Building a Whole Life Culture: The Culture of Death Includes Poverty, Hunger, Oppression, Exploitation, and Abortion

Recently, the Center for Medical Progress has shed an interrogating light on the “culture of death” by exposing Planned Parenthood for what may very well be the sale of fetal tissue and body parts for research and other scientific purposes. There isn’t much I can add to the myriad of Catholic voices that have spoken on the issue. I believe, no matter what stance you take on the legality of their actions, the behavior in the videos is heinous and disturbing. Not just the ones of Planned Parenthood executives’ flippant attitudes when negotiating over compensation for these tissues and parts, but also the ones that document doctors sifting through aborted fetuses and picking out body parts from a large glass dish. I believe this is one situation that epitomizes what Pope Francis means when he talks about the throwaway culture in his encyclical Laudato Si.

While these videos were making the rounds, I read an article that reported an African-American senator from Ohio (Democrat Bill Patmon) had called out the #BlackLivesMatter movement for not protesting outside of Planned Parenthood because a high number of mothers who came in for abortions at Planned Parenthood in his district were African-American. His point is valid. Abortion takes away a life – since black lives matter, these black lives in the womb also matter. However, the Senator’s stance doesn’t address the bigger issue at hand. The question that sits with me is, “What in our society leads women in these circumstances to believe it’s necessary or desirable to terminate a pregnancy?”

I believe that “the culture of death” viciously permeates all aspects of our culture. Saint John Paul II used this term throughout his encyclical Evangelium Vitae in reference to a culture that values efficiency and the subjugation of the vulnerable of society through structures of sin created by the powerful (12). He uses this idea to focus on the plight of aborted children and euthanized elders, but it applies to other structures of sin that deprive human beings of a right to live happy and healthy and holy and free, such as poverty, hunger, and political oppression. Pope Francis also touches on this idea in Laudato Si by advocating a holistic understanding of ecology that not only protects the environment, but also unborn children, the poor, and the marginalized of our world. Francis writes, “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (91).

We must understand that the culture of death is a pervasive aspect of our society. The culture of death is found in a society that believes poor people who work multiple jobs need to “stop being lazy” and just work harder. The culture of death is found in a society where organizations believe that the best way to stop or prevent someone from perpetrating violence is inevitably through more violence. The culture of death is found in a society where black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. It is a gross misunderstanding of the “culture of death” to focus our efforts solely on defunding an organization like Planned Parenthood, while completely ignoring the judicial, economic, and social systems that also perpetuate this culture.

We must ensure that every action that disrespects human life, such as abortion, racism, poverty, and euthanasia, is addressed. It’s been great to see so many peers take a stance on social media and create awareness about abortion and Planned Parenthood. I stand with them, and I hope we can right this injustice. However, I’m writing to challenge everyone who is adamant on this issue not to stop there. Be just as vocal about poverty, total war, capital punishment, education issues, and the unequal distribution of wealth in this country and around the world. Post videos about the arrest and death of Sandra Bland, the recent murder of Sam Dubose, Foxconn Technology Group, Nike, human trafficking of children in the United States, and other situations where the culture of death manifests itself in the world. We will not bring about a “culture of life” if we do not work to change the underlying structures that lead to a culture of death.

Jeff Wallace is a campus minister at Merrimack College and regular contributor to God in All Things.



The Promise and Limits of Finding the Common Ground on Abortion

A common refrain among Catholics who believe that abortion should be legal is that “no one is pro-abortion.” That’s just not true. This is not a disagreement between culture warriors and those who prefer a different approach. It is between those who can accept reality and those who won’t. Some people simply have no moral qualms about aborting a child, just as some people had no problem with one human being owning another. There were pro-slavery tracts that defined it as a positive social good. And now, with the release of Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights and articles praising it, we are seeing similar positive affirmations of abortion’s positive role in society and the rejection of the idea that it is negative in any way.

Just look at the rhetoric being used:

They have landed us in the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, Pollitt writes, where even pro-choicers are “falling all over themselves” to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult” instead of doing what they should be doing, which is saying out loud that abortion is a positive social good….

“Safe, legal and rare,” “Permit but discourage”—these updated slogans have left the pro-choice side advocating the neurotic position that you can have an abortion but only if you feel “really really bad about it,” Pollitt writes.

And here, as well:

Most people, no matter their politics, have absorbed some aspect of the right-wing narrative that abortions are uniformly harrowing and traumatic, when for many women they are brief events that leave no lasting mark….

The fact is that almost everyone probably knows someone who has had an abortion, and we all need to talk about it more honestly. This applies, most of all, to politicians who officially support reproductive rights and yet defend them in such sluggish and spiritless terms—think of Hillary Clinton’s characterization of abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice,” or John Kerry’s vow to make it “the rarest thing in the world.”….

They should be advocating for abortion as a fundamental, safe, and accessible medical option. The immorality, these representatives should make clear, is not in ending pregnancies, but in deepening inequality by denying poor women federal funding for legal abortion via the Hyde Amendment.

I am from the wing of the pro-life movement that refuses to call people pro-aborts or baby killers. When writing, I often use ‘pro-abortion rights,’ which is the standard term for those who aim to be objective when presenting facts in terms of identifying people who support legal access to abortion. In private conversations with supporters of legal abortion, it is not uncommon for me to use the term “pro-choice”, a term that I think is a fairly absurd euphemism, but the preferred language of those with whom I am trying to engage in dialogue. So my aim is not to demonize everyone who identifies as pro-choice or opposes the rights of unborn children.

It is merely to highlight the simple inaccuracy of the claim that no one is pro-abortion. Some people simply do not see abortion as a tragedy, let alone a morally questionable act. And the truth is that this extreme mentality is disproportionately concentrated in those with power, influence, and wealth. Key Democratic Party fundraisers and elites are far more likely to embrace “abortion on demand and without apology” than the average Democrat. These voices are also more common in the media and academia than among the public. That is why this extremism cannot simply be ignored.

A second important reason why recognizing what people actually believe matters is because it allows one to see who is open to dialogue and compromise. You cannot find common ground when it does not exist. If someone thinks abortion is a tragedy, but remains pro-abortion rights, opponents of abortion can still try to find ways to work together with this person to drive down the abortion rate. If someone sees it as a legitimate form of birth control to be used for any reason without any qualms, there is little likelihood of finding common ground.

I wish it was true that “no one is pro-abortion.” But it is not. If we want to work across the abortion divide to drive down the abortion rate, we must start by coming to grips with this reality. Only then will we be able to find dependable partners in assisting pregnant women and saving unborn lives.


Pope to Address US Congress: Call for an End to the Throwaway Culture

John Boehner, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, has announced that Pope Francis will address a joint meeting of Congress in September of this year. This historic address will mark the first time a pope has spoken before Congress.

What will the pope’s message be? Given Francis’ penchant for speaking directly and clearly about injustice in the world, it seems likely that he will confront the gravest threats to the common good. This means challenging both parties to reject the ‘throwaway culture.’

If Francis challenges Democrats on the throwaway culture, he will certainly stand up for the rights and dignity of unborn children. Francis has said, “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.” There is a good chance he will connect this to other human rights issues, as when he said, “This defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.”

Pope Francis has also consistently spoken about the dignity and worth of the elderly and disabled. With likely battles over the legalization of euthanasia looming, Francis may remind Democrats that a person’s worth is not based on their utility, but instead, that it is innate and immutable.

Francis could challenge both Democrats and Republicans to push for an end to the death penalty and to find ways to keep crime low without ignoring the dignity of those who have committed crimes. As people across the spectrum ponder criminal justice reform, Francis could explain the moral imperative not only to protect people from crime, but also to address the underlying causes of crime and help reintegrate those who have been released from prison. He might emphasize to those looking for an easy, cheap solution that drug legalization, including the legalization of marijuana, is not the answer. He has said in the past, “Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!”

Francis is likely to challenge all members of Congress to increase American efforts to alleviate global poverty and tackle the threats to human dignity posed by hunger, infectious diseases, and a lack of access to clean water. He might praise the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other American humanitarian and relief efforts, while calling on Americans to use our unparalleled wealth and power to do more for the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Pope Francis is gearing up to release a new encyclical on climate change and the moral responsibilities surrounding creation care. He recently said, “A Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.” He is unlikely to ignore this issue before Congress. Francis will very likely press the United States to take the lead in embracing green policies and reversing the degradation of the environment.

Some of Pope Francis’ most powerful moments have come standing up for the dignity of migrants. He traveled to the island of Lampedusa in Italy, where tens of thousands of migrants have arrived from North Africa in recent years. Francis traveled there to commemorate the lives of those who died in their attempt to reach the island. Francis might join the US Catholic bishops in decrying the plight of unauthorized immigrants to the United States. He would likely join their call for comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the humanity of migrants and keeps families united.

Finally, if Pope Francis applies his critique of the throwaway culture to American politics, he is likely to feel compelled to confront the economic libertarianism that dominates the Republican Party. He has denounced trickle-down economics and “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” He can make it clear to all those on the right in the United States who try to spin and twist his words that his critique applies the economic libertarianism that they embrace. He can affirm that healthcare is a right not a privilege. He can denounce the scourge of homelessness and people sleeping on the streets. He can confront the injustice of cutting food assistance to children while proposing tax cuts for billionaires.

Pope Francis has a message that challenges every single member of Congress—and indeed, all Americans. There are far too many cast aside and ignored in our society. We need to do more to protect the vulnerable. We would all benefit from Pope Francis challenging Congress to reject the throwaway culture.


Quote of the Day

Pope Francis: “Anyone who is Christian has a duty to bear the Gospel witness: protect life courageously and lovingly in all its phases. I encourage you to do this always with the style of closeness, of proximity: so that every woman may feel considered as a person, heard, accepted and accompanied.”


A Very Catholic Week: The March for Life, Selma, and Immigration Reform

There are three things I heard over the past week that are stuck in my head.

First, “We are the pro-life generation!” Thousands of young people chanted this refrain at last Thursday’s March for Life in Washington.

Then, “We’re not asking – we’re demanding! Give us the vote!” This was a masterful Daniel Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film Selma, which I saw on Saturday. In the scene, the minister and civil rights leader is speaking to a church congregation of African Americans who had systematically been blocked from registering to vote in Selma, Alabama.

Finally, “La iglesia está con ustedes,” or “The Church stands with you.” This was the message delivered by Bishop Sullivan and pastor Fr. Vince Guest at an information session on President Obama’s immigration executive action at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton on Sunday. At the gathering, which drew over 500 people, experts from the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice described the president’s order, which could make thousands of undocumented South Jersey residents eligible for a type of temporary permission to stay in the United States.

Taken together, these lines and the events where I heard them offer some interesting points about discipleship. Here are three:

1) God takes sides; we should, too.

I once heard a conference speaker tell the story of an older brother, a younger sister, and a dad. The brother often picked on his sister, she would call out for Dad’s help, and he would intervene on her behalf. The son complained, “You always take her side! You love her more than me!” The father replied, “It’s because I love you both the same that I take her side. If someone ever picks on you, I’ll take your side.”

This anecdote gets at something crucial about God’s love. Of course He loves all his children the same amount. But like the dad in the story, that doesn’t mean he remains neutral in all conflicts. Instead, as we see over and over again in Scripture, he sides with the oppressed and suffering. Think of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt who Moses leads to freedom, the exiles in Babylon who God’s prophet Isaiah comforts, and the woman caught in adultery who Jesus defends from the angry, judgmental mob. To imitate God’s love in our own lives, we must be on the look-out for similar instances of the powerful targeting certain groups of people, and raise our voices with and for those in harm’s way. What incredible examples of this sort of faith in action I witnessed on the National Mall, at the movie theater, and at Holy Cross.

2) As we do our best to take the side of the poor and vulnerable consistently, we will find that we don’t fit neatly into the American political left/right binary.

I love the consistency of the message woven through my recent experiences: pro-life, pro-racial justice, pro-immigrant family. It reminded me of something Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during a speech a couple years ago. We are called to be comprehensive in our care for “the uns,” he said: “the un-employed; the un-insured; the un-wanted; the un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb; the un-documented; the un-housed; the un-healthy; the un-fed; the under-educated.”

I imagine a Catholic advocate phoning her Congressman four times in a given week, calling about various issues that the Catholic Church in the US is speaking up about. On Monday, she urges the representative to work toward the legal recognition of the unborn as human beings. On Tuesday, she asks him to protect social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. On Wednesday, she voices opposition to physician-assisted suicide. On Thursday, she calls for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. And on Friday, the congressman’s receptionist wonders aloud, “What party does that woman belong to, anyway?”

If we truly let our faith inform our politics, then that’s the question people might be asking themselves about us.

3) Siding with those who are vulnerable is risky.

In Selma, King gives a sermon in response to the racially motivated murder of a teenager in the town. “Those who have gone before us say, No more! No more!” he says. “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

I think of the hundreds of parishioners who gathered at Holy Cross on Sunday – many of whom, who, despite the risk of deportation, keep working to provide for their families and secure civil rights. I feel for the young pro-life marchers whose peers look at them with suspicion or condescension. Selma invited me to remember those in who were beaten and killed because of their race, and to lift up those who continue the ongoing hard work of racial reconciliation across the country.

After the March for Life, I made it to Lindenwold just in time for our diocesan Respect Life Mass, hosted at the Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Gospel passage selected for the Mass was Matthew’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me,” Jesus tells his followers. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

As risky as faith can be, Christ reminds us that he is with us always. There’s no finer solace – and no finer call to action – than that.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


CJH: Turning Today’s Anti-abortion Movement into Tomorrow’s Pro-life Movement

Millennial co-founder Christopher Hale has a new article in Time. He writes:

To be truly pro-life, we cannot simply support a child’s right to be born, but also the right of the mother to expect substantial support from her community and from her government. We can’t be pro-life and anti-woman. It doesn’t work. And we can’t be pro-life and anti-government. It doesn’t work….

If today’s anti-abortion movement transforms into tomorrow’s pro-life movement, it can transcend the ideological divisions that plague our nation and proclaim a simple truth that can bind our people — especially the young — together: that everyone deserves a life, a family, and a future. But to do so, this pro-life generation must protect every person’s right to live, not just be born.

The full article can be read here.