Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Healing the Divide

Something's been sticking in my craw for a while now. It's niggled at me like a pebble in my shoe and irritated me like a mosquito bite. There's a tendency in the Church today to split up a particular pair of things, when in fact they ought to go together like peas and carrots, like Laurel and Hardy, like peanut butter and cheddar cheese. (What? Nobody else does that?)

In virtually every parish, university, and diocese I've encountered, there have been an office or center or group dedicated to pro-life activities, and one dedicated to the Church's social teaching. The social justice department addresses subjects such as poverty, war, immigration, workers' rights, and so forth, while the pro-life committee handles abortion, euthanasia, contraception, capital punishment, and the like. (Though the last item sometimes sneaks its way over to the other camp.) This may not strike some people as odd. But it should.

Why? Because it creates a divide where there ought not to be one. It gives the impression that the life issues are something distinct from the social justice issues. But this is not so. The life issues are social justice issues, indeed, the primary social justice issues. One need look no further than the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' web page on Catholic Social Teaching. What is the first item listed? "Life and Dignity of the Human Person." The opening sentences make clear the primacy of the life issues in the Church's social teaching
"The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. "
None of the teachings that follow, from protecting the poor to caring for the environment, will stand unless the principle of the absolute dignity of every human life stands beneath them as a foundation. And this principle is incomplete without the subsequent teachings following from it.

I think this divide can be blamed on the unfortunate way in which politics and faith tend to get mixed up in the West. (I don't mean to say that it is unfortunate that faith and politics intersect--indeed, they should and they must. I mean to say that the way in which it happens is unfortunate.) Conservatives and liberals have their different visions and positions and priorities, and that gets reflected in their activity in the Church: by and large, you'll find political conservatives in the pro-life groups and political liberals in the social justice groups. And the two aren't particularly interested in working with one another.

Now, you could make the argument that a given person only has so much time and energy, and naturally they'll devote it to those things about which they are most passionate, so that inevitably some will pursue pro-life work, some immigration advocacy, and so on. I don't deny this. But there's no reason all of these issues can't be set under the same umbrella. Dividing them in this way, into essentially "conservative" and "liberal" issues, only exacerbates the problem of people placing their politics above their faith, or making their political opinions the lens through which they view their faith, when really we ought to approach politics from our position as Catholics, faithful to the Church's teaching and heeding the Church's guidance on social matters. The former approach is just the sort of thinking that provides cover for politicians who do not adopt the Church's stance on abortion, war, capital punishment, or what-have-you--they can compartmentalize the Church's teaching, accepting some and rejecting others, because we've already done it for them.

I recently saw an exemplar of just the sort of approach I think we should take. In his address to ambassadors and the Vatican diplomatic corps on January 13, Pope Francis said the following:
Peace is also threatened by every denial of human dignity, firstly the lack of access to adequate nutrition. We cannot be indifferent to those suffering from hunger, especially children, when we think of how much food is wasted every day in many parts of the world immersed in what I have often termed “the throwaway culture”. Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as “unnecessary”. For example, it is frightful even to think there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day; children being used as soldiers, abused and killed in armed conflicts; and children being bought and sold in that terrible form of modern slavery which is human trafficking, which is a crime against humanity. 
Look at that! Hunger, abortion, child trafficking, all woven together in one statement on the dignity of the human person! See how naturally they all fit together? See how strong the message is when it challenges so many various threats to humanity? This is well-rounded thinking. It's universal in its considerations. It's, well, Catholic.

Let's not split these up anymore. Let's please keep in mind that the Church's social teaching begins with the protection of human life, and that several key principles follow from that. Let's heal this divide. Only then can the Church address society with a voice strengthened by its unity and integrity, and only then can it hope to influence hearts and minds to conversion, repentance, and action.

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