The strange thing about the divide between “Social Justice Catholics” and “Pro-Life Catholics” is that it has no basis in Church doctrine, which condemns abortion precisely because it is unjust. Since America’s current abortion laws amount to the systematic exclusion of some individuals from the community of rights, the “pro-life” position is one more social justice issue. Yet what on paper is a quibble about priorities looks like an unofficial schism in reality.
The cause, in part, is party politics. For many Catholics interested in social justice themes, pro-lifers committed the unforgiveable sin of voting Republican, causing the deadlocked debate in American society over the roles of the state and the private sector in fostering the common good to spill over into the Church. Party politics is always nasty, and in the bosom of the Church both sides like to identify their political preferences with the will of God.
Exasperated voices cry out that Catholicism is more than a cramped opposition to abortion, yet those same voices fail to give a convincing account of what the Church is supposed to be. A well meaning editorial in the National Catholic Reporter from November 18th mentioned the efforts of the Bishops Conference to defend the Catholic Campaign for Human Development from vocal detractors on the political right, describing it as “a program that annually gives tangible expression to the heart of the Gospel the church professes.” The same editorial also complained that the Bishops’ concerns with abortion, sexual morality, and liturgy are manifestations of a “deeply insular and inward-looking” tendency.
Apparently social programs, and nothing else, are the heart of the Gospel. Perhaps the reasoning is that the Gospel is about charity, and charity is about giving to the poor, which is correct, but reductive. The Biblical vision of charity is broader: God is love, and he gives himself to humanity in Jesus Christ. The Church, the men and women who are incorporated into Christ through faith, dedicates itself to returning that love to God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This love is expressed in action. The Acts of the Apostles (2:42) sums up the activity of the early Church as “remaining faithful to the preaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, the breaking of the bread and prayer.” From the context it is clear that “the brotherhood” refers to the primitive practice of redistributing goods. The purpose of doing this was both to take care of the poor and to express the new relationship of love that should exist among Christians. “Brotherhood” is listed along with preaching, prayer and worship. According to the New Testament, caring for the poor is of the essence of the Church, but then, so is the community of unity and love created in a Christian family, parish, or religious order. So is the Mass, or the Liturgy of the Hours. So is preaching the Good News that God loves us, and has given his Son for us. So is living a moral life. These are all expressions of the heart of the Gospel, since they are all expressions of God´s love.
Politics is filling a vacuum in the Church. Renewing the Church in America implies recovering the broader vision of God’s love as the basis of the Church’s life and work. Any institution can provide health care, education, or advice on the culture war. Only the Church can use those things to glorify God. Only the Church, the men and women incorporated into Christ by faith, can make God’s love known in a cold and lonely world.
David Monahan, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome.
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