Walls between respect life, social justice camps tumbling down

| Dennis Sadowski | January 25, 2018 | 5 Comments
Seamless garment

Aimee Murphy, founder and executive director of Rehumanize International, speaks during an April 2017 panel discussion on pro-life advocacy and feminism at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin offered the idea that the Church could approach its concern for protecting human dignity in tackling abortion, euthanasia, poverty and peace under a “seamless garment” during a 1983 speech at Fordham University, there were doubters who said the concept was flawed.

For years, the ideological rift between respect life adherents on the “right” and the peace and justice advocates on the “left” felt wider than the Grand Canyon and impossible to bridge. It was, some concluded, one Church, two camps. So the work of both continued, largely with limited collaboration.

Such divisions just might be breaking down.

The desire to protect human dignity from conception to natural death is increasingly being embraced by Catholics, bringing together the respect life advocates and the social justice advocates to carry out the Church’s call to missionary discipleship.

Such collaboration is evident in some dioceses where traditional respect life and social justice offices now operate as one. Where they remain separate, collaboration is strong across the wide spectrum of social concerns.

“It’s so unfortunate in our American culture, we’ve divided the respect life issue from other social justice issues and vice versa,” said Tony Stieritz, director of the Catholic Social Action Office in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

“We want to exemplify as much as we can in this archdiocese that we go beyond those ideological separations. To be pro-life, to work for social justice, all comes from the same. There are not real political boundaries on any of this,” Stieritz said.

Stieritz’s office at the archdiocese’s downtown headquarters is next to that of Bob Wurzelbacher, director of the Office for Respect Life Ministries. Both regularly work together.

“Obviously, we care for life from conception to natural death. You have to be consistent in upholding dignity of that life,” Wurzelbacher said. “Whether born with handicaps or born to illegal immigrants, we still care about that child as they grow up to become adults. That spreads into all the areas of social justice. We can’t give off the appearance that we only care about babies.”

The consistent life ethic is the focus of Pittsburgh-based Rehumanize International. Executive Director Aimee Murphy, who is Catholic, helped found the organization after graduating from college in 2011 to fill a “niche” and address the many human actions that destroy human dignity.

“Our No. 1 one passion is violence against humans,” said Murphy, who was a leader in the pro-life group at her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University.

“We wanted an organization that could address not only the life of a child in the womb, but also the life of the child behind enemy lines or the life of an inmate in prison or the life of a refugee, the life of any human being in any circumstance,” she explained.

While Rehumanize International is nonpartisan and nonsectarian, Murphy explained that the organization is influenced by a “personalist moral philosophy, intersectional feminism and a human rights paradigm that is understandable and agreeable both within Catholic social teaching and other faiths.”

“Among young people, this human rights paradigm is catching on,” Murphy said.

The integration of respect life and social justice concerns is a welcome development among two staff members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.Jonathan Reyes, assistant general secretary for integral human development, and Tom Grenchik, executive director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said integration is key to the life of the Church.

People have varying interests and areas of expertise, and sharing them with society is what it means to be Catholic, Grenchik said.

“It’s the dignity of the human person that motivates the Church, that motivates Catholics to respond with love,” he said. “Whether it’s the child in the womb or the homeless person or the person with a disability, it’s that God-given dignity that motivates us to respond.”

Reyes said the long-existing divide along left/liberal and right/conservative lines means little to young people especially. What matters most is upholding human dignity, he said.

This shrinking of the gulf is “more important than ever because the challenges to human dignity are remarkable, whether it’s in the protection of human life or providing people with health care. There are real threats to human dignity right now,” he said.

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