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Terence SweeneyNovember 14, 2023
Students from the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., holds signs during the annual March for Life in Washington on Jan. 27, 2018. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

This past Tuesday, Nov. 7, marked yet another ballot defeat for the pro-life movement. Following Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas and other states, Ohioans voted for an amendment enshrining reproductive rights with 57 percent in favor. Pro-lifers of any stripe need to seriously consider what these defeats mean—and ask themselves why recent legal successes have not translated into democratic successes. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson was a victory, but it was meant to be an opening toward developing a political framework for a culture of life. I fear it is the harbinger of the slow collapse of a pro-life political movement.

Whether grounded in St. Augustine’s Confessions or St. Ignatius’ examen, Catholics have rich resources for self-reflection and for reading the signs of the times. As a pro-life Catholic, I feel that it is time for a pro-life examen. We need to ask ourselves: Have we committed ourselves to a culture of life for all? Does pro-life rhetoric alienate more than it attracts? Have we let our political parties dictate our views?

We need to take seriously that we have undermined our moral authority on abortion by wedding ourselves to an economic and political project that guts social welfare, denies universal health care and leaves families to fend for themselves. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but being pro-life should never have meant abandoning Catholic social teaching. And for pro-lifers on the left, too often we have let a longstanding allegiance to the Democratic Party cause abortion as a moral-political question to drift off our list of primary concerns. Too often we have used the “seamless garment” argument to neglect the centrality of life at its beginning and end.

Pro-lifers need to seriously consider what defeats at the ballot box mean—and ask themselves why recent legal successes have not translated into democratic successes. 

Amid this examen, I would propose administrators and professors in Catholic universities need to do their own soul searching. Have Catholic universities supported a culture of life? Have we centered being pro-life as an important principle of our intellectual formation? As a key part of our mission? As research and hiring priorities? Generally, the answer is a resounding no.

We can see this if we can consider the contrast to the salutary tradition of upholding Catholic social teaching and to the more recent commitment to racial justice. Catholic universities have long been centers for the study of Catholic social teaching. In the past several years, many have also funded institutes dedicated to racial justice, hired vice presidents for diversity, equity and inclusion, added anti-racist language to mission statements and promoted diversity in advertising for open teaching positions. In other words, they have exemplified how resources can be brought to bear in advocating a Catholic vision of a just society. We have not seen a comparable institutional commitment to a culture of life.

Supporting racial and social justice helps fulfill a Jesuit and Catholic mission. But so does supporting a pro-life ethical and political vision, and many Catholic universities do not seem to be showing this commitment. In the United States, they have not taken on as significant a role as intellectual or moral leaders on this issue of essential moral concern. For instance, some Catholic universities did release statements celebrating Dobbs, but many remained silent. No doubt Catholic universities should be open to respectful discussions from different views on this painful issue. But their fundamental vision must be clear that human life is sacred and to be protected from the womb to the tomb.

Numerous factors—pro-choice absolutism in the Democratic Party, some pro-lifers’ embrace of Donald J. Trump, the U.S. bishops’ characterization of abortion as the “preeminent priority” (sometimes distorted to mean the only priority) in their voting guide—have cemented abortion as a “right wing” issue in the minds of the many Americans. The failure of Catholic universities to commit to promoting a culture of life has also aided in the drift of the pro-life movement into the arms of the political right. Catholic universities rightly proclaim their commitment to social justice and Catholic social teaching. Our silence regarding abortion has made it easier to sever peace-and-justice Catholics from pro-life Catholics and to make abortion a Republican talking point. We should be leading the way in articulating the inseparable realities of solidarity, the preferential option for the poor and the value of unborn life.

The failure of Catholic universities to sufficiently prioritize the promotion of a culture of life has profoundly weakened the pro-life movement. The pro-life movement has struggled to convince people of its views. This is, in part, an intellectual failure, a failure to produce good reasoning and research on behalf of the truth. Such work is an essential aspect of the academy. This is why research initiatives and university endeavors to face the evil of racism are essential.

Bringing the Catholic intellectual tradition to bear on this structural evil helps shed light and thus can help lead to justice. That intellectual tradition needs to also focus on life issues. The intrinsic dignity of the human person is the fundamental reason both racism and abortion are wrong. We are not academically neutral on racial justice; we should not be neutral on justice for the unborn. We should offer our intellectual resources and academic excellence to these essential moral and political debates.

Further, Catholic universities can take moral formation—the cura personalis—seriously as a part of our educational vision. Students are not just enrolled to train their technical selves but to advance the formation of their intellectual, moral, spiritual and religious lives. This cannot be imposed, but it must be proposed. To be silent about the dignity of unborn life is to fail to propose the culture of life and a Genesis metaphysics centered on the conviction that existence is good, nay very good.

Pope Francis is an exemplar on this issue, particularly in bringing together concerns about ecological justice, poverty and abortion. As he teaches in “Laudato Si’,” “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” As we launch initiatives for sustainability, they should be paired with critiques of a throwaway culture that destroys our environment, abandons the poor and migrant, and leaves the unborn without protection.

To speak to only one of these issues, detached from the others, is to join the zeitgeist in cutting up the seamless garment and throwing out the parts we do not like. Following the lead of Pope Francis, we need to remember that “it is especially the weakest who are treated this way: unborn children, the elderly, the needy and the disadvantaged. But people are never to be thrown out…. Each person is a unique gift, no matter what their age or condition. Let us always respect and promote life!”

Catholic universities have a unique role in restitching that seamless garment to forge a culture that respects and promotes the lives of the marginalized, including the unborn. This is particularly important as our neighbors in Canada have begun euthanizing the old, depressed and disabled. We will be joining them soon if we do not take a stand now.

There is still much that we can do. Catholic universities can start centers for promoting integral humanism and the culture of life, and make sure our courses on Catholic social teaching include life issues. They can hire ethicists committed to Catholic ethics while centering courses on promoting human dignity. They can host conferences on life issues, especially ones that integrate them with the preferential option for the poor, racial justice and ecological justice. Catholic universities can also add the promotion of a culture of life to their mission statements.

It is crucial that our Catholic institutions stand with Pope Francis and the whole Catholic tradition against throwing anyone away. Every Catholic, every pro-life person and all Catholic colleges and universities need to take seriously our failures—not to wallow in them, but so that we can rise to the occasion and create a culture where each person, at all stages of life, has a chance to live.

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