Pope Francis Says Catholics Must Care About More Than Just Abortion — And Many Agree

“Maybe this will push more Catholics to go out and seek office.”

In a document released by the Vatican last week, Pope Francis called on Catholics to care for immigrants with as much vigor as they oppose abortion. Francis made his point in his apostolic exhortation, a written communication from the pope that urges the Catholic community to take on a certain task. The content of this apostolic exhortation on holiness was viewed by the most devout Catholics as a continuation of messaging throughout his papacy, in which he has consistently urged Catholics not to focus on a single issue. 

Other conservatives viewed the teaching, and the news coverage that surrounded it, as a signal Pope Francis was advocating for a more progressive view on the church's priorities by urging Catholics to be pro-life in every sense of the word, not just when it came to the unborn.

"Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate," he wrote. "Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned."

Rome, Italy - April 04: His Holiness Pope Francis I greets gathered prayers in Rome, Italy, on April 04, 2013
Rome, Italy - April 04: His Holiness Pope Francis I greets gathered prayers in Rome, Italy, on April 04, 2013 Shutterstock / Boris Stroujko

While the pope's words may rattle some conservative critics across the globe who already have their misgivings about his papacy, as The New York Times reported, he was nevertheless supported by several high profile Catholics from across the political spectrum that A Plus spoke to.

Rev. Matt Malone, the editor-in-chief of America Magazine, one of the leading Catholic opinion outlets in the country, told A Plus that the pope's apostolic exhortation is an example of how Catholic teachings on the dignity and value of life transcend the traditional partisan tracks of American democracy. 

"The very same principle that makes us stand up and support the rights of unborn children and also the rights of their mothers is the very same principle that compels us to stand up for people who are vulnerable and marginalized in other ways," Malone said. "Like people who are migrants and immigrants and so forth."

While America Magazine is considered by some to offer a left-leaning view on Catholicism, Malone was clear that Francis's words had nothing to do with politics — and he emphasized that the pope was in no way downplaying the importance of opposing abortion.

"It doesn't make any sense to me that someone would find the statement problematic," he said. "Unless you understand the pope to somehow be making an indirect statement about alignment in American politics. But this is an exhortation that is addressed to the entire world."

Dylan Jaskowski, the outgoing president of College Republicans at Notre Dame, told A Plus that he thought it was an important topic for the pope to bring up. But he also pushed back on the idea that Catholic teachings on immigration and abortion are equally clear. 

"The church states that life begins at conception, and because of that there are clear steps that we can take to protect life, such as banning abortion," Jaskowski said. "But if you look at issues like immigration, the church teaches that the dignity of rights and immigrants need to be protected, but they also teach that sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. So there are kind of competing interests on teachings like this."

Dylan Jaskowski 

Jaskowski pointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which in 2003 published five principles on migration issues that the church works with. The principles included the right for persons to find opportunities in their homeland, the right to migrate, the right for sovereign nations to control borders, the right of refugees and asylum seekers to be afforded protection, and the right that undocumented immigrants have to human rights and dignity. 

"You are never going to find [a politician] whose policies line up perfectly with faith," Jaskowski said when asked how this might affect a Catholic's vote. "Maybe this will push more Catholics to go out and seek office."

Outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is one of over 100 Catholics in Congress. Ryan is pro-life and has advocated for a resolution for DACA recipients. Via Architect of the Capitol.
Outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is one of over 100 Catholics in Congress. Ryan is pro-life and has advocated for a resolution for DACA recipients. Via Architect of the Capitol.

Bishop John Stowe, currently serving in a Kentucky diocese, echoed Jaskowski's comments. He noted that it was important to understand the document is about all people being called to holiness and reflecting on examples of holiness from scripture and tradition. Asked how this teaching might inform a voter weighing a pro-life politician vs. an immigrant-friendly politician, Bishop Stowe said it is a consistent teaching of the church that a "pro-life stance cannot be only concerned with life before birth."

"Catholic social teaching does not find itself at home in either of the major political parties in the U.S. because of the scenario which you describe," Stowe said. "The values on which the Church's teaching on immigration is based are actually more frequently repeated; the difference, of course, is that The Bible is not addressing present-day nation-states nor the current phenomenon of mass migration."

Father Michael Fuller, the executive director, secretariat of doctrine and canonical affairs at the USCCB, told A Plus that faith can never be and never has been about one single issue, for the "love of Christ demands we care for all people." Fuller said the pope genuinely wants every Catholic to rededicate themselves to the call to be holy. 

"It is in that light that his words have to be read," Fuller said. "Politics does not inform Catholic teaching, rather the Catholic faith should inform Catholics about how to respond to political issues."

Father Michael Fuller
Father Michael Fuller

Interestingly, what Pope Francis is urging of Catholics may not be far off from where American worshippers' beliefs sit now. While the issue of abortion has a life of its own in American politics, there is data to suggest many Catholics already care deeply — and equally — about abortion and immigrant issues. In what the publication described as "the most comprehensive survey of U.S. Catholic women ever conducted," America Magazine polled over 1,500 women on their attitudes and experiences about being Catholic. According to the survey, care for the environment (83 percent), migration and the treatment of refugees (77 percent), and abortion (76 percent) topped the list of most important political issues.

"Something is clearly getting through, something is clearly happening," Malone said. "The church is in some way influencing how Catholic women are approaching these questions."

While the Catholic teachings Pope Francis exhorted may not find a home with a single American politician, Catholics may be able to live out the teachings more easily as individuals than as voters. Jaskowski emphasized the principle of subsidiarity, a Catholic teaching in origin which emphasizes handling things at the smallest practical unit. He urged Catholic communities to open their homes to immigrants or the impoverished in need, to help teach English classes or raise funds for schools and children. While he acknowledged the federal government would always have to play a role in immigration, he felt this idea aligned neatly with small-government conservatives and believes that Catholic communities stepping up to help immigrants can lessen the burden the government has to take on.

Bill Canny, executive director of migration and refugee services at the USCCB, told A Plus that approaching newcomers in your community and making them feel welcome is a simple step all Catholics should take.

A sign in the front garden of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church welcomes refugees to Kyneton, Australia. Nils Versemann / Shutterstock.com
A sign in the front garden of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church welcomes refugees to Kyneton, Australia. Nils Versemann / Shutterstock.com

"Especially when you see that they are in the minority," he said. "Find out if there are refugees being resettled in your area and volunteer with the agency helping refugees."

There are also undocumented immigrants who may need support — like babysitting, a ride to a government building, etc. — in order to maintain their periodic visits with government and immigration officials, Canny noted. He added that "welcoming the stranger," or in this case the undocumented or refugee, is a "critical message of the Old and New Testaments."

"Although Pope Francis is not talking about voting so much as talking about a way of life, I would agree that he does not want us to be 'single-issue' people," Stowe said. "If anything, the pope emphasizes the church's defense of the innocent unborn but shows how that is consistent with an overall approach to the sacredness of human life."

Cover image via MikeDotta / Shutterstock.com.

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