It wasn’t long after Pope Francis’s ascent to the leadership of the Catholic community that he sat for an interview with America, a Jesuit magazine. In the course of the conversation with America he made some remarks that the New York Times and others reported on more widely. It seemed that Pope Francis was essentially repudiating Catholicism’s Culture of Life framework on challenging issues like contraception, marriage, abortion, etc.
That’s the way the New York Times reported the story, and that narrative persists. Pope Francis “made waves early on saying the church was placing too much emphasis on abortion and other divisive issues.” That’s the narrative.
As someone inclined toward the Culture of Life framework, and specifically as a board member of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, I follow Culture of Life issues and paid considerable attention to Pope Francis’s remarks. What he says:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
Translation: Catholic social teaching is rooted in the context of the Gospel and the moral theology that flows from the Gospel. This “context,” as Pope Francis describes it, explains why he warns against advocacy of “disjointed” aspects of moral theology by divorcing social issues from one another, or worse, into the arena of jocular political competition that minimizes the concrete impact of policy on the human person.
There very well may be “too much emphasis on abortion and other divisive issues”—but the question is, “too much emphasis” in relation to what? And Francis answers, “in relation to the Gospel and the moral theology that grounds guidance on divisive issues.”
There is a similar purpose in the holistic, comprehensive Culture of Life framework—to root a diversity of social issues within the context of moral theology that can be coherently expressed through philosophy and policy.
It’s worth distinguishing here between the concept of the “Culture of Life” framework and a person being “pro-life.” They’re not always synonymous. “Culture of Life” describes a comprehensive framework, rooted in moral theology, for the value of human life from conception to natural death. But a person might be “pro-life” in the sense of only supporting one aspect of the Culture of Life—for instance, opposing the death penalty while supporting abortion access.
There is obvious friction in our culture on the issues that the Culture of Life attempts to harmonize. This friction arises because there are competing visions for the sort of policy that is in the public interest.
Very broadly speaking, one vision elevates liberty, while the other elevates mutuality. The former is about absolute freedom of the individual apart from the wider social order, while the latter is about relationship and responsibility to one another as the foundation for social order in the first place.
Nothing here is meant as a personal apologia for my own Culture of Life perspective. In the future I might write about some of the basis for my support of the Culture of Life framework. But I’m writing on it at a high level here because I don’t see many people trying to explain some of these specific nuances of the wider cultural conversation to normal people.
I’ll leave it at this for now: I support a holistic Culture of Life framework for society because I think it is the most humane approach toward sustaining a healthy culture. I’m Catholic, and I think its moral theology basis for the Culture of Life framework is a logical, consistent, and elegant way to respect the grace and dignity of every person.
Yet the Culture of Life contains a philosophical approach that is accessible to anyone. When someone asks why I’m on the board of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, it’s because it’s an organization that embraces the comprehensive Culture of Life framework. And some of that framework is expressed specifically in supporting and advocating for things like:
- protections for the life of the preborn child;
- support for the life of the mother, father, and child ideally within the context of an intact family;
- greater sophistication toward human sexuality and the value of chastity as a practice of self-governance;
- an instinctual hostility toward human commodification in all its forms, from trafficking and slavery to exploitation through porn and prostitution;
- antagonism toward the death penalty and policies that elevate the state above the person;
- more human approaches toward infirmity, incapacitation, and old age with the goal of natural death with grace.
If you’re fascinated by the Culture of Life, these are some of the specific attitudes of that culture. If you’re inclined to agree with any of these attitudes, you can think of yourself at least in a limited way as pro-life.