When I go out and offer talks on Catholic social issues and public policy I often have to remind my listeners that the Catholic Church is indeed a Pro-Life Church; but I always qualify this term. The Church’s pro-life position ought not to be confused with the American political “pro-life” position, the latter being far more narrow than the former. The Church develops its position based on the Catholic social principle of human dignity.
Promoting human dignity implies above all affirming the inviolability of the right to life, from conception to natural death, the first among all rights and the condition for all other rights of the person. (Compendium #553)
The Catholic Church does indeed take a strong position on pro-life issues and abortion is a priority concern for the Church’s prophetic ministry. However, the Church proclaims its respect for life position in confronting all issues that in any way violate the principles of human dignity. Pope John Paul II could thus defend unemployment benefits for workers and their families as a “right to life and subsistence” (Laborum Exercens #18). More recently Pope Benedict XVI tied the Catholic right to life position as a fundamental principle that can and ought to influence economic and environmental policies.
The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual. (Caritas in Veritate #28)
I have at times critiqued some aspects of the American political “pro-life” movement for not embracing a more holistic definition that would allow them to adopt a consistent position on other national issues that violate this fundamental right for all people. I must also recognize however that the American “social justice” movement also suffers from the inconsistent way that it defends the social, civil, and economic needs of the American community in that it does not address this most crucial right of all rights. If we are able to defend the dignity of those who suffer from poverty and racism how can we not defend those who suffer from this most fundamental violation, their right to life.
The New York State Catholic Conference is currently addressing this concern with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s declared intention to push a “Reproductive Health Act.” In a very cordial letter to the Governor sent on January 9th Cardinal Dolan reminds the Governor that while the progressive community had in past adopted the position of making abortion “safe, legal, and rare” this act would be “specifically designed to expand access to abortion, and therefore to increase the abortion rate.” Please visit the New York State Catholic Conference to take action in addressing this fundamental issue of the Catholic right to life position.