For Pope Francis, everything is about the person — specifically, about encouraging a personal encounter with the mercy of Christ. The prominence of this theme in his teaching and writing makes it clear that he writes from the experience of a pastor and a penitent.
From this vantage point, Pope Francis looks at major issues in his joyful way. He guides us to be better Christians and better friends. He also continues to speak unapologetically about the most critical topics, completely in accord with his predecessors and with Catholic Social Teaching. Those who say otherwise are perhaps not reading or listening carefully.
Last September, while addressing a group of Catholic gynecologists, Pope Francis said, “Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of the Lord, who before being born, and then when he was just born, experienced the rejection of the world… They cannot be discarded!”
And further, “Our answer (to this ‘throw away culture’) is a decisive and unhesitant ‘yes’ to life… Attention to human life in its totality has become in recent times a real and proper priority of the Magisterium of the Church, particularly for life which is largely defenseless, namely, that of the disabled, the sick, the unborn, children, the elderly.”
More recently, in Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel, he writes, “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.”
The Holy Father explains how many contemporary efforts deny the unborn their human dignity. Laws protect the so-called right to take the lives of our unborn brothers and sisters.
“Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative,” the pope writes. “Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”
The Church “cannot be expected to change her position on this question,” the pope explains, because human beings are never a means to an end. “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life,” he writes.
In his own unfiltered words, Pope Francis boldly asserts that issues of life are a “real and proper priority” of the Church, not something “ideological,” but an action “closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.”
At the same time, it is proper for us to take time to reflect on how we promote and defend life. Pope Francis’ strong exhortation to look always to the person applies to life issues in a particular way. Are we doing our best work to build a culture of life?
The work of the Church to end abortion has never been about moral absolutes or mortal sin. It has always been about the person — about authentic love. It has always been about recognizing the image of God in each person and offering her loving assistance to choose life, which she knows in her heart is best for her and her unborn child. Abortion offers a lifetime of pain and regret.
Pope Francis asks that we become a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets.” Rather than a move away from focusing on life issues, this is a call to view our prolife work always as an encounter with a person, an image of God.
We do this when we counsel a woman in a crisis pregnancy and live her desperation and terror. We do this when we see a woman entering an abortion clinic, and offer her not judgment but a loving alternative. We do this when we hold a post-abortive woman sobbing because she doesn’t believe she can be forgiven. We, like Pope Francis, share with her the good news of God’s transformative mercy.
This is what the Church’s work to end abortion is all about. Yes, we do walks and marches. We protest and write letters. We must do these things to keep the public consciousness raised and alert the world that we will not back down in our support for the unborn.
Pope Francis, leading by example, is teaching us every day what it looks like to be authentically Christian in our modern world. He asks that we each examine not only our actions but our motivations. Far from steering the Church away from a focus on life issues, he leads us toward placing our prolife work securely in the center of the Church’s mission to bring Christ to the world.
kathleen-domingo is Life coordinator in the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.