Abortion and the ‘Throwaway Culture’: A Decade of Pope Francis on the Life Issues
Examining the Pope’s approach to life issues at the 10-year mark of his papacy.
Pope Francis has spoken with a unique voice on the dignity of human life over the 10 years of his papacy, providing a distinctive framework that connects grave evils like abortion with society’s general disregard for human life when it is viewed as an inconvenience.
He has repeatedly condemned abortion as a prominent manifestation of today’s “throwaway culture,” bluntly characterizing it as “murder” in 2021 and earlier in 2018 likening it to “hiring a hitman” to solve a problem. But while this striking rhetoric has commanded some attention, observers note that, overall, Francis has made opposition to abortion much less of a priority than did his immediate predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. And the Pope’s willingness to allow some people who advance pro-abortion-rights perspectives to hold positions at the Vatican has generated confusion and concerns among some Catholics.
The Holy Father’s other key actions on life issues include modifying the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with respect to the death penalty, strengthening its rejection of the death penalty, and raising concerns about society’s treatment of the elderly, disabled and poor.
Lucia Silecchia, a professor of law at The Catholic University of America who writes on elder law and Catholic social thought, told the Register that “throwaway culture” is a “powerful phrase” that the Pope uses to emphasize that “we cannot be truly concerned about throwing away or discarding physical or material things without first being aware, with sober contrition, of all the ways in which we can ‘throw away’ people who are vulnerable — the unborn, the very old, the very young, those who are ill or living with disabilities.”
Charles Camosy, a bioethicist and moral theologian who teaches at Creighton University School of Medicine, told the Register the Pope’s “organizing principle of resisting throwaway culture is an important counterpart to St. John Paul II’s resisting the culture of death,” as “it helps us understand how refusing to help — not just active killing — should be a central concern of the pro-life movement.”
Camosy praised some of the strong words that the Pope has used in speaking out against abortion over the years. Along with the “hitman” comparison, he referenced Francis’ 2018 comment on the targeting of unborn babies with disabilities for abortion, where he said, “In the last century the entire world was scandalized over what the Nazis were doing to maintain the purity of the race. Today we do the same thing, but with white gloves.”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who served as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee from 2017 to 2021, received some clarity directly from Pope Francis on the centrality of the abortion issue following the U.S. bishops’ debate on the language of abortion as a “preeminent priority” for Catholic voters at their fall 2019 meeting. He met with the Pope in January 2020 and brought up “how some of the bishops in the conference who claimed to speak for the Pope said that language was anti-Francis.”
He told Francis that some of the bishops thought he and others were making abortion “too important.” The Pope responded, “Without that right, no other right matters; of course, it’s preeminent.”
The archbishop said he is “grateful” for the ways in which the Pope “has spoken plainly about the protection of the innocent unborn.” He said the Pope has used “very compelling terms” in discussing the issue and pointed out that when the Holy Father has been asked about abortion, “he asks two questions: ‘Is it ever right to kill a child to solve a problem?’ and ‘Is it ever right to hire someone to kill a child to solve a problem?’”
Archbishop Naumann called those questions “a very powerful way to help expose what abortion really is about: the killing of children.”
The Kansas archbishop also highlighted the Pope’s emphasis early in his papacy on “mercy for those that have been involved with abortion and now deeply regret it” and “encouraging confessors to treat them with compassion and love.”
Beginning in 2015 during the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis permitted all priests the ability to forgive the sin of abortion in the confessional, something that ordinarily would be absolved by a bishop or priests designated by him for this role since it is a sin incurring automatic excommunication. The Pope later extended this jubilee mandate indefinitely.
Archbishop Naumann said the pro-life movement has embraced the Pope’s theme of accompaniment. The U.S. bishops’ “Walking With Moms in Need” initiative, to provide resources to women facing pregnancy in difficult circumstances, “very much echoes what Pope Francis has called for there: that we want to assist those that are in a difficult pregnancy and surround them with the community of support and love.”
However, Silecchia pointed out that the Pope’s “forceful” statements on abortion can “get lost in a political or secular media environment that is more hospitable to Pope Francis’ statements on other issues such as the economy or ecology.”
Camosy said that Pope Francis making connections between life issues shouldn’t in principle “distract from the evil of abortion — on the contrary, a focus on poverty, immigration, racism, ableism and related issues actually highlights the intersecting forces that make abortion an issue of paradigmatic evil,” which “should be a preeminent concern.”
But, he added, unfortunately abortion “has not only not been a preeminent issue for the formal teaching of his papacy, but when it has been mentioned, it is almost always a secondary issue or an afterthought, rather than an issue of central concern.”
He called this “a tremendous disappointment” because he saw Pope Francis as “perhaps the only major figure in the world right now who has the credibility on reaching skeptics on the issue through the lens of a more progressive or social-justice lens. Instead, the message that has been sent is that abortion really isn’t that important of an issue.”
Archbishop Naumann noted that there has been confusion over some of the Pope’s actions on the life issues over the years and called it “mystifying” that the Pope recently appointed academics to the Pontifical Academy for Life who had publicly expressed support for abortion.
Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, consulted with the Pontifical Academy for Life during the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II. He told the Register that it “was a different institution then than it is now; and part of what Pope Francis has done — the consequences for which are unclear — is he has disrupted some of those institutions.” He saw that the Pope has “tried to broaden the voices of people who contribute to those conversations” and said there has been confusion regarding what he’s working towards with these changes.
Archbishop Naumann also found it “disappointing” that Pope Francis has not clarified that “political leaders that facilitate abortion and create a culture of abortion in some ways are much more guilty of serious sin than a woman that’s troubled that has an abortion.”
He saw it as “confusing” for the faithful that the Pope met with President Joe Biden in October 2021 and allowed “the president to spin what that meeting was about, but without any kind of correction.” Following that meeting, Biden claimed that Pope Francis had encouraged him to continue to receive Communion. The Vatican declined to comment on these claims.
The Death Penalty
One significant change Pope Francis made on a life issue was his revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s discussion of the death penalty, calling it “inadmissible” in today’s society due to “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”
Regarding the changes to the Catechism’s language on the death penalty, Capizzi said that popes since St. John Paul II have said that, “given these circumstances that we find ourselves in, where there’s real confusion about life and relatedly, death, it’s less and less the case that the death penalty can, in fact, be an apt punishment for criminals.” He believed that’s what Pope Francis was expressing with his revision.
Archbishop Naumann said that the Pope’s revisions on the death penalty emphasize that “we shouldn’t go to the level of the murderer and execute somebody if we can protect society in other ways and [work] to give the individual a chance for conversion.” He said it reflects “a consistent way in which we see human life now.”
Nonetheless, he stressed, the death penalty is not “equivalent to the abortion issue because there [in abortion], you’re talking about taking an innocent human life that in no way warrants being killed. Throughout the Church’s history, we’ve allowed for capital punishment in different circumstances where it was really seen as perhaps the only way to protect society from danger.”
On a personal note, Archbishop Naumann recalled that when his own father was murdered, he was “very grateful” his mother “never focused our attention on the person that committed the crime and what happened to him.” He said that, sadly, sometimes “victims think that if this person is executed, that’s going to bring consolation,” but nothing is going to bring consolation for the loss of the loved one other than keeping their memory alive by “trying to live a virtuous life.”
Care for the Elderly
Silecchia noted another significant contribution Pope Francis has made on the dignity of human life, “out of concern for the way in which older persons can all too often be abandoned and their lives devalued,” with his 2021 establishment of the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. Held on the fourth Sunday in July, the day dovetails with the feast of Sts. Anne and Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus.
In a June address, the Pope said that society socially “eliminates” the elderly “as if they were a burden to carry.” He said this is “a betrayal of our own humanity. This is the worst thing; this is choosing life according to utility, according to [the] young and not with life as it is, with the wisdom of the elderly, with the limits of the elderly.” He called for parents to “teach children that their grandparents are to be cared for and visited.”
Silecchia praised the Pope’s condemnations of the many ways the elderly “can too often be abandoned or neglected in a world that values health, strength, autonomy and productivity without regard to the innate dignity of all human persons.”
Capizzi agreed that society’s treatment of the elderly has been a growing concern for Pope Francis. He said the Pope has tied the issue to society’s focus on utility and pleasure and a failure to “understand the full meaning of the Church’s understanding of life.”
Whether it’s speaking out for the dignity of the elderly or in defense of the unborn, Archbishop Naumann emphasized that the Church “has to be a voice for the sanctity of human life and in this throwaway society and culture.” In this regard, he said, Pope Francis has “done a good job of reflecting that common thread: that we see every human life is sacred and precious in God’s eyes.”
- culture of life
- pope francis
- church teaching on the dignity of life
- dignity of unborn
- caring for the elderly
- death penalty