Pope Francis came out against single-issue anti-abortion activists on Monday in a document about “holiness” in modern society. “Our defence of the innocent unborn…needs to be clear, firm and passionate,” he writes. “Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.”
The document, titled “Gaudete et Exsultate” (a Latin phrase that means “rejoice and be glad”), is an apostolic exhortation, which carries less authority than an encyclical, but more than most other papal declarations. In it, the pope scolds Christians who dismiss social activism as “superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” and who claim that “the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.” In addition to the poor, the pope names victims of human trafficking and elderly people at risk of “covert euthanasia” as deserving of the same ardent advocacy that anti-abortion groups offer to fetuses.
An optimistic pro-choice reading of the document would hold that the pope is tired of the mainstream Catholic activists’ preoccupation with abortion in a world full of living, breathing humans in urgent need. “Gaudete et Exsultate” side-eyes those Catholics who would put the plight of migrants below that of embryos, going so far as to use scare quotes when it mentions those “‘grave’ bioethical questions.” He likens that kind of moral ranking to a politician’s pandering. “That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children,” he writes.
Anti-abortion activists aren’t exactly pleased with the pope’s constructive criticism. “It is impossible to equate the moral weight of abortion—the direct killing of innocent unborn children occurring on a daily massive scale, here in America and abroad—with any other social justice issue,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, to LifeSiteNews. “The right to live predates or precludes every other right. … Today’s exhortation blurs lines and causes confusion.” At the American Conservative, a writer challenged the pope to put his money where his apostolic exhortation is: “If he really believes what he is saying, let him open the gates of Vatican to as many migrants as want to come. Let him offer permanent residency to them, and provide them and their families with financial assistance.” He went on to argue that European Christians must keep Muslim immigrants out if Christians intend to continue practicing their faith.
In response to the pope’s exhortation, anti-abortion Catholics are raising the concept of prudential judgement, the church’s teaching that because the world is nuanced and imperfect, it is not always possible to do pure good in all ways. There can be many approaches to achieving justice for immigrants, they say, but only one acceptable Catholic response to abortion: End it. The executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference told a Catholic news site that a 1998 letter from U.S. bishops provides the correct guidance on the topic. “Being ‘right’ in such matters” as poverty, anti-racism, and health care “can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life,” it read. “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.”
This interpretation explains why so many Catholics continue to support politicians that stand against pretty much every church teaching besides the one on abortion. In the most recent presidential election, Hillary Clinton won narrowly among Catholics, but only by 3 percentage points; millions still voted for Donald Trump, who said during his campaign that abortion should be banned and women who seek them should be punished. Trump has been such a widely visible representative of anti-immigrant cruelty, it’s worth wondering whether the pope had him specifically in mind when he wrote “Gaudete et Exsultate.”
Another point of evidence in favor of that reading comes a few paragraphs down from the abortion bit, where Pope Francis accuses Christians of getting “caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication.” These people “look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others,” he writes. Huh! Rather on the nose, but good point. “It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others,” the pope continues, in what can only be a pointed critique of Twitter. “Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze.”