The Right to Life and Social Justice


There is an annoying habit that exists within the contemporary Church of dividing up the body of Christ into the political: "left" and "right," "liberal" and "conservative."

Liberals generally stand for social justice, the defense of the culturally marginalized, human diversity and the protection of the earth. Conservatives generally stand for the right to life, traditional marriage, sexual morality, hard truths and the Christian work ethic.

These two sides of the Church are pitted one against the other, and in the process, the fullness of the Gospel becomes obscured behind ideological conflicts.

None of us are entirely immune to this. The tendency to think that my kind of Catholicism is the right one is a deeply ingrained habit of fallen man. Consider, for example, the number of religious jokes that begin with, "A Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit ..." In all of these jokes, the humor arises from the perennial disputes between different Catholic orders, each thinking that their particular charism is most treasured and valued by God.

Such conflicts go back to the early Church, when the Christians of Corinth cried, "I belong to Paul," and "I belong to Apollos" (1 Corinthians 3:4).

Today, we might instead cry, "I am for Francis," "I am for Benedict," "I am for social justice" or "I am for the unborn." Whatever our particular allegiances are, there is a little place in the heart where we rankle at those who represent the other "side."

Many complain about how parishes are full of "those people," developing contemptuous epithets to describe them: "RepubliCatholics," "Cafeteria Catholics," "The Holy Marines" and "The Judas Shuffle." Those aren’t the real Catholics. The "real Catholics" are people like me, many think.

Such divisions are born out of a misunderstanding of the nature of the body of Christ. As God told St. Catherine of Siena, "I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others. ... I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one. ... And so I have given many gifts and graces, both spiritual and temporal, with such diversity that I have not given everything to one single person, so that you may be constrained to practice charity towards one another. ... I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me" (Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, i, 7).

The Catechism adds, "These differences belong to God’s plan. ... [They] encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness and sharing of goods" (1937).

When we feel superior for having virtues which others lack, we place these gifts at the service of our own pride rather than using them to build up the Church. If we look at other people’s talents with contempt or suspicion, this is a form of ingratitude that breaks down the bonds of solidarity and love that unite us into One Body.

Life within the Church demands a variety of charisms, which must work together, not divide the Church against herself. We might consider Pope Francis’ analogy of a "field hospital." There is a place for the doctor who says, "That leg will have to be amputated," and there is a place also for the nurse who holds the patient’s hand and grieves with him over the loss. These two aspects of healing need each other. Without the surgeon, the nurse is helpless in the face of disease, unable to offer anything except palliative care. Without the nurse, the surgeon is helpless in the face of despair, unable to offer anything except a prolongation of misery.

The relationship between the right to life and social justice is an example of this kind of complementary care for the dignity of the human person.

"The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized" (Caritas in Veritate).

It is incoherent to claim that the life of a homeless man or a starving child has inalienable dignity but that the life of an unborn person or a person with severe disabilities does not. In most cases, socioeconomic circumstances play a significant role in the decision to abort an unborn child. Abortion permits the perpetuation of avaricious and rapacious systems: The guilt that people feel over visible poverty is assuaged by the gruesome expediency of killing the poor before they are born.

It is also incoherent to claim that the life of an unborn child has inalienable dignity but that it’s okay to bend the criteria for just war or to fail to support economic policies that ensure the ability of the poor to obtain the necessities of life. If we want to stop the abortion holocaust, then we should also work vigilantly to secure peace and oppose economic injustice.

The Church’s social teachings are not a bone that the Church throws to the "liberals," nor are her teachings on human sexuality the fruit of celibate erotophobia. Rather, the Church’s teachings are a manifestation of her concern for the marginalized. All Church teaching is a manifestation of her concern for the deepest happiness of man, which is rooted in the truth about man’s nature and dignity.

As Blessed John Paul II expressed it, "Just as a century ago it was the working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the Church very courageously came to their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of the worker as a person, so now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church feels duty-bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice. Hers is always the evangelical cry in defense of the world’s poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated" (Evangelium Vitae).

John Paul II also pointed out that the right to life is primary, "The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination" (Christifideles Laici, 38).

Abortion is the gravest and most direct attack on the right to life, and the practice of sidestepping this issue by proposing a vague and fashionable attitude of respect for human life cannot be justified. Catholics should, however, be aware that serious economic injustice is also opposed to the Fifth Commandment: "Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them" (Catechism, 2269).

The teaching of the Church is indivisible. As Pope Francis put it, "The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently." When the Church becomes a "house divided" by political ideologies, she ceases to manifest that truth in love, love in truth, which is the hallmark of authentic Christian witness.

Melinda Selmys is the author of

Slave of Two Masters,

a layperson’s guide to Church teaching on poverty, money

and social justice.