Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 64(2) May 2014
“Create havoc” in living out your faith.
At the 28th World Youth Day last summer, Pope Francis urged the young pilgrims at Buenos Areis to ‘create havoc’ in living out their faith. But when it comes to the Church’s teachings on life issues, no-one seems to have taken that exhortation more to heart than the Holy Father himself.
His recent remarks on the issues of abortion in an interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro S. J. , in which he warned Catholics against only speaking out on that issue and developing an ‘obsession’ with the imposition of doctrine, have been met with concern by many who dedicate themselves personally or professionally to the pro-life cause – not least due to the joy with which the remarks were received by some hitherto intractably opposed to the Church.
But, as ever, the truth is more nuanced than the headlines. Reading the interview, it is clear that the Pope’s remarks - which constitute barely a paragraph in an incredibly wide-ranging piece - are intended not to downplay Catholic teaching on abortion, but to place it in its proper context, in order that it may be more effectively transmitted and more thoroughly understood. Francis’s call is for a refocusing on Christ as the source and the end-point of all Catholic teaching, which forms a coherent and unbreakable whole which it is his task, as the Successor to Peter and, in his words, a 'son of the Church', to express and transmit.
What Francis is advocating, then, is less a reform than a renewal - a renewal which fulfils his obligations as a teacher of the Catholic faith, and which fully understands the nature of the threat posed to the rights of the unborn and to the dignity of expectant mothers today.
Those wishing to emphasise Papal continuity in the face of some of the more far-fetched commentary on the interview have made much of the fact that that only a day later Francis was reiterating the Magisterial teaching on abortion to an audience of Italian gynaecologists. But as noteworthy as his message was the precise language he employed. Francis spoke of abortion as a symptom of a ‘throwaway culture,’ one which ‘calls for the elimination of human beings, above all if they are physically or socially weaker,’ and which rejects and marginalises not only the unborn but the elderly, the poor and the vulnerable. Referencing Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, the Holy Father put the plight of the unborn squarely in the frame of social justice, characterising ‘openness to life’ as a prerequisite of a compassionate society. ‘If personal and social sensitivity in welcoming a new life is lost,’ he said, ‘other forms of welcome useful to social life will dry up.’
Francis’ address cut to the heart of the question that the modern pro-life movement must engage with and understand if it is to change lives: why is it that for so many women in the developed world, where legal abortion is both widely available and widely practiced, and a public ethic of absolute autonomy prevails, abortion is not a choice at all, but a necessity?
The answer can, in most cases, be traced to injustices and inequalities conventionally seen as the preserve not of bioethics but of Catholic Social Teaching. According to the Department of Health, 97% of the abortions which took place in England and Wales in 2012 were carried out under Ground C – the risk that ‘the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.’ As a BPAS briefing on UK abortion law has noted, Ground C is understood as being the legal justification for ‘social abortions’ – terminations which are not clinically indicated, but are carried out because the mother does not feel able to raise a child. A similar situation prevails in the US, where a Guttmacher Institute report  found that the three most common factors cited by women who terminated a pregnancy in 2004 were the impact it would have on their education, ability to work or ability to care for other dependents, not being able to afford a baby, and relationship problems (including wanting to avoid single motherhood.)
Abortion is not, and never has been, solely a biomedical issue: it sits within a complex network of rights and responsibilities which reaches beyond a woman’s body into her relationships, social status, financial stability and notion of her own dignity and self-worth. When the then Cardinal Bergoglio talked of the baptism of children born out of wedlock, and spoke warmly of the mother who, ‘rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world,’  he touched upon an important truth: carrying a child to term is for many women an act of great bravery, a decision made in the face of socio-economic disadvantage.
So while the Church's teaching on the value of human life necessitates an opposition to the act of abortion, it also entails recognising that the first and most important protection we can offer to unborn children is to ensure they are conceived in a culture that supports and welcomes human life from its very inception, to women sufficiently empowered and able to care for them.
What the Holy Father appreciates is that such a culture cannot be created through insisting on, in his words, a ‘disjointed multitude of doctrines.’ This is not to disparage doctrine: Francis has neither the wish nor the ability to alter the Church's teachings. But he is aware that these teachings are comprehensible only if they are unified within the love of Christ, in whose suffering the dispossessed and marginalised, such as the unborn, profoundly share.
In his book On Conscience, Benedict XVI describes the holder of the Petrine office as the ‘advocate of Christian memory’; his successor also understands that if, as his ministry demands, he is to elucidate the Catholic faith in an effective way, he must focus first and foremost on pointing us back to the Gospel: the 'proposition,' in his words, from which 'the moral consequences then flow.'
The Holy Father’s remarks to Fr Spadaro may have been forceful, but they were necessary. Everyone knows the Church is 'anti-abortion'. Not everyone knows the Church is pro-life. In his interview, Francis gave the world a timely reminder that the Catholic Church’s ‘no’ to abortion is in fact based on a prior ‘yes’, a ‘yes’ to life which we are called to affirm in every encounter with that precious and mysterious gift which is the human person.
- A Big Heart Open to God: Interview with Pope Francis, America Magazine, 2013 http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview
- Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2012,
Department of Health, 2013
- Statistics Briefing (3): Grounds for Abortion, Abortion Review,
- Reasons US Women Have Abortions: Qualitative and Quantitative Perspectives, Guttmacher Institute, 2004 http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3711005.pdf
- Pope Francis on Gay Marriage, Unmarried Mothers… and
Journalists, The Guardian, March 2013
Megan Hodder is a Catholic writer, working in a radiology reporting firm