Secular conservatives and progressives have alternatively praised or decried Pope Francis as a liberal. But his positions on hot-button moral issues closely follow the Consistent Ethic of Life (CEL) of his predecessors.
This beautiful paragraph from Laudato Si’ has deep resonances with what I showed last week:
The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.
Some may be surprised to find abortion given a prominent place in this list, given a widely-held belief that Pope Francis has asked us to put the topic on the back-burner. This impression likely comes from the wall-to-wall coverage of an exclusive interview the Pope gave to the Jesuit publications in 2013 (America magazine in the U.S.) in which he said:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.
Contrary to what has been reported, Francis did not tell Catholics to stop talking about abortion. Instead, he joined his predecessors in insisting that opposition to abortion must be understood in the context of commitments to other life issues.
Indeed, the very next day the Pope used strong language condemning abortion in a speech to a number of OB-GYNs in Rome. It did not get the same kind of attention from the national media when Francis declared: “Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord.” Tellingly, the Pope characterized abortion as a product of a “widespread mentality of profit, the ‘throw-away culture,’ which has today enslaved the hearts and minds of so many.”
The ‘throw-away culture’ is a primary metaphor in the Pope Francis CEL. He describes it as “a mentality in which everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable. This way of thinking has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are unproductive.”
It reduces everything—including people—to mere things whose value consists in being bought, sold, used, and discarded when their market value has been exhausted.
The inherent, irreducible value of ‘inefficient’ and ‘burdensome’ human beings is simply ignored by a throw-away culture which finds such value inconvenient. In reducing the human person to a mere product in a marketplace—one which can be used and then thrown away—our culture makes a categorical mistake. Persons are ends in themselves, with inherent and irreducible value, and must never be discarded as so much trash.
The explicit, deadly violence of the throw-away culture as resisted by Pope Francis involves classically violent practices such as war, genocide, terrorism, and the death penalty. But he also thinks of practices like abortion (which discard a child as inconvenient) and euthanasia (which treat the elderly as so much “baggage” to be discarded) as also part of this same culture of deadly violence.
Francis also has a particular focus on what violence does to the perpetrator. In his address to the US Congress he said that when we have repeated recourses to violence we risk becoming a prisoner, trapped by our own habits. Francis also warned us that the best way to become murderers and tyrants ourselves is to imitate their violent practices.
But the CEL is not only concerned with explicit violence in the form of killing, but also the structural violence present in how we order our societies. For Francis and his predecessors, respecting life cannot simply be about resisting the aggressive violence of throw-away culture, but also its social structures.
Francis insists that a commandment such as “Thou shallt not kill” applies very clearly to what he calls our culture’s “economy of exclusion.” As the pope wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “such an economy kills.”
Furthermore, the kind of exclusion which deeply concerns Francis is very often the result of unconscious practices which lead to certain kinds of people becoming “outcasts” or “leftovers.”
The Pope has particularly harsh language for “trickle-down theories of economic growth” which operate as if human beings are the kinds of things that can simply be ignored and discarded if they are a net drag on such growth. The homeless person who dies of exposure; the child without adequate health care who dies of an easily-treatable disease; island-dwelling peoples threatened by climate change — such people are simply afterthoughts in what Francis calls “the globalization of indifference.”
The dignity of these vulnerable people is quite inconvenient for those of us who benefit from global consumer culture, so we ignore the poor and marginalized until we deaden to their cries. The primacy of the human person is replaced with the love of money (which Francis in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, called “the dung of the Devil”); the logic of economic growth comes to have absolute dominion — no matter who is thrown away in the process.
As with last week’s piece on the roots of the CEL prior to Francis, it is impossible to capture everything that is important in a single summary piece. But we have established several fundamental principles and ideas that can be used to examine today’s most controversial issues with new political eyes.
Next week, we begin doing precisely this with the hook-up culture and sexual violence.
Charles C. Camosy is Association Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. He is co-editor of the just-released book Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.