NEW YORK — While Pope Francis’s new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, is broadly focused on holiness in everyday life, that won’t prevent various constituencies from reading the document through their own specific lens. One group that may feel especially challenged is the pro-life movement, since the pontiff makes a point of saying that the lives of the poor and of immigrants are as “equally sacred” as unborn lives.
In the United States, early reaction among pro-life leaders has been divided, with some seeing the pope’s language as a healthy challenge to a perceived rift between “pro-life” and “peace and justice” Catholics, while others style it as a disappointment.
One of the nation’s largest pro-life advocacy groups, the Susan B. Anthony List, issued a statement Monday saying the exhortation “blurs lines and causes confusion,” insisting on a strong defense of “the primacy of the defense of unborn human life.” Yet according to Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, Francis’s teaching in the exhortation is “certainly nothing new.”
In an interview with Crux, Schleppenbach said Francis is trying to aid in the resonance of the Church’s defense of human life so that there’s “equal passion in our defense of every human life, in every stage, and in every condition.”
Charles Camosy, a professor of theological ethics at Fordham University and Crux contributor, said Francis was using the exhortation to call out individuals on both sides of the political spectrum, despite what is a very direct condemning of a single-issue engagement.
“The main paragraph addressing abortion will be read as calling out abortion-to-the-exclusion-of-everything pro-lifers. And it is,” said Camosy.
Yet Camosy also said that many of the pope’s public allies should be more outspoken in their defense of human life.
“Most of those who hold up Francis as a model are not ‘clear, firm, and passionate’ in addressing the value of the prenatal child,” he continued. “Indeed, there is very little evidence that many of the most prominent Catholics on the left hold the lives of prenatal children as sacred as they do the lives of the poor. In this sense, once again, the Holy Father challenges both right and left rather directly.”
The Susan B. Anthony List was adamant that something is amiss in Francis’s analysis.
“It is impossible to equate the moral weight of abortion – the direct killing of innocent unborn children occurring on a daily massive scale, here in America and abroad – with any other social justice issue,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president. “The right to live predates or precludes every other right. It is simple logic.”
A convert to Catholicism, Dannenfelser is a former staff director of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. In 2013, she was named by Newsmax as one of 25 “influential Republican women,” and in 2016 agreed to act as then-candidate Donald Trump’s Pro-Life Coalition leader.
“We all affirm the absolute dignity of the migrants and those suffering from poverty. How we solve these issues are matters of prudential judgment on which Catholics can disagree,” she said. “Today’s exhortation blurs lines and causes confusion.”
Maria McFadden Maffucci, editor of the Human Life Review and a long-time Catholic pro-life activist told Crux that pro-life organizations, like her own, have to be limited in their focus, but that in Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis is calling on people to recognize the common thread that links the issues of abortion, poverty, and migration: the dignity of all human life.
“On a practical level, those of us in the pro-life movement are following a specific call: to defend the innocent unborn, the disabled and the elderly, and to reach out with compassion to mothers in need. It would not be possible for our organizations to advocate with equal passion and energy on the other issues the pope lists,” said Maffucci.
She continued: “However, as an exhortation to holiness, the pope invites us to examine our hearts and consciences: Do we truly believe all human lives are equally sacred? If so, we must care, for example, about the victims of sex trafficking and prostitution as much as we care about the defenseless unborn, and be open to ways of cooperating with those who fight to defend them.”
“Seeing the deep connections in all the threats against the dignity of each human life can only bring us closer to Jesus and His plan for us,” she added.
Kirsten Powers, CNN political analyst and cohost of the recently launched Faith Angle podcast, echoed similar sentiments.
“There’s nothing wrong with being focused on a single issue in your work,” she told Crux. “If you focus on migrants, it doesn’t mean you don’t care about the other priorities of the Church. I think he’s talking about individual people who believe they hold the right position on this issue, that’s all that matters.”
She said the exhortation is a challenge to all Catholics “to stop and think, do I fully integrate Catholic teaching, or am I leaning to one side or the other because that’s what fits well with my ideology?”
Schleppenbach concurred, saying the approach of the USCCB has been specialization among different departments for different issues, united and “informed by the consistent teaching of the Church.”
“For many years, there have been efforts by the Pro-Life Secretariat to work closely with our social justice folks and vice versa to counter this notion that the Church’s teachings are at odds. They’re not, they’re complementary, and that’s what the Holy Father is getting at here,” said Schleppenbach.
David Cloutier, a professor of moral ethics and theology at the Catholic University of America, also stressed that Francis is not introducing new Catholic teaching with this exhortation, but he told Crux that “what he is saying that is new is that he’s suggesting that you cannot support one part of Catholic teaching without supporting all of it, and that if you are, you need to examine whether you are doing this for reasons that are self-serving.”
“There’s a double move, which is to say that all the teachings are connected, and if you don’t see that, then you need to engage in some kind of self-examination about how you are using Church teaching in self-serving ways.”
Cloutier warned that the pope’s words should be received as a challenge for everyone in the Church.
“This document could inflame rival camps in the Church, or it could lead everyone to careful self-examination no matter what camp they are in the Church.”
“I hope the latter reading prevails,” he said.