to love and forgive others as God loves and forgives us. We must learn to see others as God sees them, as his beloved children, beginning with those whom others fail to see. When we fail to see our neighbor as someone with the same inherent worth as ourselves, we become pawns in a “throw-away society” that ignores and discards the poor, the unborn, and the elderly.
From this attitude of openness to others, this openness to life, we can see how our moral teachings are joined at their root.
For example, abortion and immigration are seen as very different issues, dividing the secular political parties. One is a fundamental issue concerning the direct taking of human life; the other is about the plight of people fleeing poverty, persecution, and terrorism abroad.
But in both cases, the Gospel calls us to the same attitude: We should welcome the stranger, the neighbor whose very life may depend on us. “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:2). We must see those who suffer from our lack of concern. Consider, for example, which has done more to lead Americans to a pro-life stance: being argued with, or seeing ultrasound images of the unborn children whose lives are at stake?
Yes, the “unplanned” unborn child makes demands on parents, who need our help in meeting their responsibilities. Yes, in dealing with immigrants we must stop terrorists from entering our country.
But as Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, a leading voice on immigration, says of abortion: “Not one of us … has the right to decide who can live and who can die and when that time will come.” And as Professor Robert George, a prominent advocate for the unborn child, says: “The way to fight terrorists is not to close our doors—or our hearts—to their victims.”
Catholics should seek out and encourage and become examples like these, people willing to confound the partisan stereotypes and show this broader vision.
Working for the U.S. bishops’ conference for 36 years, I found that this vision provides you with a new freedom, and an opportunity to achieve things no one else can achieve. For example, when Bart Stupak and other pro-life Democrats in Congress became gravely concerned about the way pro-life issues were being treated in their own party’s health-care-reform proposal in 2009, they turned to the bishops’ conference as the most influential organization sharing both their goals—universal access to health care, and respect for life and conscience. They saw the other major pro-life groups as more tied to the Republican Party, and in any case many of these groups were opposing the health-care bill on other grounds. Ultimately, to the surprise of many observers, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved a health-care bill incorporating the Stupak amendment on these issues. (The fact that this was not the version enacted into law as “Obamacare” was due to other developments, recounted below.)
Or take the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in the Grove City College case. The Court gave a narrow interpretation to a federal law against discrimination on the basis of sex known as Title IX. This law had, among other things, struck a blow against the trend among institutions of higher education to provide ample funding for men’s but not women’s athletic teams. But the Court read this law’s civil-rights protection as narrowly applying only to a particular department receiving federal funds, not the entire institution.
Liberals and some conservatives in Congress agreed to amend the law to clarify its intended broad scope. But it soon became apparent that the law was harmfully vague in another way: Federal courts had begun to interpret any failure to fund elective abortions in student clinics and health coverage as “sex discrimination,” so that even pro-life students must be required to fund such abortions through their student fees.
The Catholic bishops’ conference, as a pro-life member of the major civil-rights coalition dedicated to amending Title IX, was in a unique position.. The bishops supported a legislative solution, and insisted that the underlying law must be made “abortion-neutral”—otherwise, by expanding the reach of the entire law, the bill would be expanding coerced involvement in abortion. This led to an intense debate, because most other organizations in the coalition were either uninterested in this issue or supportive of “abortion rights.” It took four years, but the Church stood its ground—and prevailed. The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 applied Title IX’s protections to all departments of educational institutions receiving federal funds, and corrected the past misuse of this law to force institutions to support abortion. The bishops’ conference supported the final bill; when conservative groups persuaded President Reagan to veto the bill, the bishops helped provide the two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress to override that veto. That law remains valid today.
When I began working for the bishops’ conference in 1980, the director of its Government Relations department explained to me the unique way this organization navigated through Washington, D.C.’s partisan climate. He told me our goal was to have no permanent friends, and no permanent enemies. Of course it is the former goal that has been easier to achieve.
This does not mean Catholics should be uninvolved in politics. We should be involved, and may even seek leadership roles. Both parties need the Church’s vision of the human person, and both fall short of that vision in different ways. But we always need to ask ourselves: “Do I want to lobby my church to see things the way my party does, or lobby the party to come closer to the Church’s vision? Am I Catholic first?”
If the answer to that last question is yes, we will engage in public life without giving ultimate allegiance to party or political ideology—we will be “in the world but not of the world.” Our guiding star will be a comprehensive Gospel of life.
This consistent attitude of openness to others will also call us to respect and to listen to those who disagree with us—including Catholics and others who think their favorite issue is more urgent than our own.
And we will take on the risks of following in the footsteps of our Master when we enter that public world. We will have to remind ourselves (especially during seasons like the 2016 election campaign) that he had his garment ripped from him, and was crucified between two thieves.
Second, we need a sense of perspective. We need to “take the long view.”
Common sense tells us that success and failure are equal aspects of human life. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Political victories and defeats are the most fleeting of all, especially in a democracy where key players are replaced every few years. And the ultimate consequences of political acts may not be what we expect.
In the Obamacare debate, the House’s passage of an improved bill was ignored by the U.S. Senate, which passed its own more problematic bill in 2010—and told the House it could not change it in any way, that it must choose between the Senate version and failure to pass any health-care bill. Senator Ted Kennedy had passed away and been replaced by a Republican who opposed the bill, depriving the Senate of the 60th vote needed to pass any health-care legislation. While pro-life groups might have rejoiced at the election of a new senator who would sometimes vote with them, the change of personnel drove Senate leaders to a “take it or leave it” ultimatum favoring their own bill—and led House leaders to place enormous pressure on pro-life Democrats to abandon their quest for a bill that preserved longstanding federal policies on abortion funding and conscience rights. A further irony is that pro-life political action committees, feeling betrayed, then successfully targeted these Democrats for defeat, aggravating the false image of the pro-life position as a concern of only one party. The Catholic bishops have continued to support the goal of universal coverage while urging that this coverage should be genuinely universal (including immigrants), should respect conscience rights, and should conform to longstanding precedents on abortion funding such as the Hyde Amendment.
As a more positive example, take President Bill Clinton’s repeated vetoes of a ban on partial-birth abortion in the 1990s. Abortion advocates hailed his actions as a great victory for them. But the bishops’ conference joined the nearly successful effort to have Congress override his veto. The president’s impasse with Congress kept this issue alive, and kept before Americans the image of a developed child pulled backward from the womb and brutally killed.
Even “pro-choice” lawmakers like Senator Daniel Moynihan saw this as infanticide, and polls showed a clear majority of Americans identifying as “pro-life” for the first time in many years. The next Congress and president enacted the law, which was upheld by the Supreme Court and remains in place today. The abortion industry’s apparent victory was shortsighted and short-lived.
This does not mean we should praise bad policy decisions because they might ultimately turn out well. But a setback can lead smart and dedicated people inside and outside Congress to take the long view, to consider how to take the lemons and make lemonade. Ideally they do not waste much time announcing the end of the world, demonizing those who disagree, or alienating potential allies by their angry rhetoric, before getting to work.
This is common sense. What does a Catholic perspective add to it?
Ours is the longest of long views. To use a phrase coined by Spinoza, we need to see things “from the viewpoint of eternity.”
This does not mean failing to take issues seriously. Injustices like abortion, racism, and disdain for the poor are not political footballs, but offenses against human beings made in the image and likeness of God. People promoting these endanger their immortal souls. Such matters are of penultimate importance.
The only thing more important is that God judges us all, loves us all and commands us to love one another as the condition for eternal life with him.
I have known advocates for these issues who do not understand this. For them, each victory is a triumph, each defeat an invitation to despair. And there is no middle ground. They push away friends as well as opponents, rejecting incremental progress as a form of betrayal. They are prone to bitterness and early burnout.
We Catholics deal with the most serious concerns on earth, but each of us plays only a humble role. As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”
The ultimate victory—a victory over death itself—has already been achieved by One who deserves our full devotion. Oddly, people who remember this are also more effective in improving society. Their sense of perspective doesn’t let them gloat over victories, or despair over defeats. They simply keep getting the job done, or getting the part of the job done that is within their power.
Third, we must project a spirit of love and mercy into political life.
We all ask ourselves at times whether anything we do for life and justice will have a lasting impact.
The Second Vatican Council gave an answer in its document on the Church in the modern world. The kingdom of God is not in our power to build directly—“deformed by sin, the shape of this world will pass away.” But we foreshadow that kingdom when we promote human dignity, freedom, and community. What will endure into eternity is “charity and its fruits” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 39). The key to lasting change is love.
Pope Francis has reminded us that another name for love is mercy. The saying “Hate the sin but love the sinner,” taken from a letter written by St. Augustine, is at the core of how Jesus transformed sinful situations.
The Council applied this principle to social conflict. Even when listing crimes that poison civilization, such as abortion, torture, and genocide, it made the startling claim that these “do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 27). The innocent victims are received into God’s loving arms; the perpetrators risk their souls. And as Jesus reminds us in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, ultimately we should not fear those who can only kill the body—we should fear what will send body and soul into Gehenna (Mt 10:28, Lk 12:4).
In short, we hate the sin because we care about the sinner. To reach those who are doing wrong, we must begin by loving them.
I was happy to see that the 2017 March for Life in Washington featured messages like “Why not love them both?” Vice President Mike Pence declared to the crowd: “Let this movement be known for love, not anger . . . for compassion, not confrontation.” Women considering abortion, he said, must be met “with generosity, not judgment.” The theme of the January 2018 march was “Love Saves Lives,” and President Trump’s speech to the crowd hailed the March for Life as “a movement born out of love.” We do not hear these themes from Antifa or white nationalist groups.
The bishops of the United States have long understood the need for love and compassion in this cause. The faith community most staunchly opposed to abortion leads the way in offering support for those facing problems during pregnancy. And it offers healing and reconciliation for those who have been involved in abortion through its Project Rachel program.
When former abortionist Bernard Nathanson became a Catholic many years ago, he said he was attracted to the church not because it says abortion is wrong—he had figured that out for himself when he was an atheist—but because it says there is forgiveness for what he had done. And former abortion clinic employees who have repented and joined the pro-life movement have said they did so because the pro-life people praying outside their clinic, who expressed concern for them and said they could change their lives, showed more genuine care for them than their employer and colleagues had.
In South Africa, after decades of apartheid, leaders found that becoming one society required a plan for “truth and reconciliation”—acknowledging on all sides violent acts and the motives behind them, and then granting amnesty so people could forgive each other and move forward.
When we forgive someone, we free that person to consider what we are saying without defensiveness or self-recrimination. We break the cycle of distrust and hatred. And we free ourselves to see the best way to lead that person to the truth, not the way to maintain our own superiority and self-righteousness. Or as Reformed theologian Lewis Smedes has said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Love and mercy are now in short supply in our country. Even many who carry signs declaring that “Love trumps hate” seem to have more hate than love for those with opposing views.
This presents a challenge and opportunity for Catholics. We can model an approach that begins with genuine love and respect for everyone. If we do that, we will certainly stick out from the crowd.
We should be the first to hear people’s real worries and fears, cool their tempers, correct exaggerations, and build bridges for dialogue. Only then might we find ways to work together for the good of all.
So what is the take-away message from all this? First, our public involvement needs to be rooted in our faith, and from this solid foundation we can assess, criticize, and reform the ideologies around us. Second, we need the sense of perspective regarding victories and defeats that comes from our hope in the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ over death. And third, we need to make love into the basis for our policies, and an integral part of the way we communicate with those who disagree. These of course are the three theological virtues cited by St. Paul in his epistles. The keys to our public engagement should be faith, hope, and love, these three—and the greatest of these is love.
Love and mercy in politics? It’s so crazy it just might work. I know of nothing else that is likely to do so.