Pope Francis, Abortion, and a Missed Opportunity with Congress

Pope Francis addresses Congress on September 24, 2015. (© L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis addresses Congress on September 24, 2015. (© L'Osservatore Romano) (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed a number of issues by name when he spoke to Congress. He talked about immigrants; he delved into economics; and he got very specific on environmental degradation, the arms trade, and abolishing the death penalty.

One issue that Pope Francis did not get specific about was abortion.

To be sure, he made a reference to the practice when he said that “the Golden Rule…reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” This line earned thunderous applause from the conservatives in the chamber.

But it was the only reference to abortion in his entire address, which lasted roughly 50 minutes.

This seemed significant to me, especially in light of the fact that:

  • Archbishop Chaput, a very prominent leader in the Church in America and the host of the World Meeting of Families, said only two weeks ago that abortion is “a uniquely wicked act” and has no moral equivalent.
  • Earlier this week, the Senate was considering a measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy (the bill was killed on Tuesday, the same day the Pope arrived); other legislative efforts to curtail abortion are circulating in Congress.
  • And, of course, it was revealed only months ago that abortion providers prioritize the harvesting of fetal remains from victims of abortion and distribute the remains, potentially for profit.

So I brought this up last night at the press briefing, and asked Vatican spokes-priest Fr. Federico Lombardi why the Holy Father didn’t talk more about the moral gravity of legalized abortion, specifically when he had the opportunity to do so in front of the US Congress (you can watch here; the video is titled “pv2015-09-24-NY-08-Press-Briefing) and my question starts at 46:50).

Fr. Federico responded by highlighting the Pope’s lone sentence in his Congressional address that was relevant to abortion. He also stated that Francis has made clear his and the Church’s opposition to abortion during other remarks on his papal visit, and also at numerous other times during his pontificate.

I was very disappointed with this response.

I know that Pope Francis opposes abortion. I know that he has called it a “scourge” and an “attack on life.” I know that he told his brother bishops on Wednesday that “it was wrong to look the other way or to remain silent” regarding “the innocent victim of abortion.

And, in fact, Pope Francis made the dignity of the unborn a priority this morning during his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Though he again did not mention abortion by name, he said there must be a “respect for the sacredness of every human life,” including “the unborn,” and again echoed the need for “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” He also said “the right to life” should be the very foundation of any agenda the UN advances.

So yes, I know that Pope Francis opposes abortion and I know that he has addressed this issue explicitly on this trip.

Which makes it all the more confusing that he did not take the opportunity to talk about abortion by name and explicitly when he was addressing Congress, the body responsible for passing laws in this country, the very people with the greatest capacity to begin the push to end legalized abortion.

A common response to my concern is that our elected officials already know what the Catholic Church has to say about abortion, so why bring it up? Well, I hope they do, but they also probably know about the Church’s position on immigration reform and the death penalty, two issues that were talked about at length in Francis’ address to Congress. So clearly abortion was not not prioritized solely because people already know what Church’s stance is on it.

The other concern has to do with the group of people the Pope was addressing: politicians, many of them Catholic. Catholic politicians on either side of the aisle have a habit of picking and choosing what they like about the faith and its teachings as it applies to matters of public policy, distorting the continuity and integrity of the Catholic social tradition in the process.  Whether he knows it or not, the Holy Father gave the considerable contingent of a Catholic politicians who support abortion rights political cover on Wednesday by referring to abortion in such veiled language. For politicians like Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who doesn’t register that an unborn child 20 weeks into pregnancy is a human being, it’s not enough to say “defend human life at every stage of its development” and leave it at that.

I’m not the only one who found the lack of a more explicit call against abortion to be a noteworthy exclusion. News reports from both the left and the right honed in on this.

As they rightfully should have. Abortion is one of the most contentious issues in American society, and the Catholic Church in this country has long decried its wide-spread practice as a crime against the most innocent among us. To have it not receive much air time from the earthly head of the Church was bound to raise eyebrows, a reality of which whoever was working with the Pope on this address had to be aware.

Finally, I know that Pope Francis has said that some in the Church have grown “obsessed” with abortion, at the expense of proclaiming other important aspects of Catholic social teaching. I certainly agree that Catholic social teaching has implications for many, many issues beyond just abortion, including working towards a more just economic system, a more merciful immigration policy, and a more sustainable approach to caring for creation. Respect for human dignity and life absolutely means more than just protecting it in the womb.

But I did not write this blog post because I am “obsessed” with abortion, and wanted Pope Francis to devote his entire Congressional address to the issue. I simply recognize protecting the unborn as an especially important element of Catholic social teaching, an element that is tragically not embraced by many of the Catholic legislators Pope Francis addressed. And so I wish the Holy Father would’ve spoken about the importance of the protection of the unborn in more explicit fashion, as he did on other important (but arguably less morally weighted) matters; not in a strident manner, but in a tone consistent with his call for dialogue and conversation.