The March for Life in Washington on Friday takes place against the backdrop of a Trump administration eager to reshape the Supreme Court, legislative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and abortion rates now at historic lows. While advocates focused on overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion take center stage at the annual rally, other vocal religious activists in attendance will highlight why being “pro-life” doesn’t stop at birth.
Several Catholic social justice organizations will march focused on promoting a consistent life ethic, a principle of Catholic teaching that views the death penalty, the treatment of migrants, torture, the environment and inequality as fundamental life issues. The Franciscan Action Network and the Catholic Climate Covenant, national groups based in Washington, will underscore how climate change and environmental devastation are disproportionately hurting the poor. Advocates with those groups will meet up with marchers from St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., where Fr. Jacek Orzechowski will carry a large banner focused on environmental destruction and the obligations Christians have to confront climate change.
Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, an organization that collaborates closely with bishops across the country, describes climate change as a “pro-life issue” that Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis have all addressed in clear terms. Francis took the church’s teaching on environmental stewardship to a new level two years ago by becoming the first pope to release an encyclical on the environment. Respect for life, the pope insisted, must include urgent action to address the impacts of climate change. People are already suffering and dying in many parts of the world, Misleh noted, because of storms, droughts and other disruptive climate events. “Left unchecked, climate change threatens future generations in much the same way that nuclear weapons threaten future generations,” he said.
The Catholic Mobilizing Network, which collaborates with dioceses across the country to help end capital punishment, will attend the march and hand out prayer cards and stickers that read “Who Would Jesus Execute?” When Francis became the first pope to address Congress, he called for the abolition of the death penalty. “Every life is sacred,” he said. Karen Clifton, executive director of the network, noted that the U.S. bishops’ conference as well as the last three popes “have called for Catholics to be unconditionally pro-life.” This means, Clifton said, that “the right to life belongs to everyone — including those who commit crimes.”
Mary Liepold, who chairs the D.C.-Baltimore chapter of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace group, will attend the march representing what she calls an “inclusive agenda.” Her delegation will be carrying a banner that reads: “We Stand for All Human Life and Dignity” with the words abortion, war, capital punishment, poverty, racism and torture crossed out.
Many of these advocates are emboldened by Francis, who has consistently denounced abortion in unwavering terms even as he seeks to draw attention to a broad spectrum of threats to human life. In one of his first major interviews, the pope said the Catholic Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” Francis uses his global pulpit to denounce a “throwaway culture” indifferent to life in myriad ways. In his first encyclical, the pope blasted income inequality and framed it in explicitly pro-life terms. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.”
In a meeting with U.S. Catholic bishops a few hours later, Francis specifically linked “the innocent victim of abortion” to other grave threats to life — including “children who die of hunger or from bombings,” “immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow,” and “the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature.”
A number of Catholic bishops, perhaps emboldened by the pope, have become more outspoken in lifting up issues not often associated with a conservative pro-life movement that traditionally works closely with Republican leaders. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, for example, one of the pope’s key advisers, has called immigration “another pro-life issue.” In a homily before the 2015 March for Life, the cardinal emphasized that addressing poverty is “part of the Gospel of Life.” Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago describes gun violence as “a pro-life issue.” In a major speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor at Plumbers Union Hall last September, he spoke of “feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, protecting the unborn, caring for the sick and welcoming immigrants” as part of Catholics’ “consistent ethic of solidarity.”
The phrase evoked and updated the position of another Chicago archbishop, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who in the 1980s became the most visible face of the Catholic Church in the United States. Bernardin graced the cover of Time magazine in 1982, and a year later gave a speech covered by national media at Fordham University that outlined his consistent ethic of life framework.
“Those of us who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.” This framework, the cardinal argued, “translates into specific political and economic positions.” Most importantly, he insisted that “we cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of government responsibility.”
It’s this clear rejection of false choices that perhaps can offer us a roadmap through the jagged political terrain that characterizes debates over abortion and social welfare policy today. Those who disagree over the legality of abortion can still work hard to find a common-ground agenda that strengthens pre-natal health care, creates family-friendly tax policies and advocates for paid parental leave.
A new generation, weary of the culture wars, should chart a fresh path.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and the author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”