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.