Pope Francis presents a peculiar problem for the modern world. On the one hand, he is well-known for his concern for the poor and his strong commitment to Social Justice. On the other, he unequivocally opposes abortion. By virtue of the former commitment he qualifies as a “liberal.” But his opposition to abortion would make him eligible for the label “conservative.” How is it possible for one man to embody two seemingly mutually exclusive categories? Is this a conundrum or simply a matter of being consistently Catholic?
At the root of the problem is the unfortunate and unfortunately common practice of politicizing religion. Traditionally, a Catholic was faithful or not faithful, orthodox or heretical, devout or lukewarm. These categories are intrinsic to Catholicism itself. Concerning the dignity of the person, Catholicism abides no such divisions since each person is created in the image of God and is of incalculable worth.
Charles Darwin, in accordance with his own theory of biological evolution, divided all human beings into the “fit” and the “unfit.” In On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, he proclaims that “all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children . . . the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring” (p. 919).
In the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision that legalized forced sterilization, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that “It is better for all the world, if, instead of waiting for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
In the Beal v. Doe case (1976), Harry Blackmun argued that “the cost of a non-therapeutic abortion is far less than the cost of maternity care and delivery, and holds not comparison whatsoever with the welfare costs that will burden the State for the new indigents and their support in the long, long years ahead.” In the same case, Justice Thurgood Marshall stated that if the federal government did not subsidize abortion for poor women, it would “brutally coerce poor women to bear children whom society will scorn for every day of their lives.”
Blessed Pope John Paul II was keenly aware of the philosophy that approved the dominance of the strong against the weak. In Evangelium Vitae, he states that with regard to abortion, we find an example of “‘the strong’ against the weak, who have no choice but to submit” (no. 19). John Paul saw this attitude as an important factor in contributing to the “Culture of Death.”
Karl Marx, who had no regard for the individual person, divided people into classes: the ruling class (“capitalists”) and the working class (“proletariat”). He viewed the ruling class as “oppressing” the working class and called for a revolution that would liberate the oppressed class.
This practice of placing people in classes, however, represents a grave injustice to the dignity of the individual person. An individual human being is a person and not merely a member of an arbitrary class that is in conflict with members of another arbitrary class.
The shadows of Darwin and Marx continue to hover over the modern world as we continue to absorb people into classes and pit one class against another: whites oppress blacks, heterosexuals oppress homosexuals, the rich oppress the poor, and men oppress women. Yet it is a curious thing to maintain that the unborn child, who confers upon a woman the honor of being a mother, is, in reality, “an attachment” (Judith Jarvis Thomson), “a parasite” (Simone de Beauvoir), a “vampire” (Camille Paglia) or some other hostile kind of creature that “oppresses” women. How we understand motherhood goes a long way toward deciding whether opposition to abortion is or is not part of “social justice.”
Secular feminism, which owes much to Marxism, sees the need for women to be liberated not only from male tyranny, but from the tyranny of their own biology. In this perspective, it is possible to view denying abortion to a woman who has an unwanted pregnancy as a form of oppression. Therefore, such women join the poor and others who are oppressed as classes of people who need to be liberated from oppression. Permitting abortion and liberating the poor, by this logic, both belong to the work of social justice.
Catholicism, because it does not place people in classes, extends its concern to everyone, the poor, the “unfit,” the weak, and the unborn alike. Therefore, it is perfectly normal for a Catholic to work for social justice and defend the right-to-life of the unborn. As Cardinal Ratzinger has said, “Love of neighbor knows no limits . . . There is no gap between love of neighbor and desire for justice.” Pope Francis, therefore, is not a conundrum, but a Catholic.
Prominent political figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Joseph Biden fail to extend their professed Catholicism to everyone. They direct their concern to the class of the poor while ignoring the needs of the child in the womb, who often is the poorest of the poor.
Jacques Maritain has said that we need to transcend the narrow categories of “liberal” and “conservative” and search for Truth. Political categories are deficient inasmuch as they represent partial visions of humanity. Catholicism, like St. Peter’s Square, embraces everyone, saint as well as sinner.
Pope Francis may convince many by his words and his example that Catholicism and politics are not the same, and that God’s abiding love extends to all of his human creatures. Social justice and defense of the unborn, therefore, are unitary.