A moral theologian urges Pope Francis to bring his forceful defense of prenatal children into a more central place of his pontificate.
Dear Holy Father,
I've been an admirer of your pontificate from the very beginning, and I have remained excited over the last eight years. Your vision has been transformational for developing my own pro-life vision, especially when it comes to resisting throwaway culture with a culture of encounter and hospitality. And yours has of course been a transformational pontificate for the Church at large — upholding the orthodox teaching of the faith while offering a pastoral and Gospel-centered plan for both reaching new people and keeping our focus squarely on the poor.
From the beginning of your pontificate, you have self-consciously decided to incorporate a "new balance," one that rightly insists on seeing more traditional pro-life and pro-family issues in a moral and social context that gives a new priority to the poor and the stranger in the Catholic Church's preaching and advocacy. This vision has power and the potential to bring unity across the left–right polarization afflicting our Church in a way that remains deeply faithful to Christ's teachings.
Some have criticized your attempt to find this new balance, particularly when it comes to a perception that you are downplaying the seriousness of abortion. Given how the major media have covered your pontificate, Holy Father, this is understandable, though I have pointed out in Resisting Throwaway Culture how forceful you've been on prenatal justice. Indeed, the very next day after your interview about the new balance was released, you addressed OB-GYN physicians in Rome by saying, "Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord." In the face of a throwaway culture urging us to look the other way, you have been willing to refer to abortion as the "white-gloved Nazi crime" that it is. You've even gone so far as to analogize abortion to hiring a hitman in order to make a problem go away.
Those are incredibly powerful statements. But, Holy Father, I must respectfully point out a significant difference between you and your predecessors, who also spoke powerfully on these matters, at least at this point in your pontificate. Your direct and forceful language in favor of prenatal justice has almost always come in off-the-cuff remarks or in less-than-high-profile situations. When it comes to your most authoritative teachings and statements, you often do mention abortion, yes, but it is almost always as a secondary consideration or something thrown in as part of a longer list of problems to address.
Most recently, in a discussion of your otherwise fantastic encyclical Fratelli Tutti, I made my disappointment known that you didn't even address prenatal children at all when giving an extended set of reflections lamenting insufficiently universal human rights. This was a major disappointment, especially since you have had no problem invoking this, the most vulnerable bearer of the Face of Christ, in other encyclicals. I believe in submitting to your teaching, Holy Father, but I also note that you have welcomed disagreement from those who are faithful to you and the Church you lead. And here I urge you to bring your forceful defense of prenatal children into a more central place of your pontificate. It is time to stand up firmly and forcefully for their dignity in a culture that increasingly sees them as disposable thing that can be violently discarded.
Your own home country of Argentina has become the latest polity to legalize violence against prenatal children. As you noted in the letters you sent to pro-life women and others in the white-hot debate, the scientifically correct position here is that there are two human lives to consider, not one. Significantly, the (male) health minister — in defending his (male) president's bill to legalize this terrible violence — spoke truths he did not understand:
Here there are not two lives as some say. There's clearly a single person and the other is a phenomenon. If it were not like that, we would be facing the greatest universal genocide, [because] more than half the civilized world allows it.
The greatest universal genocide. That, Holy Father, is the truth. Abortion is, in fact, the greatest universal genocide. And it targets the disabled, the poor, females, racial minorities, and many others on the margins of the cultures around the world.
Abortion is, in fact, the greatest universal genocide. And it targets the disabled, the poor, females, racial minorities, and many others on the margins of the cultures around the world.
You've pointed out how women are often the second victims of abortion and how gross an injustice it is that we ask them to kill their offspring in order to have some false sense of equality. This was well-understood by the women of Argentina who overwhelmingly rejected the legalization of abortion in their country. And yet, major media around the world covered the story by falsely claiming that the loss of prenatal justice was driven by women instead of the powerful men who were actually responsible.
And in many places beyond your beloved Argentina, the light in defense of the value of these children grows dim. My Irish ancestors no doubt turned over in their graves several times when Ireland rejected its beautiful inheritance of prenatal justice. My own state of New Jersey — led by a political party that claims to want to protect the most vulnerable — is trying to totally expunge any legal recognition for prenatal life at all. There is also a similar attempt to totally discard these children by New Zealand.
Holy Father, I believe you were right to call for a new balance in the Church's teaching. I believe you were right to spend the first several years of your pontificate building up the Church's focus on the poor and the stranger. But with the legal recognition of this population under threat like never before — including from a newly-inaugurated Catholic US president who has pledged to undermine recent prenatal justice gains — now is the time to hold up the other side of the balance. The dignity of these poor children is being systematically erased in a massive genocide around the world. If abortion is what you say it is — akin to a white-gloved Nazi crime — then it is time to put prenatal justice at the center of your pontificate.
Significantly, the voice you've built up over the last several years has made you uniquely positioned to push back against the onslaught these children face. You can authentically show how a commitment to nonviolence, prioritizing the voiceless and vulnerable, and providing welcome to the marginalized leads directly to prenatal justice. You've also demonstrated how we need not choose between the good of women and the good of their prenatal children. Indeed, it is a consumerist throwaway culture that pits children against the flourishing of their mothers — rather than, as the pro-life resistance in Argentina so beautifully insisted, loving them both.
Holy Father, you now have an important opportunity before you to lead a beautiful worldwide campaign that would call us to do precisely this. You are now perfectly positioned to insist that prenatal children must be treated the same as other children under law as a matter of justice, but also to show how this is consistent with (not opposed to) treating women as the equals of men. You could, for instance, lead worldwide campaigns that call for increased health care, childcare, familial support, protection from violence, and education for women — while at the same time calling for equal protection of the law for their children, regardless of age. This, incidentally, would be a dramatic strike for the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which prioritizes both women and children over and against the destructive left-right political polarization that asks us to choose between them.
This may seem rather dramatic, Holy Father, but the stakes are higher than we can imagine, and the hour is late. Abortion is already the "greatest universal genocide," but if nothing is done, prenatal children are destined to continue to be legally and violently discarded as mere objects or things in many places across the globe. Again, your willingness to forge a new balance over the last eight years has now put you in the best position possible to speak up as an authentic advocate for thrown-away populations. I pray you see fit to turn now to make prenatal justice a central focus of your pontificate.
Charles C. Camosy. "Open Letter to Pope Francis on Prenatal Justice." Public Discourse (January 21, 2021).
Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of: Beyond the Abortion Wars, Too Expensive to Treat?, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics, and For Love of Animals. He is the founder of the Catholic Conversation Project, serves on the board of Democrats for Life, and advises the ethics committee of the Children's Hospital of New York.Copyright © 2021 Charles C. Camosy
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