Washington Post recognizes pro-life pope, but not pro-life bishops

Seems like everyone is into mergers; why not Catholics? A new Washington Post story surveys the Catholic pro-life movement and concludes that it's merging with other social movements, like homelessness and immigration reform.

The story says the merging is a response to Pope Francis' admonition to stop "obsessing" about abortion. Whether that's true, though, is questionable. More on that later.

For now, some of the good stuff. The article catalogs a buoyant mood among Catholic pro-lifers during the recent March for Life: cataloguing a "belief that U.S. culture is turning in their favor."

Among the perceptive facets are an observation that "the March for Life participants were overwhelmingly young and religious." The article also reports on a separate pro-life march in Southern California, "highlighting not only abortion but also homelessness, foster care and elderly rights."

And here are two nice "nut" paragraphs:

Catholics have been debating the proper place of abortion in the hierarchy of issues since Roe v. Wade was decided, with some saying it holds the highest theological priority and shouldn’t be muddled in with other topics that may be less black and white and less fundamental. But Francis’s framing of such issues as care for the elderly, economic inequality and loneliness as urgent — rather than abortion and same-sex marriage — has forced Catholics to consider what being an advocate of “life” means.
“My suspicion is that a number of people have gotten what we’ve come to call the memo from Pope Francis,” said Terrence Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University. “That is, we want to be a church that is pastoral and welcoming and not to war against the culture but to work to convert those who have to live in the culture.” Working against abortion goes from being a litmus test, Tilley said, “to one of the things you do.”

The piece also cites a more liberal leader -- Jon O'Brien of Catholics for Choice: “Having failed to make political or electoral inroads to defeat pro-choice support in the United States under Roe v. Wade, the anti-choice lobby is elbowing into more popular issues like immigration reform and anti-death penalty advocacy.” He recommends that other leaders steer clear of pro-lifers' efforts to "co-opt their issues."

True or not, that's a mark of good coverage: acknowledging that there is another side with articulate voices. So what could be so wrong with the Washington Post article?

For one thing, the Post says Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles merged the Justice and Peace office and the Life office in the "spirit" of Francis' interlinking of several issues. As a faithful reader of GR points out, the merger was in 2011, while Pope Benedict XVI was still Vatican Resident #1.

More importantly, Faithful Reader adds, Francis was hardly the first to interlink social causes:

There's a key phrase and a few decades of historical context missing here. It's on the tip of my tongue . . . streamless varmint? Schemeless gargoyle? Neither "seamless garment" nor Cardinal Bernardin's name come up at any point. Nor does the phrase "consistent ethic of life." It's a pretty mind-boggling lack of context.

Sarcastic, yes, but when you're right, you're right. For more than a generation, the Catholic Church in America has woven a "seamless garment," aka Consistent Ethic of Life, on the "dignity" of every person -- with far-reaching ramifications:

In encompassing "the moment of conception to natural death", this ethic encompass any issue during a person's life which places the dignity and worth of human life at risk.
This includes (but is not limited to): human trafficking, abuse, just wages, medical ethics, homelessness, poverty, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion, war, and the death penalty.

Although the "seamless garment" phrase was applied by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, the U.S. bishops have used it often, as with this statement against capital punishment. And others have used it in other terms.

As religion writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, I covered the installation Mass for Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. Like Francis and Bernardin, he flew the banner of human dignity over several issues:

Wenski acknowledged issues of tight economics and of clerical sex abuse that he would have to deal with. He also mentioned not only current immigration policies, but also abortion, the death penalty and torture of prisoners as practices that Catholic teaching condemns.
"I believe it can be summarized in one simple phrase: No man is a problem," he said, echoing a column he wrote for the Orlando edition of the Florida Catholic newspaper. "As archbishop of Miami, I will continue to proclaim a positive and consistent ethic of life."

It's entirely possible that Francis revived the idea of blending causes for American Catholics. Or, it's possible that it was the Americans who inspired him. But the Post itself suggests another factor: "that abortion is associated with moral gravitas that other groups would like to share."

I don’t like to fall back on clichés like "perfect storm," but the last few years may have formed one: persistent pro-life activism, pro-immigrant action, new focus on the poor -- and, of course, Francis' much-reported teachings on kindness and benevolence.

Sure, listen to the man at the top. But pay attention also to vocal, active branches of the Church, like that in America. You can't always use one text for context.

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