WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin offered the idea that the Church could approach its concern for protecting human dignity in tackling abortion, euthanasia, poverty and peace under a “seamless garment” during a 1983 speech at Fordham University, there were doubters who said the concept was flawed.
For years, the ideological rift between respect life adherents on the “right” and the peace and justice advocates on the “left” felt wider than the Grand Canyon and nigh impossible to bridge.
It was, some concluded, one church, two camps. So the work of both continued, largely with limited collaboration.
Such divisions just may be breaking down.
The desire to protect human dignity from conception to natural death is increasingly being embraced by Catholics, bringing together the respect life advocates and the social justice advocates to carry out the Church’s call to missionary discipleship.
Such collaboration is evident in some dioceses where traditional respect life and social justice offices now operate as one. Where they remain separate, collaboration is strong across the wide spectrum of social concerns.
“It’s so unfortunate in our American culture, we’ve divided the respect life issue from other social justice issues and vice versa,” Tony Stieritz, director of the Catholic Social Action Office in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, told Catholic News Service.
‘We want to exemplify as much as we can in this archdiocese that we go beyond those ideological separations. To be pro-life, to work for social justice, all comes from the same. There are not real political boundaries on any of this,” Stieritz said.
Stieritz’s office at the archdiocese’s downtown headquarters is next to that of Bob Wurzelbacher, director of the Office for Respect Life Ministries. Both regularly work together.
“Obviously, we care for life from conception to natural death. You have to be consistent in upholding the dignity of that life,” Wurzelbacher said. “Whether born with handicaps or born to illegal immigrants, we still care about that child as they grow up to become adults. That spreads into all the areas of social justice. We can’t give off the appearance that we only care about babies.”
In the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, Matt Cato has been the director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for eight years. He described all of his efforts as working for social justice.
Soon after he started in the position, Cato learned about the long-simmering divide, which he said he never realized existed. Prior to joining the archdiocese, he and his wife headed their parish social justice ministry and for years they melded respect life concerns with justice and peace work.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t occasionally get pushback from one side or the other. He writes a monthly column on social concerns for the archdiocese. He described how one month he’ll be praised for a position he espoused by some readers and then criticized the next by the same readers on another issue. He said he makes clear to the critics that the stances taken come directly from Catholic social teaching.
“It’s just Catholic. It’s just the way it is,” he told CNS. “I’m hoping more and more people understand this.”
The consistent life ethic is the focus of the Pittsburgh-based Rehumanize International. Executive Director Aimee Murphy, who is Catholic, helped found the organization after graduating from college in 2011 to fill a “niche” and address the many human actions that destroy human dignity.
“Our number one passion is violence against humans,” said Murphy, who was a leader in the pro-life group at her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University.
“We wanted an organization that could address not only the life of a child in the womb but also the life of the child behind enemy lines or the life of an inmate in prison or the life of a refugee, the life of any human being in any circumstance,” she explained.
While Rehumanize International is nonpartisan and nonsecular, Murphy acknowledged that its work is strongly influenced by Catholic social teaching and that those values also are shared by many other faiths. In the broadest sense, she said, the work focuses on human rights.
“Among young people, this human rights paradigm is catching on,” Murphy said.
The organization has developed educational material on unjust wars and military conflicts, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, human trafficking, poverty, sexual assault, embryonic stem-cell research, capital punishment and torture. There’s even the current “Nukes Are Not Pro-Life” campaign.
The integration of respect life and social justice concerns is a welcome development for two staff members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Jonathan Reyes, assistant general secretary for integral human development, and Tom Grenchik, executive director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, told CNS such integration is key to the life of the church.
People have varying interests and areas of expertise and sharing them with society is what it means to be Catholic, Grenchik said.
“It’s the dignity of the human person that motivates the Church, that motivates Catholics to respond with love,” he said. “Whether it’s the child in the womb or the homeless person or the person with a disability, it’s that God-given dignity that motivates us to respond.”
Reyes said the long-existing divide along left/liberal and right/conservative lines means little to young people especially. What matters most is upholding human dignity, he said.
This shrinking of the gulf is “more important than ever because the challenges to human dignity are remarkable, whether it’s in the protection of human life or providing people with health care. There are real threats to human dignity right now,” he told CNS.
People also may be seeking answers to basic questions about life and their place in the world in the face of deep polarization and that it may be the Holy Spirit which has inspired people to set aside differences in response to Pope Francis’s call to be people of mercy for the world.
“It’s really very much Pope Francis’s message,” Grenchik agreed. “We’re supposed to be a hospital and we’re supposed to be in the healing business.”