One of the inescapable and salient truths that comes across in Laudato Si, the Pope’s recent encyclical, is the powerful interconnectedness of the created order that is imprinted into the very fabric of creation. A loving God calls us to respond to his generosity with generous love and care for the whole order of creation not only as a way of passing on creation to those who come after us but because an inherent dignity is conferred on that order through God’s self-giving. We are to see in the world around us something created for delight which is to be delighted in and not simply exploited. Creation is an expression of God’s love that is to be received with reverence and treated with grace. This interconnectedness demands something of us.
I have read the work with a mixture of joy, shame, and awe. I take joy in this Pope’s willingness to put the moral force of the Church behind an issue with global and historic ramifications. I am awed by both the simplicity of his approach and the clarity of his thinking. I have been shamed in contemplating my own complicity in the degradation of creation and in pondering my own too frequent lack of action.
Yet another piece of the encyclical triggered complex feelings. A little acknowledged portion of the encyclical reads, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”
Like so many, I have long been conflicted over the Church’s response to abortion. I once found myself in the company of those from one side who would use terms like “holocaust” to describe abortion. At other points I have found myself vigorously defending the right to choose and decrying the incrementalist encroachments on that right that have become so routine in so many places.
Yet, just when I think that I have settled what I believe, some deep seated unease returns. I have been generally unwilling as a priest to broach this issue. I know people who have terminated pregnancies. I know they do so for reasons that are complicated, painful, and distressing. They are people of faith and goodwill who long to follow Christ in an imperfect world.
I have had few qualms about speaking openly about my belief that the death penalty, torture, and exploitative labor practices are crudely and cruelly sinful. Yet I have come short in talking openly about abortion except with close friends and colleagues. Reading the Pope’s clarity has made me question that reticence. I can’t comfortably not have the conversation when the fundamental theological question is one of interconnectedness and our care for the vulnerable.
Many have been quick to praise Francis for his forthright declarations on the dignity of creation. It seems that we must be just as willing to hear his message with regard to the dignity of the unborn as well.
This is not an easy proposition in the Episcopal Church. We theoretically have taken Bill Clinton’s maxim of “safe, legal, and rare” to heart. Yet there is a general assumption that being pro-life is primarily the province of the retrograde and the reactionary. I’m simply not sure that clear division can exist in a Church that takes strong positions on dignity in many forms. When we speak so clearly on the fundamental dignity of LGBT folks, on labor rights, on environmental justice, on immigration policy, and countless other issues, we may need to welcome the voices of those who would call us to consider the unborn among those deserving of our commitment to their protection.
Interconnectedness and dignity may call us to be open to voices that speak for those without a voice.
This may take a wide range of forms and we would be ill served if we allow a zero-sum mentality to dominate our dialogue on this. For example, here in Colorado, many conservatives vehemently opposed the open availability of contraceptives to teens. Yet, from 2009-2013, there was a 40% drop in teen pregnancies and a 35% drop in abortion statewide. This was a success from a public health point of view. It was also a success if one goal is to reduce the overall number of abortions.
We cannot separate public policy and effective sex education from these questions. If we are going to deepen an understanding of human dignity we need to open the conversation up as widely as possible. Our primary concern can’t be the control of women’s bodies but for the kind of thorough public education and policy that makes abortion a rarely needed option. Legal solutions are not the only ones available to us nor is dualistic thinking going to help us arrive at a place where abortion is considered only as a needed option in extreme cases.
If we are going to take interconnectedness and dignity to be firm foundations in our public theology then we are going to need to have an honest, open dialogue on abortion that breaks open our desire for simple answers. A comprehensive, consistent ethic of life – of care and compassion from life’s first stirrings and beyond – should make this conversation one that we are humbly determined to engage.
I can’t say what my thinking about the legalities of abortion will be in five years or in ten. I can say with confidence that I will be disappointed if we haven’t engaged the issue with the eyes, heart, and hope of faith. I don’t expect us to find clarity any time soon but I do hope that our openness to ask the questions and to listen to voices we might rather ignore may help grow in faith, hope, and love. This is one challenge of interconnectedness – we need one another to ask hard questions, seek faithful answers, and to hear the still small voice speaking freshly.
Rob Scot said:
This is excellent; thank you, Fr. Hendrickson. I agree that it is imperative to engage this issue; generally, we avoid it (understandably, but not justifiably so), or address it simplistically, politician style. I think a good way to begin is by challenging ourselves to take seriously the Church’s teaching on the subject: GC Resolution A054 supports “the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy,” while also affirming that “all human life is sacred from its inception” and, therefore, “we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, sex selection, family planning, or any reason of mere convenience.” Your next to last paragraph is golden.
Ian Edgar said:
This is an excellent piece, thank you for looking at a difficult issue so thoughtfully and honestly.
A large number of pregnancies are aborted when it is discovered that the child has a developmental disability. In fact, there are less and less people being born with certain detectable disabilities. Certainly this is a sign that people with disabilities are unwelcome in society.
As a an attorney with 37 years under my belt come August, I do find it disconcerting that males are the ones addressing the rights of the unborn. It is, in this country, easy to protect the unborn (see the state by state restrictions on abortion), yet those same males allow the newly-born to starve..in hovels, in housing projects, in fatherless situations with the mother making less than minimum wage. Which is worse? Abortion or starvation? In both cases, fifty thousand green flies can’t be wrong. It’s a pile of. ..
You have actually named one of my significant hesitancies in writing about this at all. In the same way that I would not claim to be able to represent or speak to the challenges of African Americans or First Nations People’s, I also am leery of advocating law or policy that directly impacts the way a woman governs and makes decisions for her own body. However, I do think that we are often in imperfect circumstances where we need or might give some account of a witness from the perspective of belief or shared humanity when we are reflecting on these issues.
In part, I am really wondering aloud if it’s possible to be both an advocate and ally in the very real struggle for equality and still be able to have an honest conversation about how we together promote comprehensive approaches to the attendant complexities around this issue. There is no way, in my mind, that we can ever talk about the legalities of the issue itself if we do violence to the very children that are purported to be saved by allowing for the callous dismantling the systems and structures that would enable the full flourishing of families, women, and children.
Everything from affordable childcare to protections for pregnant women in the workplace to living wages and wage theft and much more need to be thought of as integral to this conversation otherwise we are not anything near pro-life and are simple creating a cruel and even perverse unfunded mandate.
Thank you for your considered reply and may I posit a personal experience. In the 1960s I was a student and graduate of Ole Miss (known at the time as the university of the wealthy sons and daughters of plantahs and bankahs). Deeply Southern and equally deeply Episcopalian, I had my first experiences with acquaintances who were only “slightly”, er, in a problem. The wealthiest had no problem: the doctors who knew the family insisted it was simply a female problem and quietly performed a d&c. The less wealthy went to unsafe, unsanitary backrooms in New Orleans. One was scarred forever. One, from another university reportedly died. I then and there became an advocate of safe abortions. In no instance was the “partner in crime” informed or, if informed, available. I promised myself that I would never be in that situation. But I knew then. …safe “abortions” were always available to the wealthy
If abortion were made illegal today, it would stop only for the poor.
Right now, 26.7% of children under 18 in my state (NC) are food insecure. Greensboro, Asheville and Winston-Salem have some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. 81% of households receiving food assistance don’t know where their next meal is coming from. 75% of households served by food banks have had to choose between food and heating their homes. And 36% of food pantries have had to turn away people for lack of food to give them. For addtional abysmal statistics, see Hunger in North Carolina.
This…this..is where the focus, the action, the drive and determination needs to be. “Feed my sheep!”
Only after we feed the sheep should we engage in dialogue on when life begins.
Life is here and it is hungry.
I have also struggled with this issue. As we kept on and on the coherence of the pro-life argument, my husband and I finally became vegan. And that was 7 years ago. “Choice” is a tricky word. Nowadays I march for the abolition of the slaughterhouses. People – and even people of Christian faith – go to vote, kill non-human animals, watch the news, abort their own species, kill in wars their own species, and even kill themselves. Are those choices?