Unpacking Pope Francis’ Remarks on Abortion
I may not be a Roman Catholic, but my interest was certainly piqued last week when I read of Pope Francis' assertion that the church has become overly "obsessed" with the issue of abortion. I am, after all, part of the universal, catholic church, and I've devoted my vocational life to combatting abortion. Even more to the point, I've been making precisely the opposite assertion for the last few years—arguing that the church's perceived "obsession" with abortion is a gross exaggeration. You can read the crux of that argument in a 2010 blog post I authored, "Political Obsession. Practical Neglect." A longer treatment of the subject is available in chapter six of my new book, Love the Least—available for free on Amazon and iTunes.
Finding myself suddenly at odds with a fairly authoritative voice on church practice, I set out to formulate a response. To do that, I first had to resolve one question. What does the Pope actually mean when he says the church has become too obsessed with abortion? To answer that, I went to the interview itself, and it didn't take long to realize that the media coverage I'd read was not a particularly accurate representation. Based on the headlines ("Pope Says Church Is 'Obsessed' With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control," "Pope seeks less focus on abortion, gays, contraception," "Pope Warns Church Focusing Too Much on Gays, Abortion," etc), you'd think that changing the Catholic response to homosexuality and abortion was Pope Francis' chief agenda. In reality, he mentions them only as an anecdotal aside and affirms that they are sinful practices. "Abortion" appears all of three times in the 12,000 word interview. Furthermore, Pope Francis never says that the church is obsessed with abortion. Rather, he says the pastoral ministry of the church should not be "obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently." His point here is that the condemnation of abortion should be made within the broader context of loving sinful people and extending them grace. But if you look back at the headlines, it becomes clear that significant liberties were taken in service of a more sensational story. Not surprisingly, follow-up stories like this one ("Catholics Cheer Pope's Remarks on Gays, Abortion") are full of responses from people who almost certainly didn't read the full interview transcript and likely didn't even read the news coverage. In our increasingly illiterate society, headlines entirely shape perception.
Returning to the question I set out to answer before, and adjusting it to fit what Pope Francis actually did say, I ask again: What is Pope Francis intending with the following statement?
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. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
Reading this, I was immediately struck by the resemblance it bears to something I'd read years some earlier, in an interview The New Yorker did with Gary Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission (IJM). Haugen declared in 2009:
Evangelicals come from a tradition that says, "Don’t be involved in politics. Try to go to Heaven." But then we entered a phase where the religious right said, "It's our duty as Christians to be involved in politics, and here's what Christians should be politically involved in fighting: abortion, gay rights, Communism." Now, today's Christians are saying, "Whoa, who says?" and "Surely there is more."
It was this statement that helped clarify for me what had hitherto been an unfathomable omission in Haugen's otherwise excellent book, Good News About Injustice. It is a book that chronicles contemporary forms of injustice in great detail, calls the church to extend the love of Christ to those victimized by the abuse of power, and yet makes no mention of abortion. Though I'm almost certain Haugen does not support abortion rights, he has made a conscious decision to avoid its public condemnation. On some level, Pope Francis seems to be making the same decision (though he did condemn abortion last Friday while speaking to an audience of Catholic gynecologists). The thing that troubles me about this new emphasis on contextualizing our response to abortion is something its proponents seem to be missing. Pope Francis declares that "the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all." Gary Haugen would undoubtedly concur. But while both men have tremendous empathy for the vulnerable and abused, neither seem to view the defense of abortion-vulnerable children as a ministry of mercy. Rather, opposition to abortion is framed as a matter of doctrine and morality—to be balanced against (but not to interfere with) the more primary ministries of mercy. Do they not realize that abortion-vulnerable children are the most helpless and vulnerable members of the entire human community?! If we want to contextualize our opposition to abortion, why not contextualize it in view of this simple fact?!
I applaud Pope Francis for his "Field Hospital" metaphor. It's a strong one. I just wish that in his call for "a new balance," he wouldn't have placed opposition to abortion on one side and ministries of mercy on the other. Yes, abortion has moral, doctrinal, and political components, but it is not primarily any of these things. It is primarily a love your neighbor issue—a love the least issue. And when you begin to realize that, opposition to abortion becomes less about condemnation and more about mercy. In the United States today, an estimated 28% of the nation's 1.31 million annual abortions are performed on Catholic women. That works out to 366,800 Catholic abortions a year. For a church that is supposedly "obsessed" with combatting abortion, those numbers are hard to reconcile. And the numbers for Protestants are even worse. Though it's entirely possible that many will misconstrue Pope Francis' remarks as an indictment against the public condemnation of abortion, I will hope for a better end. The Catholic Church has 366,800 reasons to abandon "business as usual" when it comes to abortion. Whatever the church is doing—call it "obsession" if you must—it's clearly not working. Change is needed if the church is ever to become a meaninful defender of abortion-vulnerable children. I only hope this new emphasis on contextualizing our opposition to abortion is not simply code for being silent about abortion.
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.