In his new book, Fordham theologian Charles Camosy argues that Pope Francis’s challenge to resist a throwaway culture can also combat the polarized landscape of today.
In Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Ethic of Life Can Unite A Fractured People, Camosy (who is also a Crux contributor), draws on the legacy of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who sought to show the interrelatedness of life issues, from opposition to abortion to nuclear war, and translates such a vision for a new generation.
In an interview with Crux on the eve of his book’s release, Camosy discussed how Francis has reframed the language of a “culture of death,” as used by Pope John Paul II to what he believes is a more useful paradigm of resisting the throwaway culture and the challenges awaiting Catholics in the 2020 presidential contest.
Crux: Let’s start with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who championed the consistent ethic of life. Do you see any members of the hierarchy today that, in your view, are doing the bold, creative thinking that Bernardin did to pioneer the consistent ethic of life?
Many underestimate just how fundamentally something like Bernardin’s vision has shaped the broad majority of the U.S. hierarchy today. He never saw abortion as one issue among many, but rather honored the moral link between abortion and other issues about which the Church had a duty to speak.
I don’t know a single U.S. bishop who does not have some version of the Consistent Life Ethic. The USCCB has this ethic at the heart of their pro-life pastoral plan. Even someone like Cardinal Dolan, who some might not think of as a CLE champion, shifting to describe resistance to abortion as a progressive attitude of non-violence and concern for the vulnerable and championing the cause of pregnant women and other mothers in difficult circumstances.
You view individual autonomy as a major contributor to our throwaway culture. How did autonomy become king, in both our politics and our culture?
In some ways, it became king for a good reason. The first two-thirds of the 20th Century saw horrific examples of autonomy being trampled: Nazi ‘medicine’, the Tuskegee syphilis study, forced sterilizations of the mentally disabled, and much more. So the turn to autonomy was an understandable and important corrective to this.
The main problem was that the turn to autonomy in the developed West was not grounded in any coherent concept of the human person, and so was put at the service of a self-worshiping consumer culture in which the vulnerable (who don’t have autonomy) are discarded if it serves the interest of the powerful (those who have autonomy). I make the case in the book that critique of this “throwaway culture” constitutes a growing edge of a new pro-life movement.
You believe that Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life has been true for the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. In what ways, in your view, has Francis made it distinctive?
Well, since Evangelium Vitae is magisterial confirmation of the truth of the Consistent Life Ethic, it would be strange indeed if these papacies didn’t reflect a CLE vision. Francis has been distinctive, however, in using the language of “throwaway culture” in place of a “culture of death” - and I think this does a better job of naming the fundamental problem those of us who are pro-life are trying to address. Instead of addressing an imagined culture that is obsessed with killing and death, I think we do better to address a real culture so consumed with its own autonomy and consumerism that it cannot or will not see that the most vulnerable are being discarded in the process. Naming the problem more precisely also helps pro-lifers see more effective solutions. Francis’s insistence on creating and living out a counter-culture of encounter and hospitality, for instance, is absolutely essential for the contemporary pro-life movement.
You write that the Trump presidency is leading to a realignment of political parties and structures. What are your predictions for the traditional pro-life movement, which is largely seen as allied with the presidency of Donald Trump?
I honestly don’t know how to answer this very important question. On the one hand, I know many traditional pro-lifers - even those who voted for Trump - who in no way consider themselves Trump supporters and are looking around for an alternative. On the other hand, I’ve seen many traditional pro-lifers sell out to the Trump administration in ways that, frankly, are embarrassing for the movement.
Maybe this reveals that there isn’t anything like “the” traditional pro-life movement. This diversity, along with an explosion of non-traditional pro-life groups coming on the scene, does create the conceptual space for a CLE to gain a foothold.
As we look ahead to the 2020 presidential election, do you see any candidates approaching a platform that has what it takes to resist the throwaway culture?
No. The candidates who use language that might seem most in tune with undermining throwaway culture both (1) completely whiff on how it functions with regard to abortion and euthanasia and (2) most often propose distant, one-size-fits-all government programs which, ironically, sell out to the very kind of self-worshiping individualism which undermines the importance of a local community’s capacity to foster a counter-culture of encounter and hospitality.
How then do you suggest Catholics are to navigate this complicated landscape?
I think it might be time for us to withdraw a bit from the toxicity and even idolatry of national secular politics. In the book I suggest taking a long, hot political shower. Washing away the dirt and grime. Putting salve on our political wounds. Spend time resting, reading, and contemplating. Genuinely listening to others, especially our perceived opponents, in the spirit of encounter and hospitality. Remind ourselves of our fundamental values as they exist apart from the toxic and often idolatrous fight over national secular politics. After settling down and centering ourselves this way we can return to the national secular political fray ready to advocate consistently - across a full range of issues - on behalf of the Gospel.