Culture of Life

  • The full significance—canonically, ecumenically and theologically—of Francis’s bold move will be picked over for a long time. But its real point is to bring healing. Many suffer hugely as result of abortion, but it is a silent suffering, that in contemporary society can barely ever be acknowledged. Those who have taken the lives of the unborn long to unburden themselves, to admit to their sorrow, confusion and regret, and to find healing. “This is what the Church—God’s heart amid humanity—exists for: a battlefield hospital, ready to tend the wounds inflicted by contemporary mytholog about individual sovereignty.

    Yet many are persuaded—by the strident voices asserting women’s “right” to abort—that the Catholic Church is a place of judgement and condemnation. If just some among these women in pain hear a different message—which given yesterday’s massive coverage is very likely—and if among those some take up this offer of liberation from guilt and a path back to God—which is also very likely—then Pope Francis’s grand gesture will have succeeded spectacularly.

    Reaction to Pope Francis’s announcement, which hopefully brings some peace to both men and women.

  • It took about 90 minutes to get through the 40,000 words of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si. I had Siri read it to me in its primitive robotic voice.

    Laudato Si is challenging because it demands engaging with creation and the environment in a much more comprehensive way than just through a material lens or through a policy lens. Pope Francis explicitly calls for “attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems” and rejects anthropocentric and technological-utopian thinking as the solution to environmental crisis.

    He calls for “a change in humanity” as the fundamental first step in resolving environmental problems and the inequalities related to access to energy and environmental resources. Here is an example of that approach:

    It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

    When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

    The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.

    Pope Francis also cites Saint Francis: “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” And he leans on Benedict XVI to stress the spiritual dimension: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.”

    Laudato Si leaves me thinking about environmentalism in a much deeper way than I did before, so in that respect I’m already glad I read it.

  • I’ve written previously about the Culture of Life. I embrace it because I think it represents a consistent, meaningful, holistic framework for thinking about life and how our social attitudes and public policy shape society.

    For many Americans the philosophical questions raised through the Culture of Life framework translate into a nation divided on a series of incredibly contentious issues. Abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, ethics of war, etc. These are some of the oldest and most difficult issues debated dating to earliest antiquity. How any nation or people respond to the questions inherent to these issues often shape how they’re seen over the course of time on the spectrum from humane to barbaristic. This is because responding to these questions is ultimately reflected through policy that impacts the human person. In our time, the specific technology of contemporary science and medicine frame much of the conversation and guide each side’s thinking on the issues.

    So the disagreement in its essence is about what is believed to be best for the human person. This is why the state exists, after all—the protection and preservation of a just social order for the good of the people within that order.

    (Incidentally, Gallup polling demonstrates America’s consistent division, with pro-life and pro-choice attitudes divided almost evenly with one or the other having a slight edge depending on the year. As of 2014 that translates to the statistical split of 47% pro-choice, 46% pro-life. What’s very interesting is the related Gallup survey on public perception of the split. Americans don’t realize they’re as evenly divided as they are. When asked, most believe the nation is ~51% pro-choice and ~35% pro-life. This suggests that many probably think that Culture of Life issues like abortion or capital punishment or war enjoy greater consensus than they really do, which is problematic when trying to formulate policy based on incorrect data.)

    In my previous post on the nuances of the Culture of Life, I wrote that I might get into some of the basis for my own pro-life instincts at some point. The Gallup survey on public perception has made me want to do that to help provide context for at least some of the attitudes that other pro-life Americans might share. As you can probably tell from my tone, I’m not interested in this for the purpose of political point-scoring or back-patting. I’m interested in talking through first principles with reasonable people in good faith, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of opinion.

    So with all of that as a prelude, here is some of the basis for my own pro-life instincts, with a focus on abortion since that’s the most contentious issue:

    First, as I’ve mentioned, I’m pro-life because the Culture of Life and Saint John Paul the Great’s Theology of Body are to my thinking the best, most consistent philosophical and metaphysical basis for articulating what human life is for and what we are in relation to one another.

    Second, because I look at the data behind what drives the majority of decisions to abort. They usually indicate circumstances where we’ve neglected through public policy to provide substantive social alternatives. It’s usually about wealth—access to it, preservation of it, or lack of it. At the same time, we intellectually privatize the subject of social alternatives by saying that a mother’s decisions born out of non-optimal social circumstances are merely personal, and we can’t/shouldn’t get involved. We don’t typically privatize social issues like this in America.

    Third, and relating to the above, I myself am the living result of an unplanned pregnancy. I likely wouldn’t be here but for the chance circumstance of a Catholic family whose moral psychology meant that they were inclined to embrace and support their still-in-college daughter during a challenging time. Their combination of personal, emotional, financial, material, and faith-inspired support helped ensure I could have a life. Those circumstances could be replicated as needed for every woman in a similar situation if we decided it was a social priority.

    Fourth, I think a basically pro-life attitude is implicit in even ardent pro-choice advocacy. “Safe, legal, and rare” isn’t language that we apply to a happy experience, which is why we’ve seen those who prize abortion access over social alternatives largely move away from that language. We all naturally prefer to avoid abortion, but by framing the issue as a privatized choice we avoid exploring policy that’s likely to expand the spectrum of choice beyond “I need an abortion because the contraception failed.” For emphasis: Just as “pro-life” should mean accountability for that position as part of the consistent Culture of Life framework (e.g., consistency by also opposing capital punishment), “pro-choice” should involve similar accountability beyond the initial position of access to abortion. This would mean an openness to asking “What policies can be put into place to make sure mothers and fathers have the real options they need to bring their child to term if they choose? What social supports need to exist that don’t presently? What would that sort of society look like in practice?”

    Fifth, because pro-lifers are the community I see most consistently working to create a set of personal, emotional, financial, material, and faith-inspired options for mothers and fathers looking for a fuller spectrum of choice, whatever that choice is.

    There are probably other reasons, but I’m comfortable citing these as the rough foundation for my pro-life instincts. I think, just as pro-life advocates who argue for abstinence sound tired, pro-choice advocates who reflexively promote contraception and abortion sound similarly lame. I would like to see a fuller spectrum of choice that takes into account those of us who don’t already happen to be in a comfortable social, financial, and familial situation.

    I’m so weary of the “culture wars.” I expect abortion to continue to exist as a point on the spectrum of choice for my lifetime, but that spectrum needs expansion if any of us are serious about policy that best serves the human person.

  • On Friday Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf announced that he was putting in place a functional moratorium on the state death penalty:

    Governor Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania that will remain in effect until the governor has received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment…

    “Today’s action comes after significant consideration and reflection,” said Governor Wolf. “This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania. Recognizing the seriousness of these concerns, the Senate established the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission to conduct a study of the effectiveness of capital punishment in Pennsylvania. Today’s moratorium will remain in effect until this commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

    When I was in Washington last month for the March for Life, my primary goal was to speak to the Pennsylvania leadership and as many grassroots people as I could about the death penalty, both to learn their position on it and if possible to advocate for a permanent ban.

    This is a significant development for Pennsylvania, and it fulfills one of Gov. Wolf’s campaign promises. It’s also a significant issue for me as a board member of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia and as part of the Culture of Life framework. But I hope that Gov. Wolf seizes on the momentum of the task force/advisory commission’s findings to work with Republicans and implement a true and permanent ban on the practice.

    A moratorium imposed by the Governor isn’t a true and permanent ban, and it’s also something that’s likely to make the issue into a political football for future aspirants to the office to play with. That would be a shame. Better to resolve the issue substantively through a true and permanent ban as more than two dozen other states have done.

  • I’ve written about the Culture of Life and wrote yesterday about Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” BBC feature. Following on from those posts I want to highlight another part of Scruton’s BBC feature.

    In our time we sexualize way more than is healthy, to the point where two men or women cannot demonstrate a substantive friendship without sexuality being raised. We also know that it’s profitable to market a very specific and sexualized version of love. Fight the New Drug is a nonprofit advocating for a vision of love that’s essentially the opposite of the most sexualized, narrow conception of love, which is porn.

    Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” introduces the Platonic vision of love at the ~26 minute mark as a counter to the narrower versions of love that dominates our culture. He explains:

    Sexual desire presents us with a choice: adoration or appetite. Love, or lust. Lust is about taking. Love is about giving. Lust brings ugliness. The ugliness of human relations in which one person treats another as a disposable instrument . To reach the source of beauty, we must overcome lust.

    This “longing without lust” is what we mean today by Platonic love. When we find beauty in a youthful person, it is because we glimpse the light of eternity shining in those features from a Heavenly source beyond this world. The beautiful human form is an invitation to unite with it spiritually, not physically. Our feeling for beauty is, therefore, a religious and not a sensual emotion.

    This theory of Plato’s is astonishing. Beauty, he thought, is a visitor from another world. We can do nothing with it, save contemplate its pure radiance. Anything else pollutes and desecrates it, destroying its sacred aura.

    Plato’s theory may seem quaint today. But it is one of the most influential theories in history. Throughout our civilization, poets, storytellers, painters, priests, and philosophers have been inspired by Plato’s views on sex and love.

    Scruton illustrates his point by citing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the 29 minute mark. Venus looks upon the earth from “a place beyond desire.” Scruton explains Venus as “beauty to be contemplated, but not possessed.” I think we live in a time when our existence is seen as predominantly transactional, and so to see anything as something to “contemplate but not possess” is a step toward recovering a healthier and more humane perspective.

  • Yesterday I wrote about the concept of the Culture of Life at a pretty high level, and today I want to bring that to a practical level. I’m in Washington today for the March for Life, the annual day wherein people of pro-life persuasions gather from across the country to hear remarks on the National Mall before starting their cold march to the steps of the Supreme Court.


    Like so many social reform movements in America, the March for Life has an overwhelmingly Christian anthropology. There’s no getting past the fact that the pro-life instincts of so many are rooted in their understanding of what Christianity has to say about human dignity. So in that sense, the March is a fascinating thing to witness in a time when it’s fashionable to divorce “personal beliefs” from public expression.

    I’m here today not for the March itself but rather to meet with Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey. Each of them hosts constituency receptions as part of the March. With Gov. Tom Wolf having just taken office in the Pennsylvania, I think there’s a special chance to echo the worth of Gov. Wolf’s proposed moratorium on the death penalty in the state. So I’m here in the hopes of echoing the worth of that in whatever small way to Casey and Toomey as well.

    Even more than that, I think Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans can and should work together to be bolder by enacting a constitutional ban in Pennsylvania on the death penalty. We would be something like the 19th state to do this, and enacting a true ban rather than a temporary prohibition, Gov. Wolf would be following a national trend while making history for the state.

    It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also an unusual area of opportunity for bipartisan action on a pro-life issue. I hope it happens.

  • Culture of Life

    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.